This August is the 100-year anniversary of the First World War but its barely being acknowledged in popular culture


“Below us in the valley hung low clouds of gas. They settled right there, and those of us on higher ground were safe. But we wore our masks for three hours. A large percentage of officers and men of the sanitary detachment died or suffered severely from the gas… Little help could be given to the gas victims. We placed them on stretchers, kept them quiet as possible and hurried them to the hospital.”

Horrors such as this, recorded by an observer with the U.S. 42nd Infantry Division, were commonplace during the First World War, begging the question of how do humans have the capability to be so amazing yet commit such destructive acts at the same time?

But war has also led to some of the greatest works of art the film industry has ever produced, Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Patton (1970) and The English Patient (1996) have all won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. These three films are all about the Second World War. There is a total of nine Best Picture-winning films set during the Second World War. These films’ plot is set during the war period and it serves as a crucial part of the storyline.

By comparison, the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences has honoured three First World War films with the Best Picture Oscar. The 1927 film Wings won the very first Best Picture Academy Award. All Quiet on the Western Front won in 1930. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is the last First World War film to ever win a Best Picture Oscar.Peter OToole in Lawrence of Arabia-1Lawrence in Arabia, starring Peter O’ Toole, earned seven Academy Awards and is widely considered one of the best motion pictures ever made.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The disparity also exists in the amount of films devoted to the two world wars. Only 175 First World War films have been made versus 1,338 Second World War films.

How can this be? The First World War re-mapped Europe, helped birthed Soviet Russia and resulted in 8.5 million deaths and 37 million casualties. How can this not be recognized in today’s film industry?

According to Peter Sobczynski, a critic for the late Roger Ebert’s website, the Second World War “is the closest thing to a good war that there is — easily definable heroes and villains and incredible feats of strategy and heroism, the kind of things that lend themselves easily to dramatic recreations.”

In contrast, David Love, a historian for the Calgary Military Historical Society, notes while the First World War sparked political changes and revolutions, “it’s very hard to write a story line while sitting in the trenches.” That’s very different than the Second World War, a war of movement. And that movement makes the conflict more compelling to film.”.

John Ferris, a history professor at the University of Calgary, says the actions of Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust that took place during the Second World War provides clear evil for movie characters to fight against.

“It’s the last really heroic war that happened,” Ferris says. “Because of that we can easily see ourselves as being good.”

By comparison The First World War, according to Love, created a pile of debt for the European economy, Russia was torn apart, and the Middle East was redrawn — causing conflict that is still upon us today.

Regardless of whether a filmmaker focuses on the First or Second World War, Sobzcynski says anyone creating a movie about such conflict is “going to traffic in the most horrific elements of combat; death camps, torture, ethnic cleansing and the like.”

All Quiet Western Front-webAll Quiet Western Front is a film that was praised for giving its audience a vivid look at what life as a soldier was like during World War I. It is considered one of the greatest anti-war films ever made.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.But doing so in an ethical and respectable manner is hard. Sobzcynski insists a director “had better earn the right to use [those elements] by exploring them in a responsible and thoughtful manner instead of merely exploiting them.”

Iconic First World War films

World War I is without a doubt one of the most influential events of the 20th century. Every country that took part in the conflict that began 100 years ago in August has its own special meaning of the war and how it ultimately transformed the world. Filmakers in these different countries have forged classics that have stood the test of time by being able to piece together films that truly reflect their country’s role and views of the global conflict. Here are the Calgary Journal’s takes on the most iconic World War I films from the main combatants.

The United States: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). This film appeared 12 years after the conclusion of the Great War. It is celebrated as one of the greatest World War I films because it provided a realistic and shocking account of this grand conflict. Many of the extras in the film were acutal World War I veterans and this gave the film a complete authentic feeling. The film is viewed as holistic since it showed the point of view of both sides. In fact, the story was largely told from the point of view of a young German soldier. The film’s camera angles and battle scenes are also considered by iconic different film critics, historians and filmakers.

Britain: Lawrence of Arabia (1962). This epic adventure film chronicles T.E Lawrence during attacks on the Arab Peninsula communities of Aqaba and Damascus. Lawrence feels emotional turmoil as he is divided in his loyalties to his native Britain and his newfound friends in the Arabian desert. This film reflects the emotional turmoil that Britain went through during the First World War. The war ultimately signalled the beginning of the decline of the British Empire. This film has been praised for its visuals, screenplay, acting and direction and it is considered by the American Film Institute to be the greatest epic film of all time.

France: La Grande Illusion (1937). This film — considered by many historians and critics as a masterpiece of French cinema — tells the tale of a small group of French officers who are plotting an escape from a German prisoner camp. It draws its name from British economist Norman Angell’s 1936 book The Grand Illusion. The book argues that war is futile because of the similarity of European economic interests. The film also argues that war is futile and it will never solve political problems or create a better world. The emotional moral thought-provoking nature of the film, along with the performances of the ensemble cast, are reasons cited as to why this PasschendaelePasschendaele was shot in and around Calgary, which is appropriate since the lead character Michael Dunne was from Calgary and the 10th Batallion—of which he was a member—consisted of people from Calgary.

Photo courtesy of Movie Poster Database.comfilm is held in high esteem. It was the first foreign film to ever secure a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.

Canada: Passchendaele (2008).This war drama — which was primarilly shot in and around Calgary — focuses on the experience of Michael Dunne, a decorated war veteran of the 10th Battallion during the battle of Passchendaele. This film recieved very lukewarm reviews because of its script being deemed corny, not being visually impactful and lacking strong secondary characters. Critics who did like the film praised the acting of the lead characters and the film’s ability to be profound at times. Despite the reviews, this film is a document of a time when Canada really came into its own as a nation.

Germany: Westfront 1918 (1930). This film is set in the trenches of the Western Front in France 1918. The film starts with the love story between a young German soldier and a French peasant girl but pivots to the soldier and his friends’ hardships at the front. At the conclusion of the battles, both the French and Germans mutually express a desire to be comrades and not enemies. This film is a standout German production because it was an anti-war film at a time when war films were popular in Germany.Westfront was banned when the Nazis took control in 1933 because it was deemed that this piece would jeopardize the military will of the German people 

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