A Farewell to Arms (1932). The film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel depicts a doomed love affair amidst a brutal and often senseless war. Gary Cooper plays the role of Lt. Frederic Henry, the American ambulance driver who serves in the Italian Army. Helen Hayes—one of only twelve people to have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony (or EGOT as they say in the business)—played his great love, Catherine Barkley, a British nurse. The 1932 film may not be as good as the novel, but it beats the 1957 film version, which featured Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). The film adaption of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel uses the growing disillusionment of German soldiers to portray the futility of war. All Quiet on the Western Front won the Academy Award for the Outstanding Production (now Best Picture) and Best Director. (All Quiet on the Western Front has also been adapted into a Golden Globe-winning television movie.)
Gallipoli (1981). Directed by Peter Weir (who also directed great films such as Witness, The Year of Living Dangerously, and Dead Poets Society) and featuring a young Mel Gibson, Gallipoli tells the story of Australian soldiers who fought in the bloody and ultimately futile Dardenelles Campaign against the Ottoman Empire. The eight-month-long campaign was the brainchild of Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. It was not one of his better ideas.
Hell’s Angels (1930). No, it is not a movie about motorcycle gangs on the Western Front. It is instead the story of two brothers who are as different as can be; one is a man of honor and courage, the other is anything but. They both join Britain’s Royal Flying Corps to fight the Germans. In the climactic final scene, each man acts in accordance with his basic character. Hell’s Angels is the forerunner of today’s big budget action films. And here’s the kicker: Howard Hughes—yes, that Howard Hughes—directed it.
Johnny Got His Gun (1971). Dalton Trumbo, an award-winning screenwriter who was blacklisted in the 1950s for his membership in the Communist Party of the United States, both wrote and directed the film adaptation of his 1939 anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun. It is perhaps the most unsettling anti-war movie ever filmed; not surprisingly, it came out in the midst of the Vietnam War protests. It is the story of Johnny, a doughboy who loses all four limbs as well as the ability to see, speak, and hear when he is hit by an artillery shell on the last day of World War I. Fans of the heavy metal group Metallica know the movie because the band used clips from it in the music video for One.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Rightfully regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made, Lawrence of Arabia tells the story of T.E. Lawrence, the British army officer who rallied tribesmen on the Arabian Peninsula to revolt against the Ottoman Empire. David Lean won the Oscar for Best Director, one of six Academy Awards that the film won. Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, and Anthony Quinn were among the actors who turned in mesmerizing performances. The cinematography is breath-taking.
Paths of Glory (1957). Based on a novel inspired by real-life events, Paths of Glory tells the story of three French soldiers selected at random for execution as a way to frighten their fellow soldiers into fighting harder. The incomparable Stanley Kubrick directed Paths of Glory, and he uses drama to make many of the same points about the stupidity of war that he later made with comedy in Dr. Strangelove. The underappreciated Kirk Douglas turns in a riveting performance as Colonel Dax, the honorable officer who fights desperately, and futilely, to save his men from the firing squad.
Sergeant York (1941). As you might guess from the movies listed so far, World War I films tend to be decidedly anti-war. Not Sergeant York. Based on the real-life experiences of Alvin York, it tells the story of how a pacifist drafted to fight in World War I became one of the most decorated heroes of the war. The fact that Sergeant York was filmed as the United States was drifting toward war in 1941 no doubt explains not just the film’s tone but also why it was made in the first place. Gary Cooper won the Academy Award for Best Actor for playing the title role. He was helped by the fact that the terrific Howard Hawks was his director.
The African Queen (1951). Yes, The African Queen is set in Africa, and yes, it’s primarily a love story. But a prim English missionary played by Katherine Hepburn works hard to persuade a dissolute riverboat captain played by Humphrey Bogart to travel down a dangerous river to sink a German warship that patrols Lake Victoria. The African Queen is a staple on lists about the best movies ever made.
Wings (1927). One of the last great silent movies and the first movie to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, Wings tells the story of two World War I fighter pilots who fall for the same woman. As is true for countless other Hollywood films that have followed the same story arc, things end badly for one member of the love triangle. The female lead in Wings was Clara Bow, perhaps the most popular movie actress of the 1920s. A young and then unknown Gary Cooper also makes a brief appearance.
Are there any great World War I films I missed?
For more suggested resources on World War I, check out the other posts in this series: