15 WWI Movies You Should Watch

It’s an interesting thing that while there is a huge amount of American movies on WWII, the really outstanding WWI movies mostly come from other countries. It’s no coincidence but I’m not going to elaborate on the reasons, it may suffice to say, that the leading film making countries for WWI are Australia, France and the UK. There are many movies but those below are the ones I consider to be must-sees if you want to delve into the topic. I have reviewed all of the below mentioned movies with one exception. You can find the links at the end of each entry.

While I usually arrange these lists chronologically I did split them into countries of origin in this case.

Australia

Gallipoli (1981). One of the classic WWI movies. A Peter Weir film starring the young Mel Gibbson. The focus is on two friends who enlist more in a spirit of adventure than patriotism. They will take part in one of WWI’s most futile battles, at Gallipoli, in Turkey. The end of the movie is harrowing and gives a good impression of the absurdity of the war.

The Lighthorsemen (1987) This is one of the very rare cavalry combat movies. It has a nice “band of brothers” feel. Highly watchable. The Lighthorsemen were fighting in Africa and their achievement is legendary. Something the Australians are still proud of. Review

Beneath Hill 60 (2010).  Another movie which shows an outstanding and truly amazing Australian victory. The movie is set in the trenches and beneath them and shows how much the miners contributed to the war. Review

France

La Grande Illusion – Grand Illusion (1937) This is a classic. One of Jean Renoir’s great movies starring the unforgettable Jean Gabin. It has a very surreal touch which should emphasize the absurdity of war. It’s a prisoner of war movie. Review

La vie et rien d’autre – Life and Nothing But (1989). Beautiful movie focussing on the time after the war. So many men were lost on the battle fields, so many dead soldiers not identified. One woman is looking for her husband in this bleak but beautiful Tavernier movie. Review

La Chambre des officiers – The Officer’s Ward (2001). WWI is notorious for the facial wounds. No other war has scarred men like this one (due to the specific explosives). This is a movie which focuses on these wounds. Of all the war movies I have seen (many), this was one of the best but also one of the hardest to watch. I had nightmares. Review

UK

The Blue Max (1966). An air combat movie with a German POV. Themes are class and the arrogance and sporting mind of the combat pilots. Most pilots in WWI were aristocrats, not so Lt Stachel. Review

Aces High (1976). An air combat movie, not one of the best but not bad either. Less character driven than the last one. Review

Regeneration – Behind the Lines (1997). Based on Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy it looks into shell shock, the war experience of some famous poets and the birth of a medical discipline, namely psychiatry. Review

All the King’s Men (1999). The movie tells the story of a company who seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth. As if they had been swallowed. It illustrates how badly prepared some of the troops were, especially at the beginning of the war. The English had a hard time in some terrain, notably Africa. The story begins like a ghost story but you will find out what happened to the company. It’s all too real. Review

My Boy Jack (2007). The movie tells the true story of Rudyard Kipling’s son Jack. The story is exemplary. Misguided patriotism makes Kipling push his only son who is very illfitted and as visually impiared as a mole to join. At first I had a problem with Daniel Radcliffe as Jack but other than that this is an excellent and very emotional movie. And so heartbreaking. Tissues might be needed. Review

US

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). One of the first war movies ever. Quite ground breaking. Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s eponymous novel. It has one of the best scenes I’ve seen in a war movie. Review

Paths of Glory (1957). Kubricks’ classic look at the short comings of French high command and the horror of trench warfare. Review

Germany/France/UK

Joyeux Noël – Merry Christmas (2005). This is one of my personal favourites for more than one reason. It shows an incredible true story, the story of the little peace during the great war. During the first Christmas the troops stopped fighting and got together to play football in no mans’ land. The actors are all great and chosen from their respective countries. Review

The Red Baron (2008). This is one of those guilty pleasure movies. It was criticized in Germany because it didn’t emphasize the “hunting and sport” spirit that drove the aristocratic pilots like von Richthofen, called the Red Baron, to join up. He is shown like a hero. The negative side is not touched. Funny enough this is only true for the German version, the English got it better. Review

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66 thoughts on “15 WWI Movies You Should Watch

  1. the war movie buff says:

    Here is my ranking of the one’s I’ve seen:
    1 – All Quiet
    2 – Paths of Glory
    3 – Regeneration
    4 – Gallipoli
    5 – Joyeux Noel
    6 – Blue Max
    7 – Red Baron
    8 – My Boy Jack
    9 – Aces High

    I love this post. I just hope the ones I haven’t seen are on Netflix (I already know Lighthorsemen is not. Boo!)

    I would add Lost Battalion. Dawn Patrol, The Big Parade, and Sergeant York. Sorry, all American movies.

