About 35 minutes into Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, Archy (Mark Lee) and Frank (Mel Gibson), two champion-level sprinters from Australia, are trudging their way through 50 miles of desert in a desperate effort to make it to Perth and enlist to serve their country in the first world war. Along the way, they encounter a grizzled camel driver who doesn’t even realize there’s a war against Germany. The stranger has questions.
“How did it start?” he wonders. “Don’t know exactly,” replies Archy. “But it was the Germans’ fault.” They tell the man they’re headed to the front in Turkey, because the Turks are German allies. “Huh, you learn something new every day,” he says. “Still, I can’t see what it’s got to do with us.” “If we don’t stop them there, they could end up here,” Archy argues.
The man looks around this godforsaken stretch of land and deadpans, “And they’re welcome to it.”
In a nutshell, this conversation suggests the arc of many first world war movies: naive young men eager to serve their countries and embark on the adventure of a lifetime. Confusion over why, exactly, the war is being fought. And later, the absolute terror of life in the trenches and full-on disillusionment over what they’ve been asked to do and how this unimaginable carnage will make the world a better place. There’s only one real battle scene in Gallipoli, if it can even be called a battle: Archy and Frank have traveled halfway around the world for the privilege of joining the waves of Anzac (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) cut down by Turkish machine guns a few steps out of the trench. Their lives are lost to the catastrophic miscalculation of their betters.
With Sam Mendes’s 1917 currently in theaters, it’s a rare chance to see how it fits into a tradition of first world war movies – which have, naturally, been vastly eclipsed by movies about the war that followed two decades later. To the extent that 1917 is even about the war, it echoes the friendship at the center of Gallipoli and Frank’s fateful dash at the end of it, when he rushes at top speed to keep the officers in charge from sending men on a suicide mission. We don’t learn much about Lance Cpl Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Cpl Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), the British soldiers asked to embark on a life-saving quest across enemy lines to keep 1,600 comrades from falling into a German trap. But their individual sacrifice is a silver lining common to many first world war movies: in the absence of a larger and nobler purpose, the best soldiers can do is fight for each other, and hope to spare a life or steal a little bit of dignity and humanity.
Though 1917 takes place against the haunted backdrop of abandoned trenches, bombed-out facades and corpse-strewn thickets of barbed wire, the limits of its time-frame (and faux-single-shot continuity) forbid a larger picture of the war. By contrast, the great classics of WWI make a strong argument for the Great War as a foundational moment in anti-war cinema, because they all underscore the pointlessness of the conflict and cast a jaundiced eye toward the mendacity of the men responsible.
The standard-bearer for all first world war films is Lewis Milestone’s 1930 masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front, a best picture winner that’s astonishingly blunt about the grand-scale nihilism of the war, following a group of German boys whose teacher rallies them into enlistment. They’re led to believe it will be a short and glorious adventure, but one of them gets killed before they even reach their post and the rest are picked off over endless days of aerial bombardments, food shortages and machine-gun nests. Unlike many early-sound movies, All Quiet on the Western Front doesn’t bolt itself down to stilted exchanges of dialogue, but spends Universal’s bottomless resources on battle sequences of startling scope. And when there’s finally a break in the carnage and a survivor finds himself back in the classroom on leave, there’s his teacher goading an even younger generation of boys into action. Nothing is gained, nothing is learned.
Five years earlier, King Vidor’s silent epic The Big Parade provided a blueprint for the scaled-up action of All Quiet on the Western Front, but it takes its time getting to the front, focusing instead on the relationship between Jim (John Gilbert), an idle American from a wealthy family, his working-class brothers-in-arms and Melisandre (Renée Adorée), the Frenchwoman they meet while training in the Marne. The extra time allows Vidor the opportunity to humanize the characters through slapstick shenanigans and the wordless romance between Jim and Melisandre, who share only the language of love. By the time the action shifts toward a harrowing march through the woods to confront the Germans, the human stakes couldn’t be higher, especially when Jim and his buddies are asked to leave a shellhole at night to quell the mortar fire of a German nest. They realize instantly that not all of them will survive until morning.
The ordering of suicide missions is a running theme in first world war movies, which often contrast the bravery of the rank-and-file with leaders who are either tragically wrong-headed or openly reckless in leading these lambs to the slaughter. Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film Paths of Glory is about a French general who knowingly orders his division to a suicidal attack on a heavily fortified German “anthill”, then arbitrarily court-martials three men for cowardice when the first wave gets cut down and the second refuses to leave the trench. Kubrick presents the show trial that follows as the height of absurdity, mounted entirely as a face-saving measure for a general who’s seeking a promotion at the grunts’ expense. (Nearly half a century later, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement would pick up on a similar story of soldiers condemned for “self-mutilation”, though Jeunet and his Amélie star, Audrey Tautou, were more interested in romantic serendipity than anti-war sentiment.)
By contrast, Jean Renoir’s 1937 standard Grand Illusion comes around to an anti-war message through a subtler assessment of leaders on both sides of the conflict, whose class connections to each other run deeper than nationalist animosity. There are shades of The Great Escape to the story of French officers who politely yet insistently attempt to break free of the aristocratic German (Erich von Stroheim) who’s holding them captive. Yet the conditions for these prisoners of war aren’t exactly dire – they stage a rousing vaudeville-style performance in drag – and the conversation turns to a lament over Europe’s collapsing social order, which presages even more tragedy to come. What stands out in Grand Illusion is Renoir’s humane treatment of all parties: War is an unnatural state, stoked by a nationalist fervor that dissolves when people are in a room together.
Even a film as pitiless and lacerating as Paths of Glory comes to the same conclusion in its final moments, when French soldiers gather at an inn and start to heckle and catcall a frightened German woman as she sings The Faithful Hussar, only to respond deeply to her vulnerability. What’s touching about the great first world war movies is their attempt to find meaning in small acts of courage and friendships under duress, when a salvageable moment or relationship transcends the cynicism, chaos and death that defined the war itself.
As a documentary postscript to these films, Peter Jackson’s miraculous digital reclamation project, They Shall Not Grow Old, winds up reinforcing their observations with real testimony from the men who actually lived through it. Drawing images, footage, and audio from the Imperial War Museum and other sources – revivified further by advances in visual and sound effects – Jackson brings these old ghosts to life in a chorus of shared experience. The film is an emotional history rather than a record of important dates or key battles, full of specific memories and plainspoken laments. No one cared to hear from them when it mattered.