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Posted on Apr 14, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Films of the First World War

By Wyatt Kingseed

If not the “war to end all wars,” World War I was the last in history where massive numbers of casualties were caused almost exclusively by combatants on the ground. Armies slugged it out across no-man’s land in a brutal and bloody stalemate. By the Second World War, some two decades later, air combat and navies (making a resurgence) would ratchet the killing up to a new level and change the face of war. Until then, infantry ruled the day in Europe.

It was a seminal experience, and one that inspired moviemakers within a decade after the war to create a new genre–the modern war film. Early efforts are still among the best war films ever made. Hollywood has rarely returned to the First World War setting since, but on occasion has matched its earlier success.


World War I films have a commonality—senseless mass charges into machine-gun fire, tangles of barbed wire, clouds of poison gas, and denuded landscapes combine in horrific images as directors depict carnage with realism, often with a heavy anti-war message. The men in the trenches are typically shown as pawns. Body counts don’t matter as officers or government officials engage in small and great political battles of their own, which often have nothing to do with battle strategy and tactics.

Anti-war sentiments are understandable. The real conflict raged across Europe for over four years and by some estimates left over forty million casualties, dwarfing any previous war. Official sources list nearly ten million combat deaths alone. France and Germany sustained the most on a percentage basis, with French battlefield deaths surpassing 3.5% of its total population, and Germany, 3.1%.

Many of the films in the genre appeared before the Second World War, when the First was still relevant in the minds of audiences. More importantly, many of the men who made the films had served in the military and could draw on first-hand experience to tell their story. They also had the advantage of hindsight and maturity; war had lost its glamour in the cold reality of the trenches.

Their story has been told from the perspective of each of the four main protagonist nations. Here are some of the best from top directors—for Germany: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and The Blue Max (1966); for France: Paths of Glory (1957); for England: The Lost Patrol (1934); and for the United States: Wings (1927) and Sergeant York (1941). 

1.jpgAll Quiet on the Western Front

Author Erich Maria Remarque’s brilliant anti-war novel was magnificently and faithfully adapted to the screen by Director Lewis Milestone in the first great modern war film. Milestone, a veteran himself, created a revolutionary work in scope and detailed authenticity. It doesn’t flinch on showing the brutality of war and remains one of the most copied films about infantry soldiers. Alternating scenes of loud, intense combat and terror with moments of quiet boredom and hunger, Milestone reveals life in the filthy rat-infested trenches.

Having lost none of its luster since released seven-seven years ago, no film since has better captured the transition of a new soldier, from youthful innocence and enthusiasm to disillusionment. The story follows Paul Baumer, a young German who enlists in the Great War, hoping to see action before it all ends. Milestone (Remarque) skewers false patriotism by showing the hypocrisy of old men who encourage young men to fight, while accepting no sacrifice of their own.

In the film’s most dramatic and harrowing scene, Baumer knifes a French soldier in a bomb crater during an attack. Paul must spend the night with the man as he has a slow, agonizing death. He is racked with guilt, apologizing and praying while bombs and bullets rain overhead. Already questioning the purpose of the war, Baumer undergoes a personal change. He now fully grasps its futility; the lowly soldiers are merely cogs in a big machine, one they have no control over. More importantly, Paul begins to understand that there is little difference between enemies; eventually they all just want to go home. Of course, like so many veterans of all wars, Baumer on leave discovers that you can’t really go home again.

The battle scenes, filmed in California, are grand and spectacularly authentic, a superb achievement for its day. Milestone employs a neat mechanism to demonstrate the randomness of death—a pair of fine boots is passed between comrades; as one man dies the next switches footgear. Near the end, Paul’s mentor, Sergeant Katczinsky, is killed by shrapnel, and shortly afterwards, Paul meets his own fate, reaching for a butterfly and an elusive moment of normalcy in the madness.

The Nazi Party objected to the film’s depiction of German soldiers as less than iron men, supremely devoted to the Fatherland. Officials got the German Censors to ban the film. Joseph Goebbles, then a minor player, organized disruptions in Berlin theaters that included the release of stink bombs and snakes in the aisles.

Milestone deserved his Academy Award as best director and the film a statue as Best Picture. Actor Lew Ayres, so affected by his role as Paul, became a conscientious objector in World War II. He did serve in a non-combatant’s role.

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  1. i am a falklands war vet

    • H i Mate me too I am working in Chile For another 3 years what C/O you had at that time, I strated from South Gorgia´s on to Port Standley
      We are still working sins then ROYAL NAVY ENGINEERS 43RNE; I am living in Punta Arenas, still F . . . up these f . . . ARGENTINOS. every other day. What the F . . . Two English men once a time in the same place and me in F… CHILE .what can I say but LONG LIVE THE ENGLISH PEOPLE AND MOST OUR SOLDIERS GOD BLESS