A hundred years on from the outbreak of war in 1914, the mark it left on its descendants is still felt deeply across Europe. The loss of one million men, with thousands of them still buried somewhere in the fields of France, has lived on in the national and international conscience, finding escape through a sustained level of creativity which has left a legacy of its own. From contemporary poetry to the theatre of the 1920s and ’30s and the films of the present day, World War I has been felt vividly by the generations that came after, provoking a never-ending search (both by those who were there and those who weren’t) to capture its enormity, its emotion, and its cruelty on film.
All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)
This black and white epic, adapted from a German book by an American studio, is still considered one of the most harrowing and realistic depictions of the war ever committed to film. Perhaps helped along by its immediacy – the film was released only twelve years after the end of the war, which is only as far from combat in Afghanistan as 2014 is now – it contains that special kind of pathos because we know that author Erich Maria Remarque wrote from his own experiences. Though the original 144-minute cut is lost, it was restored to a 133-minute print in line with director Lewis Milestone’s original release, that has lasted from film reel to Blu-Ray.
Journey’s End (1930)
As critically and commercially successful as R.C. Sheriff’s original play, this adaptation is so deftly and searingly created that it made instant stars of its unknown cast and director. Set in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a dugout trench, it lifts the complex and compelling atmosphere and the relationships of Captain Stanhope and his men off the stage and on to the screen, dealing with issues such as alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder in a manner far ahead of its time. Its proximity to the war in time and sentiment gives it a vitality that goes beyond its black-and-white images, diving into the heart of the frontline in a way only possible for those who had been there.
Oh! What A Lovely War (1969)
As subversive as only 1960s cinema can be, this adaptation of the musical imbues World War I with the political and personal revolution of the decade in which it was released. Directed by Richard Attenborough and with a cast overflowing with contemporary stars, it uses allegorical rather than actual locations to explore the political failings and personal impact of the war on an entire generation. Its contemporaneous soundtrack of frontline ditties offers sharp contrast with the constantly shifting tone, echoing in lurid and dreamlike detail the change in attitude that took place as the war dragged on.
An adaptation of the hugely successful novel, this film is sadly rather hard to get hold of. Despite several award nominations, including BAFTAs and BIFAs, its lack of release on DVD has done it no favours. However, the difficulty in looking is more than made up for by the rewards of watching. Jonathan Pryce and Jonny Lee Miller lead a solid cast in a film that subverts the heroic tragedy of war into something darker and deeper, exploring guilt, trauma, and the line between comradeship and homosexuality which haunted the frontlines.
A Very Long Engagement (2004)
Un long dimanche de fiançailles
This part-mystery part-romance from Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet reflects the 21st century’s habit of looking critically and realistically at the conflicts of the 20th. Following Audrey Tautou’s Mathilde as she searches for the truth about her fiancé, who is missing in No Man’s Land, Jeunet’s film uses her investigation to structure its own long, hard look at the treatment of traumatised soldiers on the frontline. In an age where men had to be men, the issue of desertion and “neurasthenia” was ill understood by today’s standards, resulting in court martials and executions for hundreds of soldiers by their own country. Though Britain pardoned the 306 men shot for “desertion” in 2006, France is still only considering the option.
Joyeux Noël (2005)
Chronicling the remarkable events of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1914, when French, Scottish, and German soldiers laid down their weapons to play a game of football in No Man’s Land, this multinational movie heaps criticism on the political machine without giving it the limelight, instead focusing on the men on the ground. Weaving deftly back and forth across the trenches, the film captures an isolated moment that in turn captures, in its entirety, the futility and cruelty of life on the frontlines. Bearing the destruction and conditions of war in all their horrid glory, it pays homage to the men on both sides of the trenches without expending the other.
The Red Baron (2008)
Real-life German pilot Manfred von Richthofen is as close to a rock star as World War I can get. Filmed in the Czech Republic, France and Germany and written entirely in English, this amalgamation of Allied Forces and Central Powers filmmaking flopped at a German box office where the glorification of war heroes is still taboo, and historical inaccuracies weren’t well received; but as an eye-opener into Germany’s side of the war it captures the feeling – if not the fact – of life in the war-torn skies, where those who made their names were respected targets and shooting down your enemy was a matter of pride.
War Horse (2011)
Bursting with British stars and directed by none other than Steven Spielberg, War Horse is the Big Hollywood Blockbuster of World War I, stuffing Oscar nominations in its pockets and grossing over $177 million. Adapted from the book by Michael Morpurgo and structured around the life of Joey, a horse put to work on the frontlines when the cavalry charge was turning into a blood bath, this attempt at a sweeping epic is saturated with sentiment without apologising for it, bringing big emotions to an era in which Britain kept a stiff upper lip. Despite the American gloss, the fresh angle makes worthwhile viewing.
Private Peaceful (2012)
Also adapted from a Michael Morpurgo novel, the recurring theme of desertion and pardon is echoed in this small-scale indie release. Bursting with British talent of its own and going directly against the shimmer of its counterpart, this earthy tale of two brothers both in and out of the frontline doesn’t shy away from pain, be that the pain of unrequited love or of watching your friends and brothers fight – and die – for their country. Despite being only fictions, the complexity of the relationship and loving rivalry between the Peaceful brothers anchors what might otherwise be an overly cruel film, crafting a narrative that pinpoints the callousness of the British Army Generals against their own men.
Testament of Youth (2014)
Vera Brittain’s memoir of her life during World War I has remained at the forefront of the nation’s minds for almost a hundred years. This affecting adaptation avoids the sentiment that can weigh down war films, instead striving for an emotional and historical truth that lets the memoir breathe whilst crafting a compelling narrative. Attention to detail amplifies emotion as the realism hits home, and the young cast are achingly authentic in their portrayals of friendship and love; the costs of war shine in their youth, embodying the memoir’s title and its beating heart as though the century had never passed at all.