“Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same — and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…”
— ‘Aftermath’, Siegfried Sassoon
Think of artistic representations of the First World War and most likely the war poets spring to mind. Or Otto Dix’s etchings of apocalyptic dehumanisation. Or Georges Leroux’s canvas of bemired hell on Earth. But film too, so germane to the remembrance and recording of spectres of history, has an extensive connection to the Great War. Hollywood itself was born among its ashes, seizing the chance to monopolise a global market in which its former European rivals were suddenly greatly diminished by war efforts. Before it was even through, propaganda filmmaking had been born and Griffith and Chaplin had made films dramatising it. By the time movies switched to sound, King Vidor (The Big Parade), Frank Borzage (7th Heaven) and Abel Gance (J’accuse) had already made masterpieces about WW1. As we’ve lived through the centenary, more self-conscious films have memorialised the War — Bill Morrison with Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 or Peter Jackson most recently with They Shall Not Grow Old. Here are ten films from the years in between, testifying to the long legacy of this war and cinema’s role in commemorating it, together offering a more-than-thorough primer in the relationship between the movies and WW1.
All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930)/Westfront 1918 (G. W. Pabst, 1930)
The anti-war double-bill to end all anti-war double-bills. Made in the same year an ocean apart, these two early talkies depict the soul-destroying bloodshed and nerve-shredding claustrophobia of everyday life for the German infantrymen of the Western Front.
Milestone’s Hollywood rendition, based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, took the bold step of humanising what had been the ‘enemy’ for American audiences by following a group of young Germans from patriotic enthusiasm, expecting the war to be a Boys’ Own adventure, to world-weary disillusionment (“It’s painful and dirty to die for your country”). Its mobile cinematography and aural texture, of screeching shells and the din of gunfire and explosions, remain impressive considering sound cinema was still in its infancy. Nor have its speeches lost their power, particularly when the once-idealistic Paul, now fully aware of the horrors of war, faces his father and other elders who encouraged him to enlist. But, we may ask, if this generation of Germans were so horrified by their experiences, why would the survivors go on to embrace the caustic philosophy of the Nazis just over a decade later?
Pabst provides possible answers on that front. Westfront 1918 addresses the wider ills of German society when one soldier travels back to Berlin on furlough, only to find that nothing is quite right at home anymore, registering the fissures that would be filled by Nazism. Its scenes in the trenches are no less incisive. Like All Quiet, it has no musical soundtrack to relieve the tension-filled silences. You could hear a pin drop as these trapped souls wait for the next artillery attack or struggle to stop the earth over their heads caving in on them. Visually, it is extremely dark while still displaying moments of unforgettable lighting by master cameraman Fritz Arno Wagner — most memorably when he makes a soldier’s face metamorphose into a death’s skull through a trick of the light.
Both films distil the insanity of war, while hoping against hope that mankind may one day finally get sick and tired of its martial urges. After ending on a note of universal comradeship in death, Pabst signs off with a title card reading “End?!”.
The Dawn Patrol (Howard Hawks, 1930)
War took place not only on land but also across the bullet-riddled skies where young men flew in their metallic coffins on what were often suicide missions. Spurred on by the aviation craze caused by Lindbergh’s 1927 flight across the Atlantic, Hollywood quickly responded with several films about WW1’s fliers, including William A. Wellman’s Wings and Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels. These were mostly adventures, with spectacular dogfight sequences as backdrop for love triangles. The Dawn Patrol, an early classic from Howard Hawks — himself a flight instructor during WW1 — would be the first mature war pilot film not shying away from the grimly abbreviated lifespans of these knights of the sky.
The focus is on a British squadron, among whom Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. are the aces in the pack, always at odds with an emotionally scarred commander riven by guilt from being forced, by his superiors on the telephone, to continually order his men out on perilous assignments. While Hawks went on to direct better-known WW1 films (such as 1941’s Sergeant York), he reached a terse and taut perfection in this tale of the inexorable cycles of war and death — the squadron is regularly restocked with a constant flow of green recruits replacing the departed, and the same pilots who despise the commander find themselves afflicted by the same dilemmas when they take over his role.
