The last combat veteran of World War I died the other day–Claude “Chuckles” Choules was 110 when he passed away at an Australian nursing home.
With him passes the only first-hand memory of what it was like to don a helmet and go to war against The Kaiser—and so the responsibility of passing that legacy on falls to historians…and the movies.
Not nearly enough films have been made about what was, for my money, the most pointless, shamefully wasteful war ever waged. It seems like they all but stopped making World War I films by the time World War II was over. With time, the few films that tackled the subject became more and more bleak in their outlook, as the worldwide fantasy that there could ever be a War to End All Wars came crumbling down barely after the mustard gas had cleared.
Most of these great World War I films remain, not coincidentally, among my favorite all-time movies:
Le Grande Illusion: By 1937, Jean Renoir saw the clouds of war re-gathering over Europe. His astonishingly human portrait of Germans, French, and British encountering each other in a prisoner of war camp–and the collapse of the class structure that had plunged the continent into war countless times before–remains one of the greatest films ever made. Erich Von Stroheim’s performance as the rigidly class-conscious German officer will haunt your dreams.
Paths of Glory: The irony in Stanley Kubrick’s epic WWI tale begins with the title. Kirk Douglas, in his greatest performance, plays a French colonel whose men resist what can only be described as a suicide mission. The final scene, of the men in a tavern listening to a young German girl sing–tears filling their eyes as they recall the loss of their own innocence–forever gives the lie to the notion that Kubrick couldn’t touch emotional heartstrings.
All Quiet on the Western Front: The 1979 version starring Richard ”John Boy” Thomas isn’t bad at all–directed by the Oscar-winning Delbert Mann. But the 1930 edition, made just a few years after the guns fell silent, has the immediacy of a documentary. Like virtually all the films here, it’s a heartbeaking story of one Doughboy’s descent from flag-waving war enthusiast to disillusioned shell.
Wings: An even earlier film about the war, this 1928 Oscar winner (the first) avoids the navel-gazing (and even the necessity for a decent plot) in favor of truly astonishing dogfight scenes.
Johnny Got His Gun: The single most sobering anti-war film ever made stars Timothy Bottoms as a Doughboy completely incapacitated on the last futile day of World War I. Get the 1971 version, written and directed by Dalton Trumble, who also wrote the 1939 novel.
Yankee Doodle Dandy: This 1942 bioflick covers the whole life of George M Cohan–unforgettably played and sung and danced by James Cagney–but for once a movie manages to capture the patriotic fever that swept the country at the outset of its involvement in the war. Those World War I monuments that stand in every US home town aren’t for nothing–Americans went into the war truly believing they were embarking on the War to End All Wars. Cohan’s infectious “Over There” had a lot to do with it.