17 January 2009

World War I Films, Quality over Quantity -- How About Some More?

When it comes to the production of war films, the World War II is a huge winner over any other war before or since. There are myriad reasons for this, including the scope of the war, the presence of so many larger-than-life figures and the timing of the war with respect to the development of popular film. There's also a closer to a universal agreement on who the villains were and what was at stake.

Production of World War I films virtually stopped dead with the outbreak of the next world war and never recovered. In the midst and immediate aftermath of the second world war no one was really interested in its predecessor. Meanwhile producers, directors and writers are still mining World War II for films some 63 years later.

I'm certainly not going to endeavor to verify this but I'll venture the wild guess that for every film about World War I film there are several dozen about World War II. However, what the Great War lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. In honor of the war having ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, I offer 11 of the very best films that focus on World War I. They are in order of how much I admire them.

1. The Grand Illusion (1937). Any list that starts with this masterpiece is a good one, no matter what follows. Jean Renoir's film is in my top two motion pictures of all time. Legendary French actor Jean Gabin stars and Eric von Stroheim appears. It's actually less about war and more about the death of certain type of classicism. French prisoners of various types including an aristocrat are held in a castle-like prison for officers. The commandant is a German aristocrat. There is fascinating dialogue and a daring escape.

2. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Perhaps the best "pure war" film ever made. Director Lewis Milestone's film is about soldiers in battle. It's about how those soldiers were bamboozled into believing in war and how the wanton death and destruction turned them from innocents to cynics. It hasn't aged a bit and has only gained in significance in the nearly 80 years since its release. Based on Erich Maria Remarque's novel of the same name.

3. The Big Parade (1925). Absolutely, positively the best movie still not available on DVD. King Vidor directed this story of the scion of a wealthy family who goes off to war and changes forever as a result. Again there is issues of class as our hero becomes acquainted with fellow soldiers who are working stiffs. He also falls in love with a Frenchwoman. Magnificently photographed with gripping battle sequences.

4. Wings (1927). What's this? Another silent great awaiting its DVD release? Let's get with it, people. William Wellman, himself a former WWI flying ace, directed this story of two flyers in the Great War and a love triangle that entangles them. Wings set the cinematic standard for air battle scenes. This film features a moving and believable love story and touches upon themes of friendship, loyalty and betrayal.

5. Hell's Angels (1930). This Howard Hughes classic may sound like a re-make of Wings given that it too features two main characters who are flyers and love the same woman. But it is otherwise a very different film. The woman in questions is played by Jean Harlow. Lesser knowns Ben Hall and James Lyon are the brothers. Anyone who has seen Martin Scorsese's The Aviator (2004) has an idea of the pains Hughes went to in getting just the right aerial shots. The effort shows. The zeppelin scenes are some of the most unforgettable on film. The final scenes in the POW prison are also memorable.

6. Paths of Glory (1957). Star Kirk Douglas was never better than here in the role of a French Colonel vexed by incompetent and arrogant superiors in this film directed by Stanley Kubrick. A realistic view of trench warfare, a military trial and subsequent execution that will infuriate you highlight the film. Paths also features some of Kubrick's trademark cinematography, especially as it follows the colonel through the trenches. Excellent supporting cast led by Ralph Meeker and Adolph Menjou.

7. The Lost Patrol (1934). John Ford directed this story of a group of a British patrol that is, as the title implies, lost. In this case in the dessert. They are hunted and sniped one by one by an unknown seen enemy. They face thirst, madness and heat, in addition to rifle bullets. Victor McLaglen, Boris Karloff and Reginald Denny head an outstanding cast. Here's a post I wrote about The Lost Patrol last May.

8. Sergeant York (1941). Howard Hawks directed and Gary Cooper stars in this relatively true story of backwoods hunter from Tennessee who becomes a war hero. Coming out as it did in 1941 one would not be surprised to learn that this was a true "rally'round the flags, boys" type of film. This was the kind of role that Cooper was perfect for and he came through with appropriate flying colors. Not a terribly realistic film but entertaining.

9. A Very Long Engagement (2004). Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film is actually a greater love story than war film. Audrey Tautou plays Mathilde a young woman who cannot accept the story of her fiance's disappearance in battle and makes like the world's greatest decetive in order to find him. In the process we see various scenario's surrounding her love's last sighting and consequently see some dramatic and realistic battle sequences.

10. The Lost Battalion (2001). Russell Mulcahy directed this made-for-TV movie (don't hold that against it) about the valiant American battalion that was trapped between enemy lines. Based on actual events and faithful to the facts. Bravery, sacrifice and stretching the limits of human endurance make this story a natural for cinema. It really deserved a big screen run.

11. Joyeux Noel (2005). It's Christmas Eve 1914 and soldiers who have been engaged in bloody battle against each other meet in no man's land for a yuletide celebration. Songs are sung, gifts exchanged, soccer played. That this is a true story (who could make it up?) proves beyond any and all doubt the insanity of war. Of course, in the film as in reality the top brass punished those responsible and the killings resumed post haste.

(Yes, I realize I left Gallipoli (1981) off the list but I haven't seen it in too long a time. Also I've started to watch A Farewell to Arms (1932) twice, once on TV and once on DVD and both times the prints were of too poor a quality to continue. There is, however, apparently a better print out that I'll try to find.)

I couldn't help but notice that seven of the first eight films on this list were made before the U.S. entered World War II. Of the last three, two were French and the other made for TV. I'm at a loss to explain why no one in Hollywood has brought a decent World War I film to the big screen in recent years. There was some damn thing a couple of years about American flying aces that was apparently big on special effects and short on story.

There are innumerable compelling stories about WWI that could be brought to the big screen. I'm currently reading Ernest Junger's World War I memoir Storm of Steel. This is on the heels of having read Hemmingway's WWI novel A Farewell to Arms, and English poet and essasyist Robert Graves' memoir of the same war, Goodbye to All That. There are countless stories from these books alone ripe for plucking. As there are from innumberable works of non-fiction such as Jospeh Persico's superlative popluar history Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day Eleventh Hour, Martin Gilbert's many books including his latest on The Battle of the Somme and Winston Groom's A Storm in Flanders. And then there's the story of one of the African 396th infantry and their heroics during the war.

Don't make me write a screenplay myself. Final warning, Hollywood.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There are quite a lot of movies produced in the 30s that have to do with WWI, but a lot of them are weepy melodramas featuring a woman whose husband "died" in WWI and inexplicably returns with amnesia. I guess these don't really count, though, as they did not take place during WWI but immediately after.