8. Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981)
This Australian film by one of the country’s greatest ever director’s, Weir, and starring Australia’s biggest star, Mel Gibson, tells the often unheard account of the Australian army in World War I. Mel Gibson and Bill Kerr play two speedy Australian working-class citizens who, due to heavy British propaganda, enlist in the forces and become messenger soldiers during Australia’s offensive in Turkey.
While initially enamored of the experience, getting drunk and visiting brothels during training, the cold truths of war become unavoidable and the soldiers come to realize that they and their country had been duped into fighting terrible war in which they had no part.
In this film, Weir manages to communicate both an internationally relatable depiction of the dreadful trench warfare but also conveys a specifically Australian identity. The influence over their military and troops by British powers comes through as manipulative, accurately showing how many countries became roped into the conflict over time.
The film also shows the common theme of troop disillusionment, depicting the transition from patriotic to skeptical and showing the full influence of war over humans. Unique in topic and character, Gallipoli is a powerful and important piece of Australian filmmaking.
7. Wings (William A. Wellman, 1927)
This definitive aviation film is not only an exciting picture but is hugely influential to the war genre and also was the first film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Unlike most films on this list, there is not a strong anti-war film tying the film together, instead relying on the excitement and technical prowess of the filmmaking.
The plot is fairly simple, following two skilled aviators who are both vying for the local girl’s love, while a second kinder girl is in love with one of them. Through the process of war, however, the two put aside their conflicts and become bonded through military comradery.
Wings was an influential movie for many reasons. For one, its content was both edgy and impressive boasting magnificent shots of aerial combat as well as one of the first scenes of nudity in a mainstream American film. Although silent, the incredible stunts and battle sequences are as exciting as modern action scenes.
These realistic sections of the film account for its massive popularity in the day and the multitude of flying films it spawned, with only few living up to its greatness. Ahead of its time but still relevant and popular, Wings was one of Hollywood’s most exciting and important films of the silent era.
6. Wooden Crosses (Raymond Bernard, 1932)
This overlooked war gem tells the story of young French soldiers and their hellish experiences on the front lines. Similar to many other films on this list, the plot is quite simple, following the lives of the troops through injuries, death and internal disputes.
The young, patriotic warriors gradually come to realize that much of the glory and honor of war has been exaggerated and the value of their lives has decreased heavily. Their desperate and dangerous situation is symbolically visualized through the increasing number of wooden crosses put up, commemorating the fallen.
Wooden Crosses was one of many critical World War I films that came out in the 1930s during the rising of tensions towards the next war. Its personal and uncompromising depiction of battle evoke strong connections to the characters and help to show the psychological toll that the war has taken on them.
Bernard’s direction is very effective in conveying the dreadful atmosphere, utilizing realist techniques and powerful imagery to show the grim quality of life. While the story is not exactly original, the film is a powerful addition to the anti-war film movement preceding World War II.
5. La Grande Guerra (Mario Monicelli, 1959)
Considered by many to be Monicelli’s masterpiece, La Grande Guerra is an intriguing mix of a historical war film and Monicelli’s trademark comedies. Alberto Sordi and Vittorio Gassman star as the main pair of soldiers, Oreste and Giovanni, who bond over their mutual cowardice and lack of belief in the Italian cause in World War I.
The film follows the two and their fellow soldiers through their actions in boot camp, in the trenches and their experienced on leave with a prostitute named Costantina. Culminating in a exciting and powerful finish, the film paints a vivid and realistic portrait of the life of a soldier.
Although originally met with much controversy by the Italian government for showing Italian soldiers as something other than brave and loyal warriors. Nonetheless, over the years the brilliance of the film’s seamless fusion of genres and important anti-war message has garnered it critical acclaim and an important place in Italian cinema.
The neorealist comedy may at times lack a driving plot but the witty script and the historically accurate battle scenes always keep the film interesting. Gripping all the way through until its thought provoking climax, La Grande Guerra is a fascinating glimpse into Italy’s role in the Great War and a soldier’s life throughout his service.
4. The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925)
This revolutionary war drama was one of the most successful films of the silent period and King Vidor’s breakthrough achievement. John Gilbert stars as Jim Apperson, the son of a wealthy family, who is forced by his father to leave his fiance and join the American troops. Jim befriends two working-class soldiers, Slim and Bull, who are crude but loyal citizens.
