While war films date to the beginnings of cinema and the Spanish-American War, World War I’s magnification of the mutual impact of war and cinema on each other brought the relationship to an entirely new level. As the war that introduced modern technology into combat, World War I saw film and the moving image enlisted as instruments of surveillance and documentation. Away from the battlefront, propaganda films and newsreels worked to keep the civilian population informed and to incite them to join the fight.
But the war’s major impact on the cinema had to do with fictionalized depictions of combat. In the years after the 1918 Armistice, when the massive cost of the war had been calculated and as the realization dawned that its impact was immeasurable, filmmakers turned to the feature film in an attempt to grapple with what had happened. For one thing, the feature film itself received a significant boost from the war. When the war began, only a few companies released anything longer than two reels. But the massive success in the US of The Birth of a Nation (1915), at a time when foreign films were rare due to the fighting, meant that by the end of the war, the continent was flooded with American feature films from the US, leaving the European industries no choice but to adapt. As the earliest films in this series show, filmmakers on both sides of the Atlantic learned to turn their tales of combat into an evening’s entertainment with the use of such narrative situations as the brothers or friends separated by the war who find themselves on opposite sides of the struggle, or the young lovers either thrown together or torn apart by the fighting.
This survey of films about World War I is meant to span several countries, decades and contexts, illustrating that the trauma of the war meant that as often as not, war films became anti-war films. If the conflict was not “the war to end all wars,” it nevertheless represented the end of the early modern age and the coming of an entirely new world, one in which cinema would have a central place. – DP
This program is presented in conjunction with a two-day conference at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard, In Our Time: The Great War at 100, on February 12 and 13.
Special thanks: Steve Hill, Todd Wiener—UCLA Film and Television Archive
Film descriptions by David Pendleton
Directed by Lewis Milestone. With Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray
US 1930, 35mm, b/w, 130 min
All Quiet on the Western Front is a poignant and realistic adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's persuasive anti-war novel about seven young German soldiers facing suffering and death on the battlefields of World War I. The film focuses on one of the soldiers and follows his transformation from idealistic and patriotic schoolboy to shattered and disillusioned war veteran. Unforgettable and astonishingly graphic in its honest portrayal of horrifying subject matter, the film was met with controversy in both the United States and Germany when first released; nevertheless, it garnered both Best Picture and Best Director Oscars.
Directed by Joseph Losey. With Dirk Bogarde, Tom Courtenay, Leo McKern
UK 1964, 35mm, b/w, 86 min
Frustrated with three long years of trench warfare and shell-shocked after a particularly brutal attack, Private Arthur Hamp elects to walk home to London from the front. Subsequently court-martialed, Hamp’s assigned defender Captain Hargreaves slowly begins to understand the helplessness of Hamp and other enlisted men. With his characteristically subtle touch, Losey intensifies the John Wilson play by toying with the "roles" assigned by the British class system, employing a mildly Brechtian emphasis on theatrical artifice and reflexivity.
Directed by Frank Borzage. With Helen Hayes, Gary Cooper,
US 1932, 35mm, b/w, 89 min
Hemingway’s loosely autobiographical love story between a nurse and an ambulance driver became the great American novel aboutWorld War I almost as soon as it was published in 1928. From Hollywood’s perspective, Frank Borzage was the perfect director for the inevitable film adaptation; he had directed several silent films that counterposed tender love stories to the carnage of World War I. Hemingway, however, felt that Borzage’s style was much too Romantic. While it’s true that the film is more emotional than the restrained novel, Borzage’s version was further burdened by a studio-imposed happy ending and, later, several minutes’ worth of cuts when the film was re-released after the 1934 imposition of the Production Code. This restoration by UCLA restores the original ending and all the censored bits, revealing the power of Borzage’s heartfelt vision. 35mm restored print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive; preservation funded by the Film Foundation and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
Directed by François Truffaut. With Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner,
France 1962, 35mm, b/w, 106 min. French with English subtitles
Alternately gentle and searing, Truffaut’s masterpiece follows a love triangle through the years before, during and after the war, enthusiastically portraying the giddy joys of both friendship and romantic love among two young men, one French and one German, and the woman who captivates them both. The nationality of the two title characters reveals the film’s aspirations to allegory. The war itself receives scant notice in the novel Truffaut has adapted; the film amplifies its presence and its impact on the characters to make of this ménage-a-trois an emblem for the urge to challenge social convention in the early years of the 20th century, an urge deferred by the conflict. Print courtesy of Rialto Pictures.
Directed by King Vidor. With John Gilbert, Renée Adorée,
US 1925, 35mm, b/w, silent, 130 min
King Vidor earned his reputation as a great director with this stunning antiwar film, now one of the classics of silent cinema. Containing realistic, remarkably staged battle sequences and moments of powerful drama, the film follows a naïve American soldier from the thrill of small-town enlistment rallies to the grim reality of trench warfare in France. Vidor skillfully weaves humor and sentiment throughout, and the film’s blend of emotion helped it become one of the most successful silent films ever. It also set the template for American films about modern warfare. Print courtesy of Warner Bros.
