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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Regeneration aka Behind the Lines (1997) or Psychiatry, Poetry and Shell Shock during WWI

Based on British novelist Pat Barker´s incredible book Regeneration, the first book in her Regeneration trilogy, this movie has an awful lot to offer. Unfortunately like some other brilliant war movies (e.g. When Trumpets Fade) it never got its due appreciation by the public. This is a bit sad since everybody included in this film, especially the actors, did a brilliant job. Jonathan Pryce´s way of playing the eminent Dr. Rivers in such an understated manner impressed me a lot.

Set in WWI England and the French trenches Regeneration looks into so much more than  just into it´s central theme shell shock. Class and duty, courage and a sense of utter futility coming from the colossal losses of lives are some of many themes.

Another interesting aspect is that Regeneration also looks at the birth of a medical discipline namely psychiatry in its struggle to become a well-respected way to cure people. During the times depicted in the movie however its sole purpose was to restore the ill young men and make them fit to be sent back to the trenches.

A further central theme is the poetry of young poets such as Siegfrid Sassoon and  Wilfred Owen. The people we encounter at the heart of this movie are mostly intellectuals.

The story circles around the poet Sassoon (James Wilby) who is considered to be a war hero. He has written a letter of protest against this war that is still going on despite all better understanding. To avoid court-martial he is sent to the asylum to be treated for shell shock. He does have recurring nightmares but apart from that he seems unharmed.

As mentioned before we also find a thematization of the topic of class. The officers were mostly from the leading upper class. One patient however made it to a higher rank without the usually required background. One more  look from another angle at this complex mess of a war.

There are many other patients in the asylum that have been marked more deeply than Sassoon. Some stammer, some lost their speech altogether, others suffer from hallucinations, delusions or other forms of psychotic reactions. One of them, Billy Prior (Johnny Lee Miller), is a very interesting character, so is Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce), the young poet.

Dr. Rivers (Jonathan Pryce) who is also a leading anthropologist is a very gentle psychiatrist (We learn more about him in the novels. The sequels to Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road elaborate these aspects. Being an anthropologist myself I would have liked to see sequels of those movies. As an avid reader it is rare I am truly impressed by books but I was when reading this trilogy. Unbelievably good.). He tries to heal by listening to his patients and help them regain their memory of often unspeakable horrors. Empathy and compassion are Rivers´ trademarks. He cares deeply for his patients and it is tragic when he  ultimately realises that all he does is cure them to send them off to face a certain death.

During the movie we are also shown one other doctor´s techniques at curing mutism originating in shell shock. They are revolting to say the least.

What made this movie so remarkable  is the way it chose to show the scenes in the trenches. Even tough it is a color movie, the use  of color during the trench scenes is attenuated, creating almost black and white sequences. This is convincingly artful. The just middle between the black and white of All Quiet on the Western Front and the corny choice of color in Passchendaele.

Regeneration is one of the best war movies on WWI. It excells in showing the absurdity of war, friendship among men, the birth of a discipline, the power of poetry to convey even the most horrible adequately. Yes, it is a rich movie. Would I want to do it justice, this already long post would be at least three times  longer. Putting  my review in two words: Watch it!

Should you be interested in more background information you should read a first hand account of one the people shown in the movie.  Why not read Robert Graves´ (played by Dougray Scott) autobiography Goodbye to All That?  Graves was Sassoon´s closest friend and responsible for his escaping court-martial. Of course Paul Fussell´s book  The Great War and Modern Memory does also take a closer look at the above mentioned poets. This is dense however not less recommended reading.

Regeneration at amazon.com, amazon.co.uk ,amazon.de