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In Remembrance of the 100th Anniversary of the Start of “The Great War”, 10 Essential World War I Movies

In Remembrance of the 100th Anniversary of the Start of "The Great War", 10 Essential World War I Movies

This Monday marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and although most of us know that the war was ignited by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, our knowledge of the conflict is woefully lacking.  The Great War, as it was known until the late 1930’s, resulted in the deaths of 9 million combatants and remains one of the deadliest conflicts in history, thanks in large part to the use of tear gas and trench warfare tactics.  The war drew in all of the world’s greatest economic powers (America entered the war in 1917) and by the time it was over in November 1918 the wreckage and the harsh peace treaties signed by those countries involved would result in renewed European nationalism and a German feeling of humiliation which would ultimately sow the seeds for fascism which would explode in the form of Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, leading to World War II.  

Footage of the war is rare.  The History Channel, Military Channel and the like often cover WWII but seldom its predecessor.  Therefore in an effort to commemorate the 100th anniversary, Box office Insider presents 10 Essential World War I Movies (in alphabetical order).

Based on the anti-war novel by Eric Maria Remarque, the film looks at The Great War from the perspective of a German soldier (Lew Ayres).  The film won two Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director (Lewis Milestone).  Ayres shines as the young German soldier who buys into the fantasy of the heroism of war.  While in the trenches he quickly realizes that war is not about heroism and medals but rather about death and destruction.

While more of a love story than a true war movie, “A Farewell to Arms” brings ambulance driver Gary Cooper(in his first of three movies on this list) and nurse Helen Hayes together in war-torn Italy where they fall in love amid the horrors of war.

FLYBOYS (2006)
If you’re looking for a more accessible, modern take on WWI, “Flyboys” is probably your ticket.  James Franco plays an American aviator who, along with his friends, volunteers to fly for the French on the eve of American’s entrance into the war.  It’s worth a watch for the flying sequences, which are expertly choreographed.

From Down Under comes Peter Weir’s telling of the disastrous eight month long Dardanelles campaign, which would ultimately solidify Turkish national pride.  A group of Australian soldiers, led by an oh-so-young Mel Gibson, attempt to take the peninsula in an effort to eventually invade the capital, Constantinople.  Gibson is brilliant as the young Aussie soldier who quickly realizes that a purportedly simple foray into the Turkish peninsula is turning into a bloodbath.  Stunning visuals from Weir and cinematographer Russell Boyd.

Legendary director Jean Renoir’s tale of French soldiers imprisoned in a WWI German POW camp focuses less on battlefield scenes and more on the psychological effects of the war and the efforts of a group of soldiers from all walks of French life, who are hell bent on escape.   It’s sort of a WWI version of “The Great Escape” and is powered by a larger than life performance by Erich Von Stroheim, a brilliant director in his own right, who chews up every scene as POW Captain von Rauffenstein. 

During the harshest fighting of the war, soldiers from Germany, France and Scotland laid down their arms in an unauthorized cease fire on Christmas Eve 1914 in No Man’s Land.  The three groups exchange stories, play soccer, and come to understand each other and discover they have far more similarities than differences.  The irony of the film is that, despite the group’s camaraderie, each side understands that on December 26th they will all return to the horrors of war.

Not only one of the greatest war films of all time, it’s also of the finest examples of movie making in cinematic history.  The apex of director David Lean’s career, the film tells the story of T.E. Lawrence (played to perfection by Peter O’Toole), a British soldier assigned to Africa during WWI to investigate the campaign in the Arabian desert.  Against orders he organizes a guerrilla army and leads the Arabs in a revolt against their Turkish occupiers, culminating in a memorable attack from the desert on the city of Aqaba.  And besides, how many other films boast a cast that includes O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Claude Rains, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif and Jose Ferrer.   If you get a chance, see the 2012 version that Grover Crisp and the people at Sony Pictures lovingly and painstakingly restored.


Director Stanley Kubrick’s first major film is a gripping tale of a unit commander, played by Kirk Douglas, who faces mutiny after his soldiers refuse to embark upon a suicide mission in France.  The film focuses on the sheer futility of trench warfare and some of the battle scenes are painfully realistic and graphic, especially for 1957.

Let’s get one thing out of the way early.  “Sergeant York” was designed as a propaganda film for WWII.  The film focuses on a small town sharpshooter, played by Gary Cooper who won an Oscar for the role, who despite an aversion to war becomes a WWI hero.  Sure, director Howard Hawks glosses over the violence of battle in favor of American jingoism, but there’s no denying Cooper’s performance.  On a side note, the real Sergeant Alvin York was hired as technical adviser on the film.

WINGS (1927)
The film that won Best Picture at the first Oscars in 1928 was this William Wellman, who actually was a World War I aviator, tale of two American flying aces in WWI.  Charles Rogers and Richard Arlen play the American fliers and Clara Bow tackles the role of the woman that comes between them.  The strength of the film ia the aerial battle scenes, which were groundbreaking for the time, and the realization that the film was released a mere nine years after the end of the war with its effects still fresh in the minds of those who lived through it.  By the way, yes that’s a very young Gary Cooper (again) as Cadet White.


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