If one is a firearms enthusiast, it’s almost axiomatic that he or she is also a war movie buff. There’s something in our psyche that draws us to tales of valor, derring-do and sacrifice, not to mention being able to look at a lot of interesting hardware and big explosions.
Without question, more movies have been made about World War II than any other, but before World War II there was World War I, and some of the best — if not the best — war films ever made were inspired by that conflict. Most movies about the Great War incorporate strong anti-war messages, and to be fair, I can think of few other conflicts (except perhaps the Crimean War or the Thirty Years War) in which this attitude is more appropriate. You’ll see this thread running through almost every one of my picks — it’s just the way it is. With the exception of movies made as propaganda during WWI and WWII, a good hunk of the First World War films were turned out in the 1920s and ’30s, when the nations of the world were licking their wounds and realizing what a grim, useless affair the whole mess really had been. World War I also proved to be an excellent analogy for Vietnam, so a number of First World War movies were also produced during that period. Anyway, without further ado, here are my particular favorites (and some runners-up) in chronological order.
One of the most realistic of the early WWI films, star John Gilbert was superb in the leading role. Director King Vidor’s recreation of Belleau Wood is as powerful as any battle sequence ever filmed. It is gritty, realistic and has one of the most poignant endings of any war film, ever.
The first film to win an Oscar for best Picture, while essentially a love story, the aerial battle scenes set new standards for the period and paved the way for other WWI aviation movies. Unlike Hell’s Angels, some of the planes were not particularly correct, but director William Wellman, who was a pilot in the Lafayette Escadrille in WWI, directed the action sequences with an expert’s eye. Those of you who can read lips can see star Richard Arlen mouthing some naughty words during one dogfight -- and Clara Bow is just as cute as a bug.
Not only the best WWI film ever made, but a war movie to judge all others by. Based on the anti-war novel by Erich Maria Remarque, the film is interesting; though made in the U.S., it presents the German point-of-view. Equipment and guns are as authentic as they can possibly be, and performances, period detail and battle scenes are top-notch. The ending is not the one in the book, but it’s one of the most powerful ever put on film.
Notable as being produced and directed by Howard Hughes, while the storyline is not particularly striking, the aerial sequences, particularly the downing of a German zeppelin are simply superb -- and the planes are much more authentic than those in Wings. It is one of the first films in which foreigners (in this case Germans) speak in their own language, which is translated into English via intertitles.
Considered by many critics to be one of the greatest movies ever made, it certainly is one of the greatest war films. Most of the action takes place in a German prisoner-of-war camp commanded by aristocrat Eric von Stroheim. Beautifully directed by Jean Renoir, it is as much a statement on the class system as on the military. Once seen, never forgotten.
Essentially a WWII propaganda film, Sergeant York is a rousing piece of entertainment featuring an Oscar-winning performance by star Gary Cooper. WWI Medal of Honor recipient Alvin York went to Hollywood and served as technical advisor on the film. In talking to his sons a few years back, they told me that “Daddy” was pleased with the results. Can’t get a much better testimonial than that.
One of the most unforgettable movies ever made. Directed by Stanley Kubrik and produced by star Kirk Douglas, this faithful rendition of Humphrey Cobb’s novel of the same name, while sometimes hard to watch, is compelling and realistic. Memorable performances by all involved, particularly Adolphe Menjou, Timothy Carey and George Macready. Don’t miss this one!
While director David Lean plays loose with some of the facts, for the most part the spirit of one of the most amazing men of the 20th century, T.E. Lawrence, comes through. A terrific performances by all involved -- particularly Peter O’Toole as Lawrence -- top-notch action, amazing photography and a great script make this as entertaining a war film as you’re likely to see. The battle scenes are remarkable, though I do wince every time I see the 1919 Brownings defending Aqaba.
Based on a British musical stage revue, first-time director Richard Attenborough expands the piece into a full-fledged epic. Featuring virtually every big-name British actor of the time, the film effectively switches from the surreal to the real, and is ultimately as authentic as any WWI film ever made. Even the opening titles, showing original period arms and equipment are interesting. Great songs, too.
I suppose if I was pressed to pick my favorite out of this top 10 list, it would probably be Gallipoli. One of the few films about the Dardanelles Campaign, it is filmed with an unsurpassed attention to detail, great acting, imaginative photography and a scope and grandeur that belies the fact the film was made on a relatively tight budget.
Wonderful flying sequences and story, hampered by a rather tepid performance by star Richard Barthelmess.
A look at the French WWI mindset. Extremely well done though unfortunately not available on DVD.
Simply the grimmest of all the grim WWI movies—and that’s saying something! Powerful, and not for all tastes.
My thanks to National Firearms Museum Chief Curator Phil Schreier, for his help in putting this list together.