    • Alexander S. says:

      How it might be in topic of WWI without Russian movies? Where is Eastern front?

      At least, “Moonzund” and “Fall of Empire”? etc

      • Thanks for recommending them. I should also add a few of the older German movies, you are certainly right. I’ll have to watch those you mention, I’m must honetsly say, I haven’t seen them. I know there are a lot of really great Russian WWII movies but I wasn’t aware of WWI.

      • Alexander S. says:

        “Moonzund” is a great film, very psychological, with a tense plot and a lot of historical nuances. I highly recommend it.

        info:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moonzund_(film)

        http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093566/

      • Thanks a lot Alexander. I couldn’t find it. Must have written it wrong.

      • nem baj says:

        I finally watched yesterday Okraïna (aka Outskirts) by Boris Barnet (1933). It’s a masterpiece!

        Since Barnet is one of my favorite Russian directors I may be biased, but it should make a lot of people’s WWI top list. Naturally the historical context is very peculiar, but even if the pacifist stance is more anti-imperialist war than anti-war (after all, the Red Army fought for five more years against the Whites after the armistice with Germany), there are moments of pure cinematic genius who leave Milestone, Vidor and Pabst behind. And it’s quite funny at times, too – for those who fear the solemnity of Eisenstein & even Pudovkin.

      • Now that sounds very interesting. It’s not exactly well known, or is it?
        Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
        I’ll see if I can find it. I don’t get along with Eisenstein at all.

      • nem baj says:

        Barnet may be a little forgotten now, but he’s in good place in every Russian film encyclopedia, and used to be a darling of French savant film critics between the 50s and 80s. That said, had I not recently re-read a couple history books on WWI and on the October Revolution, I might not have enjoyed this one as much as I did. Two DVDs are available with english subs. Otherwise it’s Youtube and a little DIY for the subtitles.

        As for the movie being absent from classic ‘war film encyclopedias’ and top XXs, most of them are so Hollywood-biased… they only include the same handful of continental European films to show they’re not sectarian.

        PS: this study seems interesting. The author writes regularly here.

      • Thanks for the links, I’ll have a look later.
        I think especially Russian cinema is not included as much as it should.
        I’ll bear in mind that barnet’s movie might need some background info to enhan ce the viewing.

    • I didn’t really rank them, I’ll think about my ranking. I liked a few equally well. It depends on the mood, I suppose but i think I have a preference for the Australian movies. Followed by All Quiet, Paths of Glory and Joyeux Noël but not in that order. I hope you can find those you have not seen.

  2. Alexander S. says:

    Here is some review about “Moonzund” – from a fan site of actor Oleg Menshikov, who played the protagonist,
    in English:

    http://www.menshikov.ru/eng/cinema/mz/mz.html

  3. the war movie buff says:

    I am so proud of you for leaving Col. Blimp off your list. You finally have wised up and realized what a peice of crap it is. Congratulations!

    Where is The African Queen?

    • I still find it great but not in a post I would consider as a list with essential recommendations. I didn’t think The African Queen was a “proper” war movie. But I do like it.
      I couldn’t find Alexander’s recommendations. It’s too bad. They look good.

      • Alexander S. says:

        As for “Moonzund”, I have found the movie on YouTube only in Russian – without Eng subs, seems. It’s not suitable way, I know. However:

        (plus, this remastered copy is more dark than I’d wish)

      • Thanks Alexander. You won’t believe it but I have started to take courses in Russian. Only I’m not past Здравствуйте.

  4. the war movie buff says:

    I agree with Amazon Queen is not a war movie, but it is on the Greatest 100 list.

  5. Guy Savage says:

    Paths of Glory is excellent and I read somewhere that Kirk Douglas was the proudest of that film out of all the ones he made.

  6. Novroz says:

    Reading this post makes me realize that I have missed so many war movies out there. I haven’t seen any movies in your list. It also awed me how you manage to see them all…I guess you really love war movies.

    • I do like them but they are very diverese. This is one of my favourite lists. It has 2 of my Top 10. Gallipoli and Merry Christmas. Especially Merry Christmas is worth seeing. I think you would like it.

      • Novroz says:

        I have to admit that the two movies you mentioned have good synopsis.
        I will keep them in mind. I am still trying to download Napoli (sorry for the piracy thing but there is no other way)…my internet connection is currently being a pain in the arse…can’t download anything.

      • I think you would like them.

