Three World War I Movies

After last week’s post mentioned four movies that present World War I as unmitigated futility, my inner neurotic started asking “are there great World War I movies that do things differently?”  Here, to placate that inner neurotic, are three of them:

3. J’accuse (1919): Filmed in the last weeks of the war by French director Abel Gance, J’accuse [I accuse] is best known for its final scenes where the poet-soldier Jean Diaz, driven mad by shell-shock, conjures up the dead from the battlefield.  The corpses return to their former homes to discover that those they left behind have become petty, cheating, faithless people.  J’accuse condemns the society which fails to live up to the example of the front-line soldiers, not the generals who fail to find a way out of the military deadlock.  This and its apocalyptic imagery make it a cinematic cousin to Henri Barbusse’s wartime novel Le Feu [The Fire].*

2. Paths of Glory (1957): Stanley Kubrick’s fourth film, starring a young Kirk Douglas.  Douglas plays Colonel Dax, a lawyer who must defend three of his own men charged with cowardice for failing to succeed in a hopeless attack.  A chilling portrait of dishonesty in the French high command and a stirring tribute to the common soldier.  The final scene, post-trial, with the regiment in an estaminet behind the lines is particularly touching.

1. La Grande Illusion (1937): A magnificent portrait of humanity in the midst of war.  Jean Renoir’s film follows two French aviators shot down over enemy lines as they and their comrades plan an escape from German captivity.  The heart of the film is the relationships that cross forbidden boundaries: The aristocratic Captain de Boeldiu both with his working-class subordinate, Lieutenant Marechal, and his German counterpart Captain von Rauffenstein, Marechal with with the German farm widow Elsa, and Boeldiu and Marechal with their Jewish colleague Rosenthal.

It would be fantastic if this was really about World War I, but it’s not.  Grand Illusion was filmed at the height of the Popular Front’s popularity in France, and the movie – with its message about the common bonds of humanity – reflects Renoir’s commitment to that movement.  With the threat from Nazi Germany looming, the movie never condemns the idea of duty while avoiding depicting the horrors of war in the trenches.  Despite that, Grand Illusion is still one of the greatest World War I movies of all time.

(Why isn’t All Quiet on the Western Front here?  Because I haven’t seen it.  Embarrassing.)

*H/t to Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning (1995) which led me to the movie.


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