Overview for films in World War I
(Digital History ID 2959)

War films are among the oldest film genres. Only a few hours after the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, nickelodeons screened a jingoistic short film called Tearing Down the Flag.

Movies are the closest most of us will ever get to combat. It is through movies that we learn about the intensity, carnage, fear and heroism of war and the arbitrariness of combat death.

In general, the best war films are made in sobering hindsight during peacetime. During wartime, war films tend to be unabashedly patriotic. These films are expected to build morale and garner support for the war effort. Wartime movies often demonize the enemy and transform a conflict into a battle between good and evil. It is only after wars are over that the movies can reflect on the broad issues of morality and personal responsibility raised by war as well as issues of heroism and hero worship on the homefront. Many war movies deal with issues of conscience and character. It is in the heat of battle that we discover a combatant’s true character; it is here we learn about discipline, teamwork, sacrifice, and courage.

Ambivalence marks many war movies. Even the most fiercely anti-war film invariably makes the excitement, bravery, heroism, male bonding, and sacrifice of wartime look appealing. Yet even the most unapologetically bellicose films raise questions about loss and the human cost and waste of war.

War movies take radically different forms. There are battle epics, military comedies, propaganda films, action movies with military motifs, love stories in uniform, and even military musicals. Certain themes run through war films. One recurrent theme involves the psychological impact of war. Some movies suggest that it is in war that a boy will prove himself a man, while others suggest that war’s invariably inflict a heavy psychic toll on soldiers. Another theme involves the military mindset. Many antiwar pictures suggest that the military hierarchy is motivated only by personal ambition and that officers are largely indifferent to the death of their troops.

World War I inspired many of the greatest movies ever made—especially great anti-war movies. These range from Abel Glance’s J’accuse (1919) and Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1930) to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981). J’accuse tells the story of a poet who returns shellshocked from the trenches to a village of grieving widows.

It was during World War I that government first recognized the role that film could serve in swaying public opinion. During the first world war, the movie industry did everything it could to associate itself with patriotism. It made rabidly prowar films like The Beast of Berlin. Theaters were festooned with flags and patriotic banners. Enlistment stations were set up in theater lobbies. Organists and pianists played patriotic music, and, during reel changes, “four-minute men” gave pep talks to stimulate support for the war.

A few postwar films, like Wings (1927), which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture, treated World War I as an adventure, focusing on the glamorous exploits of pilots. But the conflict also inspired many of the most powerful anti-war pictures ever made, beginning with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and The Big Parade (1925). The film adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), in particular, captured the public’s sense that the wartime sacrifices had been meaninglessness and futile. This film follows a group of German volunteers from school to the battlefield, and traces the disintegration of their romantic ideas of war, gallantry, and fatherland in the squalor of the trenches. Other films like The Dawn Patrol, No Greater Glory, and Broken Lullabye showed war's carnage and made emotional pleas for brotherhood..

World War II compelled Hollywood to totally revise the meaning of World War I. The notion that the war had been meaningless had to be erased. As American involvement in World War II approached, Sergeant York (1941) followed a backwoods Tennessee pacifist from his belief that war violates the Bible’s teachings to his acceptance of the necessity of warfare as necessary to defend freedom. He then proceeds to kill more than 20 German soldiers and force 132 others to surrender.

Many directors who had made passionately antiwar films during the 1930s began to make pro-war movies. Frank Borzage, who had directed the 1934 pacifist film No Great Glory celebrated the Navy Hellcats in his 1940 picture Flight Command. Howard Hawks, who had made Dawn Patrol (1934) made Air Force (1943), which describes a Flying Fortress crew in action at Wake Island, the Philippines, and the Battle of the Coral Sea. And Lewis Milestone, who directed All Quiet on the Western Front, went on to make such World War II films as Purple Heart (1944), the story of the crew of a downed American bomber, and A Walk in the Sun (1945),about wartime infantrymen.

Recommended Film

Paths of Glory

Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war classic of soldiers accused of cowardice takes its title from Thomas Gray’s eighteenth-century poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, which contains the line: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Based on an incident during the Battle of Verdun in 1916, in which as many as 100,000 French soldiers lost their lives striving to retake Fort Douaumont from the Germans, the film examines gulf between the military commanders who plot strategy and the weary soldiers in the trenches.

Copyright Digital History 2021