Wooden Crosses (Raymond Bernard, 1932)
Cinema in the early 1930s continued to explore the legacy of a war still fresh in the memory, before a second world war relegated it to a grisly recital for even worse things to come. Two years after the films of Milestone, Hawks and Pabst, and the same year as Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, there came Wooden Crosses, Raymond Bernard’s epic depiction of the travails of a French regiment.
This microcosm of French society, played by an entire cast of WW1 veterans (“We did not have to act”, said Charles Vanel, “only to remember”), seemed less intent than All Quiet or Westfront in making its characters mouthpieces for a message (be it pacifist or patriotic). There is a greater moral subtlety in the visceral and existential treatment of horror and despair here. Bernard’s use of handheld documentary-style footage during battle scenes only emphasises this, as does the more rounded sound design — the deathly silence of early talkies is routinely punctuated with off-screen screams and explosions. A large-budget production by French standards of its time, it also boasts plenty of visual experimentation. Multiple images are superimposed over each other, including a shot of soldiers juxtaposed with their (future) wooden cross graves as if they are the marching dead, and an elaborate montage of a soldier’s better days flashing before him as life bleeds out of his wounds. Behind every wooden cross, every poor soul put out of its misery, was a story and a life.
La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937)
Jean Renoir’s seminal film was one of the first to use WW1 as a means to comment on the (then-contemporary) years leading to WW2. If Wooden Crosses was a panoramic microcosm of French society, La Grande Illusion is a meticulous x-ray of the entire European class system at a turning point in its history. Renoir saw WW1, especially in counterpoint to WW2, as a gentleman’s war despite it leaving him wounded and limping for the rest of his life. But he also knew that it was a great leveller, piling up the corpses indiscriminately across boundaries of class, creed and nation, an event that forever eroded the serenity of provincial Europe, the rigid social hierarchy, the empires of the nineteenth century.
This war that was supposed to be ‘over by Christmas’, and which Woodrow Wilson saw as ‘the war to end all wars’, was only a death knell to idealistic views of heroism and patriotic sacrifice. And yet, without ever succumbing to nostalgic romanticism, Renoir’s film is about friendship rather than enmity, about divided loyalties, about Europe splitting into a new set of divisions, about an as-yet-unfulfilled internationalist hope for a rejection of man-made borders, and about the titular ‘grand illusion’ which refers to the war just as to the film itself — Renoir’s carefully created illusion of a world where people still act decently towards each other.
Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
— Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”
When it comes to self-criticism of the (influential and censorious) French military hierarchy, and despite Wooden Crosses‘ allusion to the callousness of the officials, French cinema hasn’t the greatest track record. A full-on assault of the injustice of the military institutions was left to this, Stanley Kubrick’s calling card to what would be a soon-aborted Hollywood studio career. Significantly, Paths of Glory is a move away from the anti-war pacifist film toward the outright anti-military (even Renoir’s film still had a nostalgic vision of soldierly decorum) — it proffers a profound distaste of the rigid authoritarianism, political machinations and hypocrisy of the system’s hierarchies, which Kubrick would push to even more grotesque extremes in Dr. Strangelove.
Like many a courtroom drama, the battle is between noble idealism and compromised pragmatics — a duel replayed, with the same outcome, in Joseph Losey’s 1964 King and Country where Tom Courtenay, under trial for desertion, is defended by Dirk Bogarde in a makeshift trench-set court-martial. While Losey eked every bit of mise-en-scene and camerawork out of his claustrophobic setting, Kubrick’s film is famed for its expansive tracking shots propelling us with these men into the cul-de-sacs that can only ironically be called ‘paths of glory’. Amid all the injustice, Kirk Douglas is a beacon of Enlightenment values and weary compassion as Colonel Dax, who refuses to back down before a kangaroo court eager to sentence three men to death for refusing to be cannon-fodder. The twisted nature of this war’s catch-22 comes into full view; the only choice a soldier has is how to die, whether from enemy machine guns or a firing squad of countrymen. That the French banned it for twenty years speaks volumes.
La Grande Guerra (Mario Monicelli, 1959)/Many Wars Ago (Francesco Rosi, 1970)
The Western Front has predominated WW1 movies, but not completely. Films as varied as Lawrence of Arabia, Peter Weir‘s Gallipoli or more recently the Jordanian film Theeb have depicted events further East. But the Alpine front, where Italian forces suffered a bitter defeat against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, has been superbly represented in these two films, in very different ways.
