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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The Red Baron aka Der rote Baron (2008) The Guilty Pleasure of an Enjoyable Air Combat Movie

The Red Baron a German/UK production with an international cast (two famous German actors, Matthias Schweighöfer (Schiller, Valkyrie) and Til Schweiger (King Arthur), and two British ones Lena Headey (300) and Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love, Enemy at the Gates) is a real guilty pleasure. I am aware that it took a lot of liberties with the historical facts. Especially in Germany it was highly criticized for being too glorifying. The Red Baron exists in two versions, an English and a German one, that are quite different. In the English version this sporting hunter mentality of the Baron is much more accentuated while it is toned done in the German version. This might explain why the reception in the UK was far better. This and the German´s obsession with historical accuracy when it comes to their own history. And, last but not least, it is more appealing to hear the German actors speak English than German. It takes the edge out of their voices.

I am neither British nor German and just enjoyed this movie a great deal. A lot of gripping air combat scenes, an appealing cast, stunning cinematography and a great story.

The movie depicts Baron von Richthofen as a tragic hero. And a very noble man. Maybe that is not what he was… I don’t know. He was certainly not as good-looking as the actor Matthias Schweighöfer.

We see Baron von Richhofen´s early fascination with planes and flying. He is a rich aristocrat and once war breaks out it is only natural he should join the German airforce. To him the war is at first only a game, a sport. May the better one win. He is also capable of admiring others´, even British pilots´, exploits.

It is only after quite a long time, and through the beautiful nurse Käte (Lena Headey), he falls in love with, that he realises that the war in the air and the war in the trenches fought by the common man are two completely different things.

He also  realises that he is mainly used for propaganda purposes. He is the most succesful German fighter pilot and a national hero. Germany facing defeat needs someone like him to look up to. His superiors want him for propaganda only; he should not fly anymore as this is much too dangerous.

But The Red Baron loves nothing more than flying. And he does not want to be used.

Defying everything he flys again…

If your historical conscience will allow it, this movie is just something to enjoy. I truly like it and watched it more than once. We dont have many good air combat movies and even less that depict WWI.

My Favourite Air Combat/Aviation Movies

I generally enjoy air combat movies. Like sniper and bomb squat movies. They are among my guilty pleasure war movies. Can´t help it. That is why there are some air combat movies in my little list that  experts would never allow in theirs. But as I just said, I can´t help it and I also like an occasional bit of pure entertainment. Here are my six favourites:

6. The Blue Max (1966): WWI. Centered on a German fighter pilot who strives for the Blue Max, the highest possible decoration for a German fighter pilot. As he is not an aristocrat like the “normal” fighter pilots he is not accepted by his comrades. (see review)

5. Memphis Belle (1990): WWII. Yes, yes, it is a bit corny and glorifying. So what? I enjoyed it. Story of a tight-knit group of pilots. Friendship, camaraderie and courage.

4. Battle of Britain (1969): WWII. A hymn to British heroism. The use of original languages makes it very authentic. Great and realistic aviation scenes. (Here is my review)

3. The Red Baron (2008): WWI. The story of the Red Baron. German movie. Gorgeous cinematography. Maybe he is shown as too much of a hero. I think we see how he becomes aware of how different the battle in the trenches is from the one high up in the air.

2. The Dam Busters (1955): WWII. I love this one. So exciting. The true story of British pilots on a secret mission to attack German dams. The first part is dedicated to the inventor of the bombs.

1. Dark Blue World aka Tmavomodry svet(2001) : WWII. I consider this to be  the most beautiful air combat movie. It´s a Czech movie and should be much more known. Great story. Czech pilots fly for the RAF. Wonderful pictures. Really moving from the idyllic beginning to the tragic end.

I have seen many more but find them a tad too corny to be included here ( Top Gun, Flight of the Intruder, Pearl Harbor, Flyboys…to name but a few) and there are a lot I have not seen yet.

Which are your favourites? And which are the ones you think I have to watch absolutely?