In cinematic terms, the First World War plays second fiddle, with a far greater number of World War II films produced in recent times. There are, however, a handful of great World War I movies which show just how global a war it really was.
We start in Australia, and one of Mel Gibson’s early movies. A young, promising athlete, Archy Hamilton, and a group of railroad workers are experiencing the war, and particularly Australia’s part in it, through newspaper reports covering events in Turkey. All are stirred by national pride to sign up, except Gibson’s shady Frank Dunne, who falls into it do to shame and lack of alternative options. After training in Egypt, the young recruits are shipped to the shores of Turkey, Germany’s ally.
Almost the entire running time of Gallipoli is dedicated to the relationship between Hamilton and Dunne, opposites on the surface, but true friends tied together through the great ‘adventure’ of going to war. Director Peter Weir does such a great job of this, that when the action truly starts, the sight of such caring, brave young soldiers being cut down so decisively is even more heart wrenching.
Gallipoli shows how going to war was seen as an adventure, becoming soldiers almost glamorous, to many, and how the tragic, frightening reality of the fighting came as such a tremendous shock to young men totally unprepared for the horrors they would face.
Lawrence of Arabia
David Lean’s 1962 biopic defines the word epic. The Oscar winning film tells the story of TE Lawrence, a spirited and unconventional British army officer sent to Arabia to assist the Arabian uprising against the Turks. Lawrence eschews his civilised British upbringing and finds both a home in the rough, unforgiving desert, and a killer instinct as he leads the Arab fighters in several highly unlikely successes, with or without the blessing of his superiors.
Lawrence of Arabia is truly the story of one man’s contribution to the war effort, as unorthodox as it may have been. Despite his eccentricities, T. E. Lawrence was as much a master strategist. Peter O’ Toole expertly blends and entwines Lawrence’s contradictory personality traits.
There is plot to Lawrence of Arabia, but as much as it is a narrative movie, it is very much a visual experience, only truly at home on the big screen. The excellent cinematography shows the true beauty of the Arabian setting, and more screen time is offered to the blazing sun and scorching sands than to the battles. It IS a war film, but that is easy to forget at times, as really, it is the story of Lawrence himself.
The African Queen
Based on the novel of the same name, The African Queen, directed by John Huston, sees Humphrey Bogart’s Captain of The African Queen, team up with a British missionary, as she tries to escape German East Africa. When escape seems unlikely, they decide to use the boat as a torpedo in an attempt to sink a German gunship.
The African Queen is about how war forces completely different people, with converse attitudes towards religion and sex, to work together, and fight against seemingly insurmountable odds. Bogart and Katherine Hepburn both do great work portraying the unlikely blossoming relationship between the course Canadian boat captain and the reserved, refined Brit.
As they struggle to survive their journey along the river, facing rapids and alligators, the beautiful vistas of the Congo River provide a stark contrast to the tension, both sexual and fearful, of the protagonists. The film displays the spirit shown by so many during World War I. Untrained, and unprepared, two civilians doing their part for the war effort. The touching story of opposites attracting, and ordinary people prevailing in the most extreme of circumstances.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
All Quiet on the Western Front is unusual for an American war movie. It tells the story from the point of view of the German soldiers, as they battle the French. All Quiet follows the fortunes, or inevitable lack of, of a class of young men inspired by their teacher to enlist. We follow these men through their training, which consists of nothing more than a couple of marching drills, and then are zipped straight to the front.
As their numbers diminish, we see the horrors of the war through the eyes of one young man in particular. He watches a friend die, he watches an enemy die. He nearly dies himself, before finding he is no longer able to cope with normal life whilst on leave, and returns early. In a couple of years that fresh faced, energetic recruit has become a jaded, emotionally damaged man. Rather than a war movie, All Quiet is a decidedly anti-war movie.
All Quiet on the Western Front combines truly harrowing battle scenes with genuinely emotional character moments. The cinematography is very impressive, and the message at the heart of the film is beautifully delivered. A stunning movie, particularly considering its age, that could compete with any for the title of best war film ever made.
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the popular play starts off in Britain, Devon, to be precise. Like most of the other films on this list, we are introduced to a young, idealistic boy on the verge of signing up. This time, however, it is a horse that transports us to the battlefront. Joey, a magnificent horse by all accounts, is charged into battle, before changing hands, and sides, several times.
As a modern, big-budget Spielberg film, War Horse is given an immediate hoof up by its great production values. Following a theme that has become apparent through this article, it shows that in a war of millions, the individual can make a difference, as Joey touches the lives of soldiers on both sides of the war. The war career of an animal allows us to see several sides of the war, from British cavalry, to German infantry, through French bystanders to trench warfare.
As you would expect of a Spielberg movie, War horse tugs on the heartstrings, whilst stretching your believability to near breaking point. Overly sentimental and over the top, maybe. But War Horse does a magnificent job of humanising soldiers on both sides, and showing that whilst soldiers carry out their orders and kill with impunity, they are still, at heart, human beings.
FORBIDDEN GROUND is out on DVD on August 19, courtesy of Entertainment One.