While there are more films about World War II, there are several great movies from the classic era that were made about the war to end all wars. Because World War I is often viewed today as tragic and unnecessary, more movies about it have taken on a decidedly antiwar tone, which is in sharp contrast to most of the flag-waving pictures about its predecessor.
This sharper tone has resulted in some rather intense movies that showcase war in a more realistic light while seemingly presaging the dark, cynical mood following the Vietnam War. Though fewer movies about the war are made these days, World War I remains a period of fascination for filmmakers and moviegoers alike.
The first movie to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Wings
was a spectacular wartime adventure directed by aviation enthusiast William Wellman
. Focusing as much attention on two pilots (Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen) in love with the same woman (Jobyna Ralston) as the war itself, Wings
featured several harrowing battle sequences and midair dog fights that were ahead of its time. While the action might seem quaint when viewed from a modern perspective, they no doubt helped turn the film into a groundbreaking hit. Wings
also starred Clara Bow as a nurse who falls for Rogers and sacrifices her career for him.
Expertly directed by Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front
was a powerful antiwar statement at a time when such sentiments were verboten. The film was adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s literary classic and featured Lew Ayres as one of many enthusiastic young men sent off to fight in the Great War, only to suffer from the tragedy inflicted by mass death and destruction. Leading them to their deaths is an unrelenting officer (John Wray), who pushes his men to the breaking point and ultimately crushes their idealism. All Quiet on the Western Front
was a remarkable film, not only for its contrary perspective, but also for its unrelenting realism in depicting the horrors of war. The film earned tremendous praise as well as Oscars for Best Picture
and Best Director
, though it was banned by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s and ‘40s for alleged anti-German messages.
An exemplary biopic
as well as a great movie about war, Howard Hawks
’ Sergeant York
starred Gary Cooper
in one of the actor’s finest screen performances of his career. Cooper played Alvin York, a young hell-raising farmer who turns pacifist when pledging to God to never become angry again after he’s struck by lightning. But when the Unites States is pulled into the war in 1917, York tries to declare himself a conscientious objector when drafted, only to be sent off to fight anyway. Despite his initial reluctance, York becomes a national hero and Medal of Honor winner for his bravery on the battlefield. Cooper won his first of two Academy Awards for Best Actor
and the film itself became one of the biggest hits of 1941, making Sergeant York
one of the best movies made about World War I.
’s first major film was a box office disappointment upon release, but has since grown in stature as one of the greatest antiwar movies ever made. Paths of Glory
starred Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, an idealistic army officer who leads a suicidal charge at the behest of his incompetent superior, General Mireau (George MacReady), despite his better judgment. When the fight turns into a slaughter, Mireau remains convinced that the failure was due to his soldiers’ cowardice and not his own faulty plan. After three soldiers are chosen to be executed as an example for the rest of the men, Colonel Dax plays defense attorney and argues forcefully, but ultimately futilely for their innocence. Both unrelenting and intelligent, Paths of Glory
was a powerful film that holds up well today.
Directed by David Lean
, Lawrence of Arabia
was a landmark film that was not only the best movie made in 1962
, but also one of Hollywood’s greatest cinematic achievements. Set in Arabia during the height of World War I, the film followed the adventures of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a misfit British officer who convinces his superiors to transfer him to Arabia, where he aids the Arabs in their fight for independence against the Ottoman Empire. Along the way, he befriends the honorable Sherif Ali Ben El Kharish (Omar Sharif) while confounding the likes of Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) and Auba Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), neither of whom can discern Lawrence’s real motives for joining their rebellion. Showing a different and often forgotten side of the Great War, Lawrence of Arabia
remains an extraordinary film that earned its place in cinema history with seven Academy Awards wins, including Best Picture
and Best Director
Definitely the most unusual film on this list, Oh! What a Lovely War
transformed the death and destruction of the Great War into a bawdy musical
farce. Adapted from Charles Chilton’s 1963 stage play by Richard Attenborough, the film featured a large ensemble cast of England’s greatest actors including John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier
, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith and Susannah York. A potent mix of satire and war drama, Oh! What a Lovely War
has many indelible scenes, from the chorus line the tries to lure young men to the front to the Christmas truce where German and British soldiers exchange brief pleasantries before the bombs resume falling to the final image of thousands of white crosses dotting a verdant hillside. Oh! What a Lovely War
might not be everybody’s taste, but it certainly makes for interesting viewing.