Remembering the Great War on the big screen

Above, Asa Butterfield in Journey's End. Below, Jeremy Irvine in War Horse. Pictures: Supplied
Above, Asa Butterfield in Journey's End. Below, Jeremy Irvine in War Horse. Pictures: Supplied

There are far, far fewer films about the First World War than the Second.

In part, perhaps, this is because cinema was relatively young during the 1914-18 period, whereas by 1939 it was well established and technically mature as an art for, so more films could be made about that conflict for morale-boosting and propaganda purposes.

The murkier politics surrounding the earlier conflict probably didn't help either: defeating the Axis Powers seemed much more of a moral imperative.

The fact that the US didn't enter the war until 1917 is probably also a factor. Germany's sinking of the British ship Lusitania in which more than 100 Americans lost their lives helped motivate the US to enter the war, but it took more time than Japan's direct attack on US ships at Pearl Harbor did during World War II. Europe and Australian interest in the war has been greater than that of the US, but the American film industry is the dominant one internationally

Jeremy Irvine as Albert with his horse, Joey in War Horse. Picture: Supplied

Jeremy Irvine as Albert with his horse, Joey in War Horse. Picture: Supplied

Although it can't compare to World War II as a source of inspiration, World War I has had its share of cinematic representation - with films that started during the war.

Three major filmmakers - Cecil B. DeMille, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin - filmed World War I stories in the silent era:The Little American (1917), Hearts of the World and The Little Doughboy (both 1918), respectively. The first two were romantic dramas, the last a comedy. They've faded in prominence compared to many of the directors' other films.Among other silents, the anti-war dramas The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1922) and The Big Parade (1925) are probably the best remembered.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), based on Erich Maria Remarque's novel, is memorable for its elaborate, realistic battle footage and the blunt speech the main characters makes at his former school ("I can't tell you anything you don't know. We live in the trenches out there. We fight. We try not to be killed. Sometimes we are. That's all"). These and the poignant ending still make an impact.

Other relevant literary works adapted into movies include Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (twice) - and there was also In Love and War, about Hemingway's wartime experiences.

There have been films about historical figures of the period including spy Mata Hari (Greta Garbo played her in one movie), fighter pilot Manfred von Richthofen aka the Red Baron and Edith Cavell, a British nurse in German-occupied Belgium who helped many Allied prisoners escape.

Peter O'Toole as the title character in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Picture: Supplied

Peter O'Toole as the title character in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Picture: Supplied

Another classic is La Grande Illusion (1937), Jean Renoir's story of French soldiers held by the Germans as prisoners, examining issues such as social class and foreshadowing the horrors soon to come. The film's negative was seized by the Nazis and after it moved from country to country, it was eventually rediscovered and restored.

One of Alfred Hitchcock's lesser-known films, Secret Agent (1936) was an espionage tale set in 1916. While it's not one of the director's best films, it has its share of memorable moments, like the discovery that an organ's discordant sound comes from its player slumped dead on the keys.

During World War II, stories of the previous conflict were sometimes made for patriotic or propagandistic effect, like the biopic Sergeant York (1941), with Gary Cooper as the real-life pacifist whose marksmanship was eventually brought to effective use. He received the Medal of Honor for an incident in which he led seven other men in an attack of a German machine gun nest, killing at least two dozen enemy soldiers and capturing more than 130.

Later, there was The African Queen (1951), a comedy-drama based on C.S. Forester's novel with the inspired pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn as a drunken boat driver and a prim missionary who set off on a journey to destroy a German ship, falling in love along the way.

More sombre was Paths of Glory (1957), in which three French soldiers were symbolically court-martialled for cowardice after they and their comrades refused to continue a suicidal attack.

The 1960s and '70s produced a diverse crop of films including the British machinations and bloody battles of the Arab-Turkey conflict in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and the biting music-hall style satire of Oh! What A Lovely War (1969). The last - Richard Attenborough's directorial debut - juxtaposed skits and popular songs of the period and the horrors of war with red poppies signifying imminent death.

Strikingly unusual was Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumpo's 1971 adaptation of his own 1938 novel. Joe (Timothy Bottoms) was hit by an artillery shell and lies in hospital, a quadruple amputee with no eyes, ears, nose, mouth or nose, trapped in his body with memories and dreams flooding his mind. The end of the film is haunting.

George MacKay as Schofield in 1917. Picture: Supplied

George MacKay as Schofield in 1917. Picture: Supplied

For Australians, of course, Gallipoli (1981) is the Aussie World War I film, overshadowing others like Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940) and The Lighthorsemen (1987). It's the story of two young men, Frank (Mel Gibson) and Archie (Mark Lee), who meet competiing as runners, become friends, and decide to enlist. It's a vivid, moving story of friendship, terrible tragedy and waste.

And the World War I films keep coming, including Joyeux Noel (2005), about the real-life "Christmas truce" in 1914, between Allied and German soldiers who talked, sang and exchanged food and gifts among other fraternal gestures before being forced by their superiors to go back into combat. Whether this film is hopeful or despairing about humanity is arguable.

Steven Spielberg directed the film version of the play War Horse (2011), about a young British man's quest to find his beloved horse that was sold into military service. We've had the fifth adaptation of the R.C. Sherriff play Journey's End (2017), about a group of men in the trenches, and most recently, Tolkien (2019) which included the author's experiences during the Battle of the Somme, and 1917 (2019), with two British soldiers embarking on a dangerous journey to deliver a message calling off an attack.

While 1917 film was most noted for its technique of invisibly joining long takes to make it seem like the action was (mostly) unfolding in real time, it was also a story of camaraderie, destruction and horror, like many of its predecessors. And its success will probably keep other World War I films coming.

The First World War might never overtake its successor as an inspiration for cinema, but the unprecedented, bloodsoaked conflict certainly made a lasting impact, onscreen and off. It has not faded away from the collective memory even if all the soldiers who served in it are now dead. And there were millions of both military and civilian casualties. Lest we forget.

This story Movies remembering World War I first appeared on The Canberra Times.