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Anti-war films of the First World War Andrew Kelly

Bristol Ideas

Written by Andrew Kelly

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With the new German version of All Quiet on the Western Front poised to hit screens this week, we decided to reflect on the other great anti-war films of the First World War.

Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front is arriving in our cinemas this week, with Watershed screening the film from 14 October. The film is based on the book by Erich Maria Remarque. A veteran of the war, it took him nearly a decade to come to terms with what he had experienced. The result was Im Westen nichts Neues – brilliantly translated by Arthur Wheen as All Quiet on the Western Front – the first in a trilogy about the war (followed by The Road Back and Three Comrades). The Nazis hated both book and film. The book was burned; the film banned; and Remarque had to go into exile.

Lewis Milestone made the film for Universal. Andrew Kelly from Bristol Ideas wrote this book in the 1990s on the film, its history and what followed release and the wider anti-war cinema of the war. The film was celebrated worldwide, won Academy Awards but was controversial.

The first anti-war film in WW1 – though it was not about the war – was the Danish Die Waffen neider / Lay Down Your Arms, based on the book by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bertha von Suttner. A pacifist and novelist, Suttner was the first woman to be given the award. Released in 1914, in the US it was used to support isolationism. The director, Holger-Madsen, made two more anti-war films during the war.

After making Birth of a Nation – a huge success, but rightly condemned on race grounds and its portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan – D W Griffith made Intolerance in 1916, which looked at brutality through the ages and ended with a plea for tolerance. In 1918, Griffith made Hearts of the World, about lovers torn apart in a French village under German occupation where they face torture and destruction. And, in 1924, Isn’t Life Wonderful, set in post-war Berlin, about refugees to the city. It’s now regarded as one of Griffith’s best films.

In 1919, just after the war ended, Abel Gance’s J’Accuse was released. A remarkable film. At the end, the dead of the war rise up to accuse the living. Some of the extras in the film came from the frontlines and had been killed in the war by the time of release.

In 1925 The Big Parade was released. It was about an ordinary American doughboy and his comrades in France. The rush to war ends in horror for some of the soldiers. A huge success which showed that films about the war could again reach an audience.

In 1928 John Ford’s Four Sons was released about a family torn apart due to the war and the suffering endured by the mother losing three of her children to conflict.

Though the aviation dramas of the late 1920s were not anti-war, they do show the short life of the pilots and include some remarkable film sequences. Ones to watch include WingsThe Dawn Patrol and Hell’s Angels

In the same year as All Quiet on the Western Front, Journey’s End was released. Based on R C Sheriff’s successful play, it was James Whale’s first film in Hollywood. Like the successful play it showed the pressures on the officer class and has some powerful sequences.

In 1930 Pabst’s Westfront 1918 was released and then in 1931 his Kamaradschaft. Westfront 1918 focussed on the impact of the war on the ordinary soldier. Kamaradschaft showed the humanity of French and Germans working together to save trapped miners.

Not his best-known film – and an unusual one for him – in 1932 Ernest Lubitsch made The Man I Killed, in which a French soldier, haunted by the memory of killing a German soldier in the war, goes to his family to beg forgiveness.

This was remade (though the story was extended) as Frantz in 2017 by French director François Ozon. It’s worth watching.

One of the key subjects covered in films about the war was the veterans who had been forgotten. The most powerful was the remarkable My Forgotten Man sequence in Gold Diggers of 1933.

The ‘forgotten man’ theme also appeared in crime and gangster dramas. The year before Gold Diggers of 1933 was released, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang came out and included forgotten veterans. And, later in the 1930s, the theme was included in They Gave him a Gun (1937) and in The Roaring Twenties, when James Cagney comes back from the front to find his old job given to someone else and he turns to crime.

In 1936 Things to Come, based on the book by H G Wells, was released. An ambitious science fiction film, heavily influenced by the horrors of the First World War, and a warning about the coming Second World War, it looked at how to build a peaceful world (though perhaps not the kind of world most would want to live in). Mark Kermode talks about the film here:

In 1937 Renoir’s La Grande Illusion was released. A film about the war without a battlefield sequence, it was about class not national differences. It is one of three great films about the war (the others being All Quiet and Paths of Glory).

The Road Back (1937), the second in Remarque’s trilogy, was made by James Whale (after Journey’s EndFrankensteinThe Bride of Frankenstein, amongst others). He wanted this to be his greatest achievement. It was ruined by interference by the German LA Ambassador with the ending of boys being trained for a new war being dropped.

Read more about Whale here in this brilliant biography by James Curtis.

A year later, Three Comrades, the third in Remarque’s trilogy, was released. It deals with post-war Germany and is quite a moving film, but again its impact was limited due to pre-censoring.

Both All Quiet and The Road Back were re-released in late 1939 with an added narration about the Second World War. Added dialogue at various parts of the film talked about the horrors of the war and why America should stay out of the new world war.

There have been fewer films about the First World War since 1945. One of the best is Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory – a story of brutal military incompetence. 

One of the best British films about the war is King and Country from 1964 about a deserter shot for cowardice pour encourager les autres.

Another important British film about the war was Oh! what a Lovely War, which was released in 1969. A musical satire on the war, this is the moving ending.

The French film Life and Nothing But (La vie et rien d’autre) features Major Delaplane trying to identify dead soldiers in 1920 as the deep scars of the war continue to affect the people involved.

And a fine film – showing the Australian side of the war, from idealism to disillusionment – is Gallipoli (1981). 50 years earlier Tell England told this story from the British side.

There’s been much good – sometimes controversial – television on the war. BBC’s The Great War is a fine documentary series. Blackadder Goes Forth is a funny and tragic story which draws on the films, books and poetry of the war. Here’s the ending of Blackadder Goes Forth.

The new version of All Quiet on the Western Front looks to be essential viewing.  Find further details of the film and viewing times at Watershed here.

And you can see our work in 2014 for the centenary of the First World War here.

Listen to the October 2022 Cinema Podcast from Watershed to hear Andrew Kelly (Bristol Ideas) discuss the new adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front.

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