As they are waiting for deployment in France, Jim falls in love with a French girl Melisande but she leaves him when she discovers he is engaged. Soon the trio are pushed to the frontlines where the romanticized patriotism of war disappear. In a lengthy and disturbing battle sequence, the horrors of the war are shown in detail, shocking for the moderate media of the time, causing the death of many characters and severe wounding of the hero.
The Big Parade is one of the most engaging silent films of Hollywood, developing its characters deeply and exploring darker themes than most of the era. The complex battle scenes in particular showcase Vidor’s innovative filmmaking, incorporating brilliant staging of shots and impressive special effects. The combined effect create a harrowing depiction of the Great War’s trenches, unparalleled in its time.
The film was very influential in the development of war films, inspiring many others on this list and advanced the threshold for graphic content shown on screen.
3. La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937)
Often cited as one of the greatest French films ever made, Jean Renoir’s masterpiece follows two French soldiers, the aristocrat Captain de Boldieu and the lower-class Lieutenant Marechal, as they survive as prisoners of war of the Germans. Their captor, Captain von Rauffenstein played by classic Hollywood director Eric Von Stroheim, is also an aristocrat and treats de Boldieu much better than the other lower prisoners.
At the fortress where they are prisoners, de Boldieu creates a distraction so that Marechal and another prisoner can escape forcing von Rauffenstein to take reluctant action against a fellow aristocrat when he will not rat out his friends.
As well as succeeding as an exciting prisoner of war film, inspiring the likes of The Great Escape and other classics, La Grande Illusion tells a much deeper message about war and as well as class and humanity. One of the main themes is the brotherly relationship von Rauffenstein feels towards de Boldieu due to their similar social standing and background.
Through their dialogue Renoir comments on the fall of Europe’s upper class after the war, as the world no longer seems to need them. Renoir also, of course, comments on the futility of war and how its accomplishments are the titular illusions soldiers and modern society. So much more than an anti-war film, La Grande Illusion is one of the most important films ever due to its insightful analysis of racial and social relations.
2. Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)
Master filmmaker Staney Kubrick’s third ever feature film is also one of his most mature and powerful. This anti-war film stars Kirk Douglas as the French Colonel Dax, the commanding officer of a regiment who is supposed to assault a heavily fortified German position known as the “anthill”.
When the entire B Company refuses to leave the trenches due to the hopelessness of the situation, General Mireau who planned the attack has three of Dax’s men court martialed to set an example for the rest of the army. The three men are picked somewhat randomly and Dax takes it upon himself to act as a lawyer for the defendants, despite the generals having already made up their mind.
Kubrick’s message in this film is extremely powerful, showing not only the innocent casualties of war but attacking the corrupt tactics of the men in charge of the military systems. Through the eyes of Colonel Dax the audience sees the repeated injustices against his troops and the horrible conditions in which they have to fight.
Douglas’s performance as the moody officer is very effective in showing the disillusionment from fervent nationalism to questioning the importance of the war. Through both the masterful development of both story and themes, Paths of Glory is an engaging and critical look at the consequences of war.
1. All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930)
Adapted from Erich Remarque’s 1929 novel of the same name, this account of German soldiers in the trenches is the quintessential World War I story. The central men of the 2nd company were all young students before the war and were persuaded by their propagandist teacher to enlist.
When they are arrive at training, however, the discover the harshness of the conditions and early into their first deployment they experience death, breaking their morale and nationalism. Through many battles and tours of the front, the audience sees the brutality of the war and its effect on the mentality of the disillusioned troops.
This film’s graphic and gritty portrayal of warfare and its strong anti-war message were influential to the industry, showing the realism on a new level. Because the film was made by Americans but about German troops shows the universal nature of a troops life and none of the soldiers had a strong motive for fighting. This shows that soldiers are just tools used in the disputes between the powerful leaders of the world.
Not only are the horrors of war shown in detail, but its long term hardening of the human spirit is captured with similar accuracy. Visually and emotionally devastating, All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the most powerful and important war films.
Author Bio: Matthew Benbenek is an undergraduate Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He has a passion for film, music and literature and, when not watching movies, is an amateur director and violin player.