  7. Graham Gales says:

    Some others to consider

    “Shout at the Devil”
    “Nurse Edith Cavell”
    “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (no, it’s not ‘crap’, as remarked by another poster)
    “Johnny Got his Gun” – bleak, anti-war film
    “A Very Long Engagement”
    “The Lost Patrol”
    “The Fountain”

    There are also a couple of versions of
    “A Farewell to Arms”
    though these may be regarded ass romance set to the background of war, rather than as war movies.

    • Thanks a lot for the titles. As I chose only 15, i might inlcude them when I’ll do a more comprehensive list (that will be very long though)
      I am a huge Colonel Blimp fan, btw. I watched it more than once, just never got around to reviewing it but I might do so soon.
      I haven’t seen Johnny Got His Gun yet. Thanks for reminding me.
      You were in the spam folder btw (no idea why)

  8. I thought the TV movie ‘The Lost Battalion’ was one of the best recent WWI movies. Good list

  9. nem baj says:

    A few films of the interwar era which I find interesting.

    France
    J’accuse ! (1919) by Abel Gance (FR) – a haunted anti-war poem.
    The Wooden Crosses (1932) by Raymond Bernard – a take on France’s pacifistic state of mind in the 30’s.

    Germany
    Westfront 1918 (1930) by G.-W. Pabst – the German equivalent of ‘All quiet’ (that no studio wanted to produce).
    Stoßtrupp 1917 (1934) by Hans Zöberlein – nazi propaganda, sort of a reply to the former.

    U.S.A.
    Hearts of the World (1918) by D.-W. Griffith – I haven’t seen it yet.
    Lost Battalion (1919) by Burton L. King – immediate post-war propaganda piece, including some of the actual participants.
    What Price Glory (1926) by Raoul Walsh – first ‘hollywoodization’ (via Broadway) of WWI / war as an adventure.
    The Road to Glory (1936) by Howard Hawks – initially a remake of The Wooden Crosses, whose original footage is partly re-used, yet the result is hardly a war movie… but definitely a Hawks & Faulkner film!

    • Thanks, a lot for the links. I knew most of them but haven’t seen them. Wooden Crosses used to be available on YouTube but when I wanted to watch it last week it was gone.
      Someone suggested Westfront 1918 once but I think it’s incredibly long, if that’s the one.

  10. Just a quick correction to your article: In your blurb for the Lighthorsemen you mention they are fighting in Africa. Need to change that to Palestine or the Middle East if you prefer.

    great list though 😉

  11. nem baj says:

    By the way, the last World War I combat veteran passed away this summer. Born in 1901, Claude Choules had joined the Royal Navy at age 14.

  12. nem baj says:

    About Gallipoli, a nice piece in The Guardian about the current ‘Dardanelles frenzy’ in Turkish cinema: http://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2013/may/09/gallipoli-films-turkey-after-hollywood

    I had a hard time watching Çanakkale 1915 till the end. I don’t expect much of Faruk Aksoy’s work (Fetih 1453, though entertaining, was also quite heavy handed) but perhaps Çanakkale: End of the Road will be better. Anyway, it’s good that we have visions from the other side.

    • I would be very interested to watch a Turkish movie on this. Thanks. I haven’t seen any so far.

      • nem baj says:

        End of the Road was released in German theaters last March, so I guess we’ll have a subtitled DVD soon. Otherwise there’s a DVD ofThe Lions of Çanakkale (1964) available on amazon.de, with English subs.

        Another one that seems interesting is British: Tell England (1931) contains an impressive landing scene, fragments of which can be found on YouTube.

      • That’s sounds interesting as well, thanks.

  13. nem baj says:

    I finally watched Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1918) in a shortened version (2 hrs). Though unlike Birth or Intolerance it is devoid of truly ‘cult scenes’, it is still the work of a genius of cinema, a primitive master – and a guilty pleasure today.

    Of course, this is a propagandist melodrama made for recruiting American volunteers; ‘the Hun’ has never been more villainous, and the whole thing borders on the swashbuckler in the end – but it’s also great entertainment. No wonder the film wasn’t appreciated in Europe after the (real) war…

  14. nem baj says:

    Two recent films from the Balkans, both DVDs have English subtitles.

    Josef (Croatia, 2011)
    If you don’t mind the gore (is there an Eastern spaghetti genre?), this low-budget tale of identity switch during war time set in 1915 Galicia is quite watchable – except perhaps for the heavy-handed score. Austrian, Croat, Russian soldiers, plus a gang of pork-eating Circassian mercenary riders, have rarely been shown on screen. The film plays on the alleged mystery surrounding the youth of a certain Josip Bróz, who would later become Marshall Tito – but knowledge of that part of history isn’t necessary to feel the misery of those men’s condition and their thirst for survival.

