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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

4.jpgPaths of Glory

A cynical masterpiece by Director Stanley Kubrick and star Kirk Douglas, Paths of Glory’s anti-war message is rapped within the film’s indictment of military politics. The corruption here is as raw as it gets. Callous officers sip cognac in the safety of their opulent chateau far removed from the troops in the filthy trenches. They care nothing of the cost of battle as they order the men on a suicide mission against the well-defended Ant Hill. Success means promotion. When the ill-conceived assault inevitably fails, to set an example they select three innocent soldiers for court-martial on trumped up charges of cowardice and mutiny. A guilty verdict means a firing squad.

Colonel Dax, a line officer and lawyer before the war, serves as defense attorney for the scapegoats. In sharp contrast to his superiors, Dax is concerned about the welfare of his men. He sees the soldiers as human beings, not mere replaceable war material. The trial’s outcome is assured before it starts.


The courtroom scene and its aftermath take up the second half of the film. Before that, Kubrick creates one of the great battle sequences ever filmed when he takes you down into the trench as the French infantrymen ready for the attack. The anticipation and tension is palpable as the camera tracks down the long twisting path for two full minutes. Death and resignation stare out of every face. These soldiers know what’s in store, and you know that this isn’t the first time they’ve been ordered to senseless slaughter.

The acting is top notch across the board. Douglas gives a passionate performance as Dax, but it is George Macready as General Mireau, and Adolph Menjou as General Broulard, who steal the show. Both characters are despicable.

Broulard is a practiced manipulator of men, an officer who doesn’t flinch at discarding a subordinate once he has exhausted his usefulness. He dangles the promise of a promotion before Mireau. Dax tells Mireau that his decimated regiment can’t capture the objective, but the senior officer shrugs off the expected casualty rate of 60%—it is a small price to pay. When one company refuses to leave the trench during the attack, Mireau orders his own artillery to shell the position, and as the attack fails, he angrily rails “If those little sweethearts won’t face German bullets, they will face French ones.”

Black and white cinematography keeps the mood properly somber, and the minimal soundtrack emphasizes authentic battle sounds. One scene stands out: three men try a nighttime reconnaissance behind enemy lines. It is eerily quiet. A flare suddenly explodes overhead to illuminates the field, revealing grotesque corpses strewn about the denuded landscape. The men freeze, terror-stricken. The flare burns itself out and darkness descends to hide them from enemy snipers; but you know it can’t wipe away the ghastly image from their minds.

5.jpgSergeant York

Sergeant York was the perfect vehicle for an understated actor, and Gary Cooper’s natural screen reticence gives the film the right human touch. An unschooled and modest backwoodsman, Alvin York’s pacifism leads him to file for conscientious objector status when America enters World War I. The draft board denies the claim and York soon finds himself part of the Meuse Argonne Offensive in the last month of the war. Along with a rifle, he carries a dog-eared Bible into combat. When German machine gun nests pin down his squad, he acts to save his fellow soldiers, making use of sharp-shooting skills refined in the hills of Tennessee to single-handedly capture 132 enemy soldiers.

Despite the timing of its release—less than three months before Pearl Harbor but two years into Germany’s European aggression—the film’s reputation as a propaganda piece seems overstated. Its main message is that some principles are worth fighting for despite one’s religious beliefs, and it eschews the more blatant stereotypes common of hard propaganda films. German soldiers are not portrayed as sadistic demons.     

The first half of the film shows York’s convergence to religion and focuses on two important relationships, with his mother played by Margaret Wycherly, and with Pastor Rosier Pile played by Walter Brennan. Both supporting actors give sincere performances, and the film’s finest moments come here, as York struggles to reconcile his patriotism and moral aversion to war.

Director Howard Hawks made an unpretentious film. Battle scenes are brief, bloodless, and unrealistically clean as Hawks chooses to glorify the man and not the war. Hollywood hero-worship for sure, but done with emotion and admiration for a man of great character.   

York comes home a reluctant hero. Like other veterans of war, he finds nothing special in his performance; he has merely done his duty. The film accurately captures the real man’s refusal to capitalize on his hero status. When approached to sell his story, Cooper resists, saying, “What we done in France we had to do. And some as done it, didn’t come back. And that kind of thing ain’t for buying and selling.”

Hawks and the film were nominated for Oscars, but lost in both categories to John Ford and his sentimental and moving story of family, How Green Was My Valley. Cooper was luckier. He snared the first of two career Best Actor awards.


Director William Wellman’s silent classic may not hold up as well as other early World War I entries, but it is still a fine film. A sensation when first released—it won the first Best Picture Oscar—some of stunt work footage is spectacular. Even today, it is a better-than-average adventure story. A predecessor to later aviation films like The Blue Max, Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels, and Dawn Patrol, it shines best when the focus is on the action in the air.

Perhaps the first “buddy film,” the story involves three young Americans, two pilots and a nurse from the same small town. Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen don the goggles to battle enemy aircraft while they vie for the same girl. Inexplicably, initially it’s not Hollywood’s first sex symbol, Clara Bow, who mostly hides her curves beneath a nurse’s uniform. Still, you get a good hint at what so attracted male audiences of the 1920s during a comedic interlude in Paris when she rescues an inebriated Rogers. 

It is hard to consider this an anti-war film, as it largely avoids the sordid side of combat. Instead, Wellman—a veteran pilot of the war himself—shows his flyers living on the edge, executing thrilling and exciting aerial maneuvers. Rogers and Arlen reportedly performed most of their own flying. Its most remarkable sequences involve the destruction of zeppelins in fiery explosions, almost certainly actual war footage spliced into the production. There is also a famous shot from the air of a long trench caving in on hundreds of luckless doughboys.

The plot is a little far-fetched as an unfortunate case of mistaken identity causes one of the pals to shoot down the other. But all is forgiven in time for the survivor to connect with Bow at the end.

The New York Times review captured the spirit of the film by noting: “There is an underlying idea throughout some of the episodes that the motto of the gallant warriors of the clouds was: ‘Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we (may) die.’ This feature gives one an unforgettable idea of the existence of these daring fighters—how they are called upon at all hours of the day and night to soar into the skies and give battle to the enemy planes; their light-hearted eagerness to enter the fray and also their reckless conduct once they set foot on earth for a time in the dazzling life of the French capital.

Other notable World War 1 films worth viewing include: The Big Parade, The Fighting 69th, Gallipoli, Grand Illusion, and What Price Glory.

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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