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6 Classic World War I Movies

Great Films About the So-Called Great War

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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.

1. ‘Wings’ – 1927

Paramount Pictures
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.
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2. ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ – 1930

Universal Pictures
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.
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3. ‘Sergeant York’ – 1941

Warner Bros.
An exemplary biopic as well as a great movie about war, Howard HawksSergeant 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.
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4. ‘Paths of Glory’ – 1957

United Artists
Stanley Kubrick’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.
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5. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – 1962

Sony Pictures
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.
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6. ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ – 1969

Paramount Pictures
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.
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