The centennial of World War I brought about new interest in the conflict among filmmakers. But the recent efforts do not do justice to the way the war’s victims experienced the “Great War.”

The devastating, destructive conflict shook the world just as cinema was being born. The war dismantled the conceits of rational progress that had driven both the Enlightenment and European imperialism. It turned art and philosophy on its head.

I wrote about its impact on the modern horror genre a few years ago. Abel Gance’s 1918 J’accuse! made its mark with a zombie scene that starred real soldiers, most of whom were killed in battle shortly after filming. F. W. Murnau used Nosferatu to process his war trauma.

The dead rise in J’accuse! (1919)

American reactions varied. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was unabashedly anti-war and was once one of the highest-grossing films of all time.

Wings, the very first Best Picture, hero-worships the dogfighting American pilots in essentially the same way Top Gun: Maverick and films of its ilk do nearly a century later. Many of the other American World War I films did the same, notablSergeant York.

Charles Rogers and Clara Bow in Wings (1927)

All Quiet on the Western Front, released in 1930, also won Best Picture.

Based on the novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, the film follows a group of young men as they enlist in the army with patriotic fervor, only to be disillusioned by the horrors of war. The movie highlights the physical and emotional toll of combat, showing the soldiers struggling to cope with the violence, fear, and trauma they experience on the front lines.

The brutal and senseless nature of the conflict is depicted through the eyes of protagonist Paul Baumer and his comrades. The film is a powerful commentary on the futility of war and the psychological toll it takes on those who participate in it.

World War II quickly shifted filmmakers’ attention. This war, unlike the relentless horror of the first version, had clear moral stakes and meaningful victories. It was much easier to fit into the good guy – bad guy dynamic Hollywood is famous for.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) presents a war without heroes.

David Lean’s masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia is the only World War I film to win Best Picture in the past 90 years. No one would mistake it as an anti-war film, but it works to deconstruct T.E. Lawrence’s illusionary war heroism. (Even as it creates a new mystique around him, but that’s another story.)

Lean’s Doctor Zhivago is set against the backdrop of World War I and the Russian Civil War, but the wars exist mostly as a device to separate characters and push them together.

World War I was mostly (though not entirely) ignored for a half-century.

Centennial Attention

In the 2010s and 2020s, major filmmakers created World War I projects that almost certainly would not have been greenlit without their names attached. Steven Spielberg made the weepy, very Spielbergy drama War Horse, Peter Jackson put They Shall Not Grow Old together out of colorized footage, and Sam Mendes showed off his filmic techniques with 1917All three were nominated for Oscars.

None of the three, however, did much to emphasize the absurdity, the incredible inhumanness of the war. That’s what the writers, filmmakers and other artists of the “lost generation” tried to communicate. The 21st century ignores their message in a misguided attempt to valorize their trauma.

Patriotic German teenagers excited to kill and die for their country in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

This is the “lions led by donkeys” approach toward World War I. It states that fighting and dying for one’s country makes one a lion and if a country loses, the blame is to be placed on the asses in charge. It perpetuates a heroic view of battle while neatly avoiding any closer examination of violence and human nature itself.

Jamelle Bouie put it eloquently in his critique of this year’s “Great War” Best Picture nominee, the 2022 version of All Quiet on the Western Front. He criticizes the film for excising an antiwar speech famous in the source material but adding in dramatic scenes of peace negotiations.

“The inclusion of this political subplot and the exclusion of Paul’s return home transforms “All Quiet on the Western Front” from a psychological examination of the soldier’s experience and a condemnation of war into a much simpler story of virtuous soldiers and cynical leaders who betrayed them. (It inches uncomfortably close, in fact, to the myths that sustained many Germans in the wake of their defeat.)”

This is much the same dynamic as the 2017 superhero blockbuster Wonder WomanThe leaders may be evil, but the soldiers are saints — at least the ones on our side.

Adam Call Roberts

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