The Great War Movie Commemoration

There's a load of commemorative events taking place on the centenary of the outbreak of The Great War. However, I'm hope not going over the top with another humble offering, in which we review a dirty half-dozen films set during WWI. 

Wings (William Wellman, 1927) has entered into cinema history by being the first ever winner of the Best Picture Oscar at the inaugural Academy Awards. But is it any good? Well, remember the Michael Bay movie Pearl Harbor? Now, imagine if that was silent and, like, actually watchable? Then throw in a splash of Top Gun aerial footage and homo-eroticism and you have Wings. It's an enjoyable enough Boys Own adventure about two US fighter pilots (Charles Rogers and Richard Arlen) and their rivalry over the woman they both love back home. Although obviously this rivalry hides their love for each other, pre-dating Top Gun's wingman bromance by 60 years. (It might not have any topless volleyball, but it was the first film to feature two men kissing, fact fans!). Anyhow, the first two-thirds is actually all a bit hammy and melodramatic, with only the luminous 'It Girl' Clara Bow in a thankless supporting role to keep things interesting - she considered the script one of the most misogynistic she had ever read. However, it picks up dramatically once the battles begin as Wellman, himself a combat pilot during WWI, stages some well-realized biplane dogfights, complete with special effects to colourize the flames, before building to a sobering climax. Ultimately, Wings is a rather old-fashioned and romanticised depiction of war which never soars to great heights, but glides along effortlessly nonetheless.

Three years later, All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930) also won Best Picture at the Oscars, and this was a film that was neither romanticised nor old-fashioned. Based on Erich Maria Remarque's devastating WWI novel, it does full justice to the source material as the tragic waste of young life is quite brilliantly captured in the harrowing battle scenes. Even today, it's easy to appreciate how technically inventive these sequences are, with the superb sound design all the more remarkable for being produced when sound in films was not commonplace. The all-American accents of the German characters may jar a little, but by the time we reach the desperately  poignant and justifiably celebrated final image of a soldier on the battlefield reaching to touch a butterfly, it is clear that nationality is irrelevant when it comes to death on the battlefield. Over 80 years on, this remains remarkably relevant and is still the still the anti-war movie all others look up to.

In Paths Of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957), the lottery of death and the cruel injustices of war are also painfully demonstrated as three innocent French soldiers are court-martialled for cowardice following the failure of their regiments to take a German fortress. Their commanding officer (Kirk Douglas) fights their cause, bringing him into conflict with his aloof and bureaucratic superiors, who are blind to the true nature of war on the ground. Kubrick considered his film not so much "anti-war” as "anti-authoritarian ignorance”, a viewpoint shared by the writers of Blackadder Goes Forth and The Wire, which were both influenced by the film in their depiction of institutional (mis-)management. It's a classy, superbly acted affair and notable for being more emotionally involving than much of Kubrick's later work. 

Joyeux Noel (Christian Carion, 2005) is a diplomatic, multi-national production about the famous Christmas truce in the trenches of WWI in 1914, when opposing troops set down their guns and mixed together in No Man’s Land. It's earnest and well-played, but despite the historic significance of the material, it's a rather unremarkable affair. It also suffers from shoehorning a female character into the story for dramatic purposes, a wholly unnecessary addition as the events depicted are moving and dramatic enough in themselves. On the plus side, isn't that Trevor from Eastenders in there?

Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981) tells of two Australian athletes, Archy (Mark Lee) and Frank (Mel Gibson), who enlist in the army at the outbreak of WWI and head off for a merry bit of training in Cairo, before being exposed to the true horrors of war at the botched Allied campaign on the Gallipoli peninsula. By choosing to spend much of the film away from the battlefield, the film beautifully develops the lead characters as young men with hopes, dreams and bright futures, bonded together by principles of friendship, honour and nationalism. Thus, by the time they are thrown into battle, we have invested emotionally in their fates and care deeply about what will happen to them and their comrades. This empathy is increased by the appealing performances of Gibson, an obvious star in the making, and Lee, who effectively embodies the fresh-faced innocence of youth. Parallels between sport and war run through the film, with war viewed as a great game to be played, rather than fought. It's a naïve viewpoint that is shattered once and for all in the final devastating scenes as soldiers prepare to sprint towards the enemy and certain death rather than a finish line and victory. Prepare for a lump in your throat.

La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937) is a poignant, beautifully acted and well-written story, which appears regularly on Greatest Film Ever lists. Other things in its favour are that Orson Welles loved it, Joseph Goebbels hated (and banned) it, and it features the second best on-screen rendition of La Marseillaise after Casablanca. Lt Marechal (Jean Gabin) and Captain de Boldieu (Pierre de Fresnay) are two French pilots shot down by German pilot and aristocrat Captain von Rauffenstein, brilliantly played by renowned director Erich von Stroheim. Assigned to a POW camp, they plot their escape, but the boundaries between 'good' and 'bad' are blurred when it emerges that von Rauffenstein and de Boldieu share mutual acquaintances across the upper-classes of European society, and probably have more in common than with the working-class Marechal. As a result, the film has important things to say about the place of class, race and humanity during wartime, which take on more resonance with the knowledge that WWII was only a couple of years away. It's a pity these elements are not matched by a sense of urgency or danger in the eventual escape, because if Renoir could have fashioned a little more tension out of the latter scenes, it would be a truly special film. By the end, what the title refers to is open to interpretation, but given that the 100 years since The Great War began have seen countless bloody conflicts across the globe, perhaps 'La Grande Illusion' is that human beings can ever hope to live in peace together. 

For a whole generation who were butchered and damned.

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