Directed by James Whale. With Mae Clarke, Kent Douglass, Bette Davis
US 1931, 35mm, b/w, 72 min
An Englishman who became one of the great Hollywood directors of the 1930s, James Whale was also a World War I veteran. He made a handful of war films, including The Road Back, a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front. One of his most moving films is this low-budget adaptation of a popular and topical stage play. Roy, a naïve American soldier in London during World War I, falls in love with the winsome Myra, another American, played by the mesmerizing Mae Clarke. Claiming to work as a chorus girl, Myra cannot tell Roy that she has lost her job and now makes her living as a prostitute. Out of this melodramatic—and definitely pre-Code—material, Whale fashions a vivid example of the war film that focuses not on combat but on lovers caught in the crucible of the homefront. Print courtesy of Warner Bros.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. With Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou
US 1957, 35mm, b/w, 86 min
This devastating anti-war film focuses on an actual incident that took place among French forces during World War I in which three soldiers from a regiment that failed to advance on the enemy were randomly selected and executed for cowardice. Kubrick relentlessly demonstrates how the real act of cowardice was perpetrated not by the soldiers in the field but by a vain, ambitious general who has willingly sacrificed his troops to advance his own agenda at headquarters. Kirk Douglas both produced the film and stars as a colonel who attempts to intervene in what he sees as a miscarriage of justice.
Directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin. With Alexander Christyakov, Vera Baranovskaya, Ivan Chuvelyov
USSR 1927, 35mm, b/w, silent, 80 min
The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was a direct outcome of Russia’s disastrous participation in World War I. For the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, Vsevolod Pudovkin fashioned a drama that outlines the fall of Tsarist Russia by following the fortunes of a peasant-turned-factory worker through the turbulent 1910s. Pudovkin’s protagonist is swept by corruption and cruelty from steppe to factory to battlefront. Pudovkin himself fought in the war, was wounded and was held prisoner for three years by the Germans. Out of these experiences he drew the fury that characterizes the film’s scenes of combat, which are intercut with scenes of industrialists growing rich off the fighting. Print courtesy of the British Film Institute
Directed by Abel Gance. With Romuald Joubé, Séverin-Mars, Maryse Dauvray
France 1919, DCP, b/w, silent, 166 min. French intertitles with English subtitles
French director Abel Gance left behind him a number of epic films that integrate spectacle, sharp social commentary and massively influential formal experimentation with framing, shot composition and dramatic structure. Here he applies all these to oen of the first pointedly anti-war films. Gance began the film shortly after returning from military duty himself; some of the battle scenes were shot on location, using actual soldiers as extras. Like Jules and Jim, the film’s narrative elaborates a love triangle interrupted by the war, but the impact of J’accuse comes from Gance’s powerful images of combat and its ability to destroy lives both on the battlefield and on the homefront. Print courtesy of Lobster Films
Directed by Rex Ingram. With Rudolph Valentino, Pomeroy Cannon, Josef Swickard
US 1921, 35mm, b/w, silent, 132 min
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is based on best-selling Spanish novel about the French and German sons-in-law of an Argentinian landowner who end up in opposing armies. Its continents-spanning sweep helped make it a huge success, sending Rudolph Valentino off to stardom with it. Like Jules and Jim, Four Horsemen presents the war as the tragedy of brother pitted against brother, and like J’accuse, it weaves together romance and combat. The spectacle of Valentino’s transformation from graceful tango dancer to beleaguered doughboy lies at the heart of the film's anti-war message. Print courtesy of Warner Bros.
Directed by Serge Bozon. With Sylvie Testud, Pascal Greggory, Guillaume Verdier
France 2007, 35mm, color, 102 min. French with English subtitles
Serge Bozon announced himself as a filmmaker to watch with his remarkably original debut feature, which combines the war film and the musical. After receiving anguished letters from her husband, a soldier’s wife disguises herself as a man and goes off to the battlefields to try and find him. The film seems suspended in a kind of twilight between day and night, life and death, violence and peace, where French soldiers fleeing the carnage express themselves in song. “The menace of war is unceasing, or even eternal. To be more precise, La France is more a movie about the menace of war than about the war itself, so I could have set it in the present. But I wanted, from a historical point of view, to deal with the question of desertion, which was huge in France in 1917.”—Serge Bozon
Print courtesy of Institut Français
Directed by G.W. Pabst. With Alexander Granach, Fritz Kampers, Daniel Mendaille
Germany/France 1931, 35mm, b/w, 93 min. German and French with English subtitles
At a time of rising nationalism in Germany, the great G.W. Pabst turned to the contested border with France to make a classic about solidarity that transcends such considerations. The film is set just after World War I in a mine that finds itself divided between Germany and France by the Treaty of Versailles. A fire in the French side of the mine threatens workers, but the presence of the border complicates their rescue. Will patriotism trump comradeship? History records that Pabst’s hopeful fable went tragically unheeded. Print courtesy of the British Film Institute
Directed by John Huston. With Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley
US 1952, 35mm, b/w, 106 min
Set in the Belgian Congo, The African Queen serves as a reminder that the war’s impact was truly global. Adapted from the novel by C.S. Forester, the wonderful screenplay by James Agee and John Huston imagines a British spinster uprooted from her Congolese ministry by the arrival of German troops that she escapes with the help of the grimy captain of the title vessel, a tramp steamboat. The film makes the most out of the plot’s central irony: by uprooting the lives of two lonely people and tossing them together, the war’s destructive tempest brings them to life. The war is mostly offscreen, although Forester’s novel found its origin in the battle for Lake Tanganyika between German naval forces and outgunned Belgian and British ships. Print courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Criterion
Directed by John Ford. With James Hall, Margaret Mann, Earle Foxe
US 1928, 35mm, b/w, silent, 100 min
One of John Ford’s last silent films, Four Sons is set in both Germany and the US, as an aging German mother sends her oldest son off to America just before the outbreak of World War I. Her anguish as her children are drafted is doubled by the news that their older brother has joined the opposing army. Ford skillfully alternates between the mother’s increasing isolation and grief at home and the fury of the battlefield. The film reveals the influence of Murnau: Ford used the sets built for Sunrise and indulges in several remarkable traveling shots. Print courtesy of 20th Century Fox