World War I was one of the most formative events in the 20th century, leading to the establishment of international committees and was one of the first truly worldwide struggles. Many alliances were formed between countries, uniting the citizens of many nationalities in a common plight.
The Allied powers, (Britain, France, Russia and the Unites States), and the Central powers, (Germany and Austro-Hungary), battled for control over Europe between 1914 and 1918, after decades of internal conflict and clashes. Unlike its follower World War II, however, World War I, or “The Great War” as it is known, had no clear aggressive power, making the soldiers on both sides of the field sympathetic and relatable.
The Great War also was revolutionary in its battle tactics and technology. The majority of the war was fought with trench warfare, having soldiers stationed in opposing crevices and slowly trying to advance. The trenches were extremely diseased and cramped, themselves causing a majority of the war’s deaths. The new use of poison gas (since outlawed by the Geneva Convention) also created hellish conditions transforming the packed trenches into deathtraps.
The most amazing addition to warfare was the use of planes, causing the aces of the sky to be one of the most common subjects for World War I writings and films. Their daring manoeuvres and the in-flight battles changed the face of war, as well as capture the attention of the public.
World War I films are similar to other war films in many ways, all agreeing that “war is hell” but some acting as anti-war messages while others convey the necessity of the event and the heroism involved. The list that follows includes movies of both viewpoints as well as stories from various countries involved, giving a comprehensive representation of the war.
15. The Blue Max (John Guillerman, 1966)
This semi-historical account of German World War I pilots combines the daring of the classic aviation films with a criticism of the military system and its political ties. George Peppard stars as Bruno Stachel, a lower class soldier turned flying officer who is determined to prove his skill to his fellow aristocratic pilots.
Stachel gets along fine with the other pilots, creating a friendly atmosphere of rivalry, but his commanding officer thinks his methods are dishonorable. A powerful General von Klugermann, played by James Mason, takes notice of Stachel’s heroics and moves him to Berlin to increase the country’s morale. While there, however, he starts an affair with the general’s wife.
The Blue Max addresses many common themes of war movies, such as a soldiers transformation from adventurous to uncertain of his country’s motives. The aristocratic influence over the military also addresses Europe’s pre-war social structure and how the conflict opened up societies classes.
While the storytelling and acting are both of high order, the most notable aspect of this film is the incredible stunt flying and battle sequences in the film. Both important and thrilling, The Blue Max is a notable addition to the World War I film genre.
14. Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo, 1971)
Director and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo brings to life this film adaptation of his novel of the same name. This devastating film features Timothy Bottoms as soldier Joe Bonham who has lost all four of his limbs as well as his face, leaving him unable to communicate with others except through Morse code.
While his time in the hospital with the nurses and doctors is shown in black and white, his life story is shown through color flashbacks, outlining his past loves and happy times and juxtaposing them with his current situation. He becomes increasingly tortured by his helpless existence and pleads with his nurses to end his life, but the military authorities will not allow it, showing how the war torments him even after it ends.
The films experimental structure and techniques allow for a new approach to the horrors of war. Due to his extensive injuries, the only comforts Joe has are his own thoughts, which only end up making him more frustrated. The feeling of helplessness captured in this film is one of the most unsettling and disturbing portrayals of war on this list.
The film also shows how the military thinks of its soldiers as weapons instead of real people, showing no compassion towards Joe’s situation. Through powerful content and intriguing experimental film making, Johnny Got His Gun is an original and gripping anti-war film.
13. King & Country (Joseph Losey, 1964)
Based on a novel by James Lansdale Hodson, this anti-war film focuses on the injustices towards soldiers by the higher-ups of the military. Dirk Bogarde stars as Captain Hargreaves, a British officer who is to defend a deserter Arthur Hamp, played by Tom Courtenay, in an upcoming court martial.
Although Hargreaves does not agree with Hamp’s actions, he comes to understand his situation and earnestly defends him. In court, Hargreaves manages to evade the death penalty due to extraordinary circumstances, but the command is determined to make an example out of Hamp and send him to the firing squad anyway.
This bleak and uncompromising look at World War I politics inside of the military is one of the most aggressive criticisms of the military system. Showing no actual combat, the events surrounding the trial all unfold through dialogue and the inhumane conditions of the front are shown through their psychological toll on the soldiers.
