|Kirk Douglas in 'Paths of Glory'|
The Great War, which officially began 100 years ago July 28, doesn't get its proper due because when footage of it is shown on TV, we get fast-motion, black-and-white footage. It makes the horror seem comical.
That's not to say there wasn't some comic relief during World War I. Or that there wasn't "black" humor. Or that some movies didn't capture those aspects.
Although, check out this link of an interactive documentary that has some amazing normal footage.
The war to end all wars gave us the Treaty of Versailles, which is better known as the peace to end all peace. With millions killed and maimed and with four empires dissolved, WWI should have more than it's fair share of stories.
While I haven't seen all the movies made about WWI, I have seen a few that are worth recommending.
1) "Grand Illusion" (1937). Directed by Jean Renoir, this wonderful film chronicles French soldiers in a German POW camp. In German, French and English, this gem usually makes the list of top movies because of its heart and soul. Erich Von Stroheim, the legendary Hollywood director and actor ("Sunset Boulevard"), plays a classic role. Renoir first served in the French cavalry and then as a reconnaissance pilot. He suffered a bullet wound in the leg which left him with a lifelong limp.
2) "Paths of Glory" (1957). When I first saw this Stanley Kubrick opus as a kid, I was horrified that French generals would order the execution of three of its own soldiers in order to keep the other soldiers in line. After seeing it years later, of course, I finally got the dark humor that Kubrick was famous for in other films like "Dr. Strangelove," and "Lolita." Kirk Douglas is great as a French officer who must lead his men out of the trenches in suicidal attacks.
3) "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962). While this David Lean epic is far from the western front, it does highlight the fight in the Middle East as Arabs sought independence from the Ottoman empire. Peter O'Toole is great as T.E. Lawrence, the self-styled British leader of Arab resistance. Always a visual stunner of a film.
4) "Gallipoli" (1981) Peter Weir directed this film about one of the most important events in Australian history that was commemorated during the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Conversely, it's regarded as one of the greatest moments in Turkey's history. Starring Mel Gibson, the film chronicles how Aussies were ordered to make suicidal runs against machine guns of the Turks on the Gallipoli peninsula. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, championed this catastrophe and would be ostracized because of it until World War II.
5) "King of Hearts" (1966) While it's not about warfare directly, this movie is a cult classic about an insane asylum that is left unattended after the Germans retreat. Alan Bates is the King of Hearts.
6) "The African Queen" (1951) This John Huston epic uses WWI as a backdrop in German East Africa to explore the relationship between the boat captain and the missionary, played by Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, respectively.
Other films of note include:
"Joyeux Noel" (2005). Although I have yet to see this film, it is on my to-watch list. Based on a true story, it takes place during the Christmas truce of 1914 when French, Scottish and German soldiers put down their arms to celebrate Christmas. Unfortunately, the soldiers returned to their posts so that they could kill each other rather than lay down their arms. Imagine if troops had led their officers and political leaders to end the war. Yes, a grand illusion. Actually, troop rebellions on both sides helped end the conflict.
"All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930) A sympathetic portrayal of German soldiers on the Western Front. Considered the first serious film to win best picture.
"Wings" (1927) This silent flick won the first best picture award. While anachronistic, this film of the aerial war is worth checking out.
"Sergeant York" (1941) Directed by Howard Hawks, starring Gary Cooper at Sgt. Alvin York, the pacifist turned war hero.
"War Horse" (2011) Haven't seen this Steven Spielberg epic about a fabled horse before and during WWI.
"A Farewell to Arms" (1932 and 1957) The earlier version, starring Gary Cooper is the better version.
There have been a number of films about the aerial part of the conflict including "Flyboys," "The Blue Max," "The Red Baron," "Hells Angels," etc. What's amazing is that planes had almost no impact on the war. And these movies had little, lasting impact.
Finally, one of the best anti-war statements emerged from WWI in the form of Dalton Trumbo's novel "Johnny Got His Gun," which was made into a largely forgotten film in 1971.