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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Beneath Hill 60 (2010) Australian Miners Fighting in The Tunnels of WWI

I am really glad to be able to dedicate this year’s last review to a movie that came out in 2010. I am also glad that the Australian movie Beneath Hill 60 was one of the biggest surprises of this year. After having watched a few more recent war movies like Everyman’s War and Passchendaele my hopes were not too high. I was wrong. This is a thoroughly good movie in which everything is right. The main story, the accuracy, the flashbacks, the actors, the score, the pictures, all together make a great combination. Last but not least the movie is based on a true story that is maybe not universally known but truly amazing. In 1916 Australian miners were digging tunnels beneath the trenches. The worst of those tunnel systems was located beneath Hill 60, in Belgium. The aim was to blow up the whole hill and the trenches around it. The outcome was the biggest explosion ever. It could be heard as far as London and Dublin.

At the beginning of the movie the men around Captain Oliver Woodward are digging in the tunnels beneath the trenches in France. Woodward is a newbie and as  such has to prove himself first. Unfortunately he makes a mistake when he doesn’t realize that the sound one of the miners hears isn’t his own heart but digging sounds of the Germans. The movie is full of suspenseful moments when the digging miners have to stop and listen, if there are Germans close by. Whoever gets a chance will blow up parts of the tunnel system and the fight will rage underground. As claustrophobic as it is inside of the earth, it is still more secure than above. Every time the men get out of the tunnels, they see the madness of the war in the trenches, the constant shelling, the mud, the never-ending rain. The young miners can hardly handle to be outside; they are scared to death.

After his initial misjudgment Woodward soon proves to be more than worthy and he and his team achieve one difficult mission after the other, below and above ground. The story in the tunnels is interspersed with flashbacks. We see Woodward in Australia. He is an engineer with a mining company, freshly returned from Papua New Guinea. There is of course a love story but it is far from schmaltzy and just emphasizes Woodward’s character. He is gentle, intelligent, very able and has a great sense of humour. Newer war movies often operate with such flashbacks and mostly they are not successful. The flashbacks disrupt the movie and add a sugar-coating that is hard to swallow. This is not the case here. It’s a great diversion from the rest of the movie that shows mostly very dark scenes in the tunnels. Some of the tunnels are constantly under the threat to be flooded and water is dripping endlessly. A good sound system does come in handy. The sound effects are absolutely brilliant. Honestly, you will check your cupboards, to make sure, they didn’t start leaking.

The camaraderie between these fine men is depicted in a nice way, and every loss is felt by the spectator as well.

As far as setting goes, this is one of the most extreme. The men are in these tunnel systems almost day and night. Anything more claustrophobic is hard to imagine.

I would really urge you to watch this film. It is certainly the best that came out this year, and maybe one of the best of the decade. Australian filmmaking proves once more what it is capable of. The film director knew how to combine a well-told true story with the right amount of emotion. I couldn’t find the tiniest flaw.

I already attached the trailer in my List on Australian War Movies but decided to attach it again.

Australian War Movies: A List

Australia, like so many other countries, has participated in many wars and  it is actually amazing that, even though it hasn’t done all that many war movies, has done some that are considered to be the best of their kind. I am talking about the three movies of the Australian New Wave, Gallipoli, Breaker Morant and The Lighthorsemen. They are very different but all three are outstanding. When just starting this blog I watched and reviewed another, much more recent movie, Kokoda. It is flawed but still a very good movie. I started to wonder if there are any other ones and found a few that I haven’t seen. The latest one on the list is from 2010.

Whoever is familiar with my blog knows that I make lists that I often consider to be a work in progress. It is very possible that this list will change over the months and years.

40’000 Horsemen (1941): WWI

The Rats of Tobruk (1944): WWII; North Africa.

The Odd Angry Shot (1979): Australians in Vietnam.

Breaker Morant (1980): Second Boer War. True story. The court-martial of Breaker Morant. Three officers are accused of a war crime. Outstanding legal drama and a truly tragic story (see my post on Breaker Morant).

ANZACS (1985, TV mini-series): Thanks to Soldier’s Mail I can add this one to my list. WWI, ANZACs are followed from Gallipoli to the battlefields of the Somme, Vimy Ridge etc.

Gallipoli (1981): WWI, ANZACs on the Turkish front. Intense infantry combat. Magnificently displays the senselessness of it all.

The Highest Honor (1982): WWII. True story. British and Australian raid on Japanese occupied Singapore harbour.

Attack Force Z (1982): WWII, Southwest Pacific.

An Indecent Obsession (1985): WWII, Pacific (?)

The Lightorsemen (1987): Australian cavalry. WWI. There aren’t many movies on cavalry combat that are truly outstanding. This is one of them (see my post on The Lighthorsemen).

Blood Oath (1990): WWII, Indonesia. Australian POWs suffers abuse from Japanese captors.

The Last Bullet (1995, TV): WWII, South Pacific

Changi (2001, TV mini-series): WWII, Singapore, Australian POW’s.

My Brother Jack (2001, TV): Outbreak of WWII.

Kokoda (2006): The war in the Pacific. On the Kokoda trail. Pretty gruesome look at an untrained group of volunteers who meet a fierce enemy in the jungle. Focuses on the story of two brothers. Not bad at all (see my post on Kokoda).

Beneath Hill 60 (2010): WWI, Western front. Australian miners fighting in the tunnel systems.

Any important movies that I left out?