A side plot of the torture of a rat by soldiers acts as a metaphor for the futility of the staged trials that frequently occurred throughout the war. More unknown than many films on this list, King & Country is an insightful gem about the military system.
12. The Dawn Patrol (Howard Hawks, 1930)
Also known as Flight Commander, This pacifistic war film about the aces of the Royal Flying Corps. in World War I. The two lead pilots Captain Courtney, played by Richard Barthelmess, and Lt. Scott, played by Douglas Fairbanks, come to resent their commander Brand for sending untrained recruits into battle only to die on their first runs. After the Germans move closer to their position, Brand is reassigned and Courtney is promoted to his place.
Unfortunately, Courtney learns that the job has no decisions over the training of troops and is ordered around by higher officials, causing the pilots, including Scott, to hate him.
The Dawn Patrol was remade only 8 years later starring Errol Flynn and David Niven in the lead roles to a similarly powerful extent. The remake also reused much of Hawks’s original exciting footage of the planes and the explosions.
In addition to boasting some of the most impressive battle footage of the time, the film also relays a powerful anti-war message, showing how the lives of so many young men were wasted for little gain due to the politics of the command. The Dawn Patrol is a technically and thematically daring tale of the destruction of war.
11. King of Hearts (Philipe de Broca, 1966)
Easily the strangest film on this list, this French war-comedy follows Scottish soldier Charles Plumpick, played by Alan Bates, who is sent to disarm a German bomb in a small French town. When he arrives at the town he is greeted by a motley crew of bizarre individuals.
Unbeknownst to Plumpick, however, the town has been abandoned by its regular citizens and all of the people he has met are escaped members of the town’s mental hospital. The unstable inhabitants of the town grow increasingly fond of Plumpick, eventually crowning him the “king of hearts” while Plumpick races against time to stop a bomb from exploding.
Packed with humor as well as biting satire of the military system and the inhumanity of war, King of Hearts is one of the most enjoyable and original films about World War I. The thematic comparison between the mental patients of the town and the characters in war is extremely funny as well as conveys an important message, commenting on how war is ludicrous and wastes many young lives.
While less devastating and aggressive than many other anti-war films, King of Hearts is an extremely clever and one of a kind critique of World War I.
10. J’accuse (Abel Gance, 1919)
Silent French master Abel Gance creates some of his most memorable moments in this war drama. The film follow soldier Francois who discovers that his fellow soldier and poet Jean is having an affair with his wife Edith. Upon learning this, Francois sends Edith away where she is raped by German forces and bears a German child.
Jean returns home first making Francois angry, but when he discovers the events that transpired about Edith, Francois and Jean then overcome their differences and disputes, uniting to defeat the German’s who have disrupted their lives. They both reenter the war and to fight and kill the Germans and defend Edith’s honor.
Like many of Gance’s films, technical prowess is matched equally by powerful content, with the film able to show the horrors of the battlefield as well as its impact on the home lives of the soldiers. This early, influential anti-war film inspired a tidal wave of other similarly themed works, and its realism was extremely effective to the soldiers who had just ended the war one year previously.
To make the film even more accurate, Gance actually filmed on real battlegrounds, trying to emulate as closely as possible the atmosphere of the battles. As influential thematically as he was technically, Gance rose in acclaim and popularity with this landmark war film.
9. Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941)
This biographical account of Alvin York, , played by Gary Cooper, a poor, played, uneducated and rowdy Tennessean who has no purpose in life but is an excellent shooter. When he finds a young lady who he wishes to marry, however, he changes his ways and with the help of the local preacher, played by Walter Brennan, York changes his ways and becomes a respectable, pacifistic young man.
When America enters the war, York applies to become a conscientious objector but is denied. His sharpshooting skills are soon recognized and his commanding officers want to promote him, but York’s beliefs make him weary. Only after they convince him of the importance of his role to the safety of his country does he agree to go into battle where he becomes a hero.
While York is initially a pacifist, his transition into believing that war is sometimes necessary shows the nationalistic intentions behind this film. The film’s reluctant hero was meant to sway public interest into approving military action in World War II.
Despite the film’s propaganda, it is an excellently made film, with Cooper winning an Academy Award for Best Actor and film picking up several other nominations. Sergeant York is a powerful and exciting war film, contrasting the life of a southern farmer and the horrors of war to a powerful effect.