    Saint George Shoots the Dragon (Serbia, 2009)
    An epic fable about a Serbian village populated by veterans of the two Balkan wars (and their wives) being dragged into WWI. Those who enjoyed the desperate hillbilly machismo of Pretty Village, Pretty Flame will love this one as well. I don’t buy the ideas nor the political contemporary undertones, yet this is again very powerful work by Dragojević, whose lyricism and very dark irony is quite universal, possibly overcoming the martyrdom antics.

    • I’m not too keen on gore and partial to a great score, so I’m not sure Josef would be for me but I’d like to have a look at the other one. Thanks.

      • nem baj says:

        When I wrote ‘gore’ I wasn’t actually referring to blood and the like – but to the fact that the many executions (of deserters and prisoners of war) in Josef seemed particularly blunt to me. Naturally, many people are expected to die in a war movie yet I still react differently according to the way death is shown.

  15. nem baj says:

    Oddly, a restored full version of Ned Med Vaabnene! (‘Down With Weapons!’, Denmark 1915) appears to be available online at the Danish Film Institute website. This is a doomed film, a pacifistic superproduction which could only be released in then neutral Denmark… after WW1 had actually started.

    The credits are quite impressive: adapted by Carl Theodor Dreyer from Bertha von Suttner’s (the first woman to receive a Nobel Peace prize) 1899 novel, filmed by Holger-Madsen… I plan to watch it soon. Just hope the titles – in danish, obviously – aren’t too important. 🙂

    • Sounds as if it’s worth investigating.
      You’re really gearing up for this anniversary, arent’t you? Will you watch all the WWI movies? Can I hope for a list – from best to worst sort of?

      • nem baj says:

        As you noticed, at the moment I’m focusing on pre-1941 and Eastern front WW1 movies. Wikipedia EN has now a rather comprehensive list of the first category, though not complete… I can try rating this listing.

        The other category is much more complicated to grasp. 🙂

    • nem baj says:

      Well, I watched it. It has many qualities in the visual department: the photography is beautiful (lighting, shades, depth of field), the obvious talent in frame composition and editing is in the service of a constant effort to isolate the narration within the frame. This almost eliminates the two-dimensional ‘fixed stage’ effect, hence freeing the actors from a lot of the emphatic body language associated with it. Also, many natural settings, outdoor and indoor, are used. This is a fine example of the extraordinary quality of Nordic cinema at the time.

      On the other hand, the discourse seems an oddity now. This is strictly a story of upper-class people suffering from continuous wars. Officers die, rich wives are widowed, some die of sorrow or diseases brought back from the front, while elders have heart attacks – until even the old – retired – General/patriarch in his deathbed claims ‘Down with weapons!”. This explicit critic of the militarism of the upper class only considers the consequences it has… on the upper class itself.

      The film clearly sticks to its source material, which relates to aristocracy during middle-19th century european conflicts. It is obvious in its excluding the middle and lower classes, which would not only die in millions during WW1, but had been extremely active in pacifism since the beginning of the 20th century through for instance socialist movements. It also shows in the way war is filmed: like a 19th century conflict, with a lot of maneuver warfare, close-combat, no modern communications… as if the consequence of the evolution of artillery and rifle firing ranges, though they had been well observed by filmmakers during the Second Boer War, didn’t matter.

      In a nutshell, the pacifism of Ned Med Vaabnene was already outdated in 1914. That said, notwithstanding the historical interest of this outmoded character by itself, should the Danish Film Institute release it someday with a proper musical score (the online version has none) its cinematographic qualities may provide the audience with a well rewarding experience.

      • This doesn’t sound bad at all.
        I just had an idea. Maybe it would be interesting to have twelve watchalongs next year and focus every month on a movie made during another decade. Not sure if we can find that but if so it might be interesting to see how a WWI movie made in the 20s would compare to one 1970 – . . . and today. I’ll have to think about it and really pick the best of each decade. Could be difficult. If you have ideas, the are welcome.

      • nem baj says:

        Watchalongs seem a very good idea for the centenary. The results may be odd though, considering the perceptions of the war.vary widely through both time and space.

        For instance, I can imagine re-watching in a row a selection of ‘pacifist’ movies of the early 1930s (Westfront 1918 / All Quiet…/Wooden Crosses / Okraïna…), or another selection on the same theme from the period 1955-65 (La Grande Guerra / Paths of Glory / King and Country…), but mixing the two eras would be awkward as, for instance, representing mutinies or fraternizations wasn’t possible at all in the 1930s… except in the Soviet Union.

      • It would be interesting to watch them chronologically and compare at the end of the year. It will alos be interesting as there are far less US productions and the whle project would allow to raise awareness for the cinema of other countries..

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