In Mario Monicelli’s wryly humorous dark comedy, two rascals played by Alberto Sordi and Vittorio Gassman find themselves stuck in the middle of the Great War when they’d be far more at home in an easy-going Roman road trip movie, and respond by trying to survive and dodge trouble any way they can. By definition, some would label them cowards but theirs is a perfectly human reaction to their circumstances. Armed with several epic-scale battle scenes (this was a fairly big budget Dino De Laurentiis production) and a Nino Rota score riffing on well-known WW1 tunes, Monicelli’s film ends on a poignant note deconstructing every myth about military heroism.
And then there’s Francesco Rosi‘s take on World War One. As would be expected from the auteur of socio-political dossier films like Salvatore Giuliano and Hands Over the City, Uomini Contro (aka Many Wars Ago) is a panoramic vista over an entire corrupted system, that of Europe in 1916, forcing Italian peasants and workers to fight and die so that it can keep its privileges. Always masterful in its balance of tone, image and rhythm, marked by a more cynical political stance clearly influenced by all that had happened between WW1 and 1970, and accompanied almost always, and at times swamped, by Piero Piccioni’s ominous airs, Rosi’s film buries the idealistic and self-serving notion that WW1 was the final chapter of the Risorgimento’s liberation and formation of the Italian nation.
King of Hearts (Philippe de Broca, 1966)
As WW1 stagnated into bloody attrition, no less a mind than Albert Einstein described the war as a ‘lunatic asylum’ and wished to fly safely to Mars so that he may ‘observe the inmates through a telescope’. No film captures the sense of absurdist folly better than this story of a Scottish soldier (Alan Bates) charged with the mission of saving a French village from an impending bomb left behind by the retreating German army — the catch is nobody’s left in the village except a motley crew of inmates escaped from the local asylum. Like a character lost in a Lewis Carroll daydream, Bates wanders into a Feast of Fools to find an alternate society, made up of men and women decreed insane but who in their wisdom understand that all the world’s a stage and thus keep performing their (pacifist) version of it while the infinitely madder (and more dangerous) society outside destroys itself.
Balancing a fine line between quirky embrace of living in the moment and stark realisation of mortality’s imminence, Philippe de Broca (assistant to Truffaut and Chabrol early in his career) made a strange, unclassifiable film that flopped domestically but became a cult hit in the USA in the late 60s — perhaps because audiences there related it to their own saga of insanity in Vietnam. By this period, several films approached WW1’s tragedy from a more whimsical perspective; Richard Attenborough’s Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) was a kaleidoscopic array of anti-war song sequences giving WW1 the epic musical treatment; Jean-Jaqcues Annaud’s Black and White in Colour (1976, winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar) was a satirical farce-like treatment of WW1 in colonial Africa. But the eye-popping technicolor and poignantly romantic score by Georges Delerue, perfuming the mood with a fairytale air, make King of Hearts a WW1 film unlike any other.
Life and Nothing But (Bertrand Tavernier, 1989)
Set shortly after the Armistice, in a France still rebuilding itself (with military offices inside a theatre, a hotel relocated to an old factory, or a makeshift nightclub in a church), Tavernier’s film dramatises the contemporary sentiment that the cataclysmic slaughter that had taken place needed to be memorialised, somehow. Thus the idea comes about for the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, symbolised by an anonymous corpse — the search for which provides the backdrop of the film while at the same time two women, one rich and one poor, seek their missing husbands amid the rubble of the war. The department responsible for tallying the dead and missing (and finding a suitable corpse) is headed by Major Dellaplane, a military man with a paradoxically anarchic bent and a respect for the sanctity of statistics, portrayed magnificently by Philippe Noiret (who used memories of his own father’s WW1 experiences to feed his performance).
Like its Kiarostamian near-namesake, this is a film about life’s affirmation being grasped out of the ashes of widespread tragedy and grief, even leading towards an improbable love story between Noiret and the initially uptight rich wife — just around the corner are hints of the 1920s and the more carefree Jazz Age to come. But throughout there are also reminders of how the official version of history was streamlined. Tavernier populates the fringes of his narrative with returning African and Arab infantrymen and Indochinese and Chinese labourers tasked with digging up graves. More than a war film, Life and Nothing But is a movie about how a country chooses to remember (and in some ways conveniently forget) a historical event.