With over one hundred years separating World War I and the present day, cinema has consistently had to find new ways of depicting it for modern audiences who, unlike moviegoers in the first half of the 20th century, have no personal connection to it. Early films about World War I are defined by two elements. One is their political messaging, whether anti-war or, as we see in a film like Sergeant York (1941), thinly veiled propaganda. The other is the deep sense of trauma that is a constant reminder of the horrors of a war that left tremendous psychological and physical scars, especially in European films from countries for whom World War I has become an irremovable part of their national psyche.
But in films from the 1960s onward, the nihilism and sense of anguish has been tempered by emotional distance from the events, and instead presents a vaguely anti-war sentiment that takes on a variety of forms depending on when and where the film was made.
During the 1960s and 1970s, we see films take on the anti-war narrative with different approaches. But notably, Hollywood was not a major player in developing these stories. This can be attributed to the limited role the United States played in the war. It was only officially involved for the last year of it, and since the combat was not taking place on American shores, it didn’t have the opportunity to embed itself deeply into U.S. cultural consciousness as it did in France, Germany, and the rest of Europe. But it’s also important to remember the impact of the Vietnam War on the U.S. film industry during this period. Because World War I is commonly viewed as a conflict where young men were thrown into a metaphorical meat grinder by incompetent and out-of-touch leaders for nebulous reasons, the U.S. was perhaps not overeager to have this war dramatized by Hollywood while in the midst of the already deeply unpopular Vietnam War.
It’s only as that conflict winds down in the early 1970s and American sentiment becomes increasingly cynical that a few World War I films trickle through. Chief among them is Johnny Got His Gun (1971), a nightmarish story of a soldier who loses his arms, legs, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth in battle. He is kept alive so that doctors can learn from his unique injuries, believing that his brain has been damaged to the point that he lacks awareness and can no longer feel pain. But Johnny is conscious throughout, unable to communicate, hazily drifting between the past and present as he yearns for an escape from his horrific prison. Written and directed by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, it’s a bizarre and surreal film, but one that leaves no doubt as to its stance on warfare in general and the waning Vietnam War in particular.
But with a few exceptions, we see that the World War I films coming out during this time period largely come from Europe. These movies, especially the ones released in the early 1960s, represent the end of an era in that they are made by directors and writers who had directly experienced the war or its immediate aftermath. King and Country, a 1964 film from the U.K., tackles the controversial subject of desertion as a young man (Tom Courtenay) faces court-martial and potential execution for the crime of leaving his post on the front. What duty does one owe to their nation in times of war, and does that responsibility persist in the face of unfathomable violence, inhumane living conditions, and a rapidly deteriorating mental state? King and Country addresses the type of psychological trauma that would lead an otherwise logical and emotionally stable person to desert, knowing that the punishment for desertion is death. The film uses the battalion’s bizarre behavior in hunting and torturing rats to illustrate how their wartime version of civilization has broken down. But the military officials ignore the crux of the problem, and instead choose to maintain law and order by draconian measures.
Just two years later, the French WWI comedy King of Hearts takes an entirely different path to express anti-war sentiments. With German surrender imminent, Scottish forces in France have received word that German troops plan to blow up a nearby village, and send in a bemused ornithologist to defuse the bombs. Unbeknownst to them, the French villagers evacuate, and the patients at a nearby psychiatric institution take over the town. The narrative reflects the inherent absurdity of war, especially this war, where bureaucracy and incompetence played an outsized role in overall loss of life. It also puts a desire for escapism on display, as each of the characters play-acts a role in the village and our hero Charles Plumpick seems to relish being anointed “King of Hearts,” if only temporarily. Director Richard Attenborough took this particular brand of satire a step further in 1969, staging a WWI movie musical, Oh! What a Lovely War. Presenting a broadly adapted timeline of the war, it’s an over-the-top but frequently poignant spectacle.
Although films about World War I continued to be made on a semi-regular basis throughout the 1980s and 1990s (Gallipoli is an excellent example, detailing the horrific impact the ill-fated Allied offensive had on Australian soldiers stationed in Turkey), it isn’t until the 2000s that they become a regular fixture both in Hollywood and international cinema. But for the first time since the 1940s, when WWI was mined for its propaganda potential, there’s a hopeful tone to many of the films released. Joyeux Noel (2005) details the events of the Christmas Truce of 1914, an extraordinary ceasefire in which German, French, and Scottish troops laid down their weapons and openly fraternized with one another on Christmas. It’s devastating, because we know that despite this momentary reprieve the war will not be over for these men for four long years, but it’s also difficult to think of a WWI film that is more openly optimistic about the nature of humanity.
A Very Long Engagement (2004) stars Audrey Tautou as a young Frenchwoman desperately seeking her missing fiancé, who is said to have been executed for cowardice but whom she believes is still alive. Similar in some ways to King and Country, it explores in detail the lives and circumstances of five men who were sentenced to death after purposefully injuring themselves in the hopes of being sent home. But above all, it emphasizes the triumphant nature of the human spirit, and if it doesn’t have a fairy tale ending, it still concludes on a cautiously hopeful note. Her mission to find her lost fiancé is a search for meaning in a world that has suddenly become senseless, and she succeeds where other more cynical WWI films would have her fail.
See You Up There (2017) is far less optimistic than either of the previous films, revolving around a young artist who, after having the lower half of his face blown off in the last days of the war, enlists a fellow soldier in a scam to sell designs for war memorials that they have no intention of actually building. It’s bizarre, maudlin, and displays a great deal of anxiety about the role of men returning to French society from the war. But it also has something to say about living and dying on one’s own terms, and although it’s far from happy, it is in many ways cathartic.
The one recent film that adheres most closely to the traditional representation of war as hell is Journey’s End (2017). As a young man is sent to the front, he joins the unit of a school classmate, only to discover that his friend has been dramatically changed by the war. The psychological impact of the war is depicted as something that you never truly recover from: You return home either broken or dead. There’s a repeated motif of time ticking down: Stanhope counts down with his gun to Hibbert’s head, a conversation between Osbourne and Raleigh is repeatedly interrupted by a reminder of how many minutes they have left before a raid. The entire framing device of the film is the six days each soldier must spend at the front each month. All of the characters are counting down to something, as though there is a conclusion in sight. But in reality, they’re trapped in a cycle. Because after those six days end, they’ll get a brief reprieve, and will be sent back to the front next month, over and over again until they die or the war ends. This bleak depiction of the war makes perfect sense, as Journey’s End is the cinematic version of a 1928 play written by an army officer about his own experiences. Thus, the most pessimistic view of the war we get in the 21st century is an echo from the past.
As World War I fades out of living memory, cinema will be increasingly responsible for keeping its lessons alive. A consensus seems to have been reached in depicting World War I as a needlessly cruel and ultimately meaningless exercise in sending men to their deaths with no clear objective. Still, films will continue to find new ways of depicting this tragic war, whether through satire, drama, broad comedy, or romance. With 1917 poised to garner attention for its epic, unrelenting battle sequences, it’s clearer than ever that each new generation will continue to come back to this war in particular as a lens through which to view the impact and morality of all warfare.