Saturday, August 2, 2014

World War I on the Big Screen (and Little)

In July, Turner Classic Movies dedicated Friday nights to World War I movies:

In observance of the centenary of World War I, which lasted from July 1914 to November 1918, TCM devotes its popular Friday Night Spotlight franchise to films about this conflict. . . .

The movies in our Spotlight reflect views of the First World War as seen by filmmakers through the decades. King Vidor's The Big Parade (1925), released only seven years after the war's end, takes an unflinching look at the horrors of war as experienced by an American soldier (John Gilbert). Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) makes a powerful anti-war statement in another story about the travails of a young soldier--this one a German (Lew Ayres). In Howard Hawks' Sergeant York (1941), Gary Cooper plays Alvin York, a former pacifist from Tennessee who became the most decorated soldier of WWI.

Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) tells the powerful story of a French colonel (Kirk Douglas) who goes against his better judgment in following orders to lead his men in a suicide mission against the Germans. David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) follows the colorful real-life exploits of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole), the flamboyant British officer who fought alongside Arabs in their revolt against the Turks during WWI. Peter Weir's Gallipoli (1981) tells of two idealistic young friends (one of them played by Mel Gibson) who join the Australian Army during the war and fight in Turkey in the ill-fated Battle of Gallipoli. 

TCM showed many of the films highlighted in this article from The Wall Street Journal, "Unquiet on the Western Front: A look at World War I in film":

Several outstanding war pictures of the 1920s centered on aerial combat, particularly William Wellman's "Wings" (1927), winner of the first best picture Oscar; "Hell's Angels" (1930), produced by Howard Hughes and featuring Jean Harlow in her first major role; and Howard Hawks's "The Dawn Patrol" (1930), starring Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Like "The Big Parade," "Wings" and "Hell's Angels" incorporated romance into their storylines of airborne heroics. Not so the all-male "Dawn Patrol," which won an Oscar for best story and plumbs issues of personal responsibility in wartime. Though the film celebrates the derring-do of its British fliers, it also takes a nuanced look at the men who, duty-bound, send their comrades to virtually certain death and then must deal with the guilt such actions provoke. The film was remade in 1938 in response to the Anschluss, under Edmund Goulding's direction and starring Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone and David Niven. And what this later version loses through its distance from the Great War, it more than makes up for in slicker production values and a dashing cast.

The near decade between the two versions of "The Dawn Patrol" saw the perfection of a different type of war movie, one unequivocally pacifist in nature. The most internationally celebrated and sophisticated of these is Jean Renoir's classic "La Grande Illusion" (1937), whose title says it all. With its multinational cast and a worldview more universal than any similar picture, its hold on the public imagination remains strong after nearly 80 years, and rightly so. Something similar can be said of Lewis Milestone's "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930), based on Erich Maria Remarque's novel, whose mass appeal—despite its ostensibly narrow focus on German troops—has been even greater than Renoir's film, at least in the U.S. Far less famous, though no less potent, is Raymond Bernard's "Les Croix de Bois" (1932), or "Wooden Crosses." Its cast composed entirely of veterans, the film charts the gradual disillusionment of a French soldier (the excellent Pierre Blanchar) as his regiment thins and the war drags on. In addition to a tense episode in which the enemy Germans lay mines beneath a French trench, the movie features an extraordinary battle sequence that runs an unremitting 15 minutes and stands among the screen's most harrowing.

Read the rest here.

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