It may not be what you think.
By Ed Rampell
Starting on July 28, 1914, a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a series of European powers declared war on each other, and by August 4, 1914, World War I had broken out.
The so-called "Great War" was fought on an industrial scale, with technical advances previously unknown in the annals of combat, including machineguns, poison gas, flamethrowers, "Big Bertha" long-range artillery, tanks, submarines, zeppelins and biplanes which, when combined with trench warfare, led to unprecedented mechanized mass slaughter on the battlefield.
Cinema also got into the act, with Tinseltown's D. W. Griffith shooting battle scenes on location in Europe for the anti-German morale booster "Hearts of the World," starring Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Erich von Stroheim, and Noel Coward, which came out in 1918.
The military's whiz-bang gadgetry, especially aerial warfare, inspired a lot of cinematic spectacles that followed. In 1927, William Wellman's "Wings" came out and won the first Best Picture Oscar. In 1930, Howard Hughes directed "Hell's Angels. In 1958, "Lafayette Escadrille," was shown, the last film by "Wild Bill" Wellman, an actual 1917 fighter pilot.
Fought on a planetary scale, World War I also prompted big screen epics, such as David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia," which won seven Oscars, among them Best Picture and Best Director, plus three nominations, including for a screenplay secretly co-written by blacklisted ex-Red Michael Wilson.
But due to World War I's staggering death toll and endless casualties, patriotic propaganda gave way to the genre's dominant characteristic: Motion picture pacifism.
Unlike Hollywood's movies about the American Revolution, the Civil War and, later, World War II, the First World War generated international outrage at the futility of war as a meaningless, senseless endeavor to be questioned and criticized.
Instead of accentuating heroics and mindless jingoism, war's horrors were highlighted with cinema asking "What Price Glory" (as the title of Raoul Walsh's 1926 WWI movie put it). Fueled by these antiwar sentiments, America experienced almost a quarter century of peace and disarmament -- until Pearl Harbor burst the isolationist bubble.
World War I was no more "the war to end all wars" than its movies were the films to end all films. To mark the 100th anniversary of the not-so-Great War, here's a list with links to clips of the Top 10 WWI pictures from around the world that prove, in vivid black and white and living color, war is hell.
"The Big Parade"
In King Vidor's 1925 epic, while "over there" in France. James Apperson (John Gilbert), who enlisted in the American Expeditionary Forces, falls in love with Melisande (Renée Adorée). In a memorable movie moment, the U.S. doughboy teaches the Frenchwoman how to chew gum. The scene where Melisande tries to find James during a massive, impersonal troop movement -- the titular big parade -- is unforgettable. So are harrowing, realistic scenes of trench warfare and combat in No Man's Land. The maiming of silent screen idol Gilbert -- decades before the prosthetics available to today's Iraq and Afghan War vets -- brought the war home to millions of viewers. (See the video here.)
"The End of St. Petersburg"
Commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik uprising, Vsevolod Pudovkin's 1927 Soviet silent film shows how WWI triggered the Russian Revolution. As in many other WWI movies, there are gruesome shots of mud, blood, barbed wire, and troops in trenches drenched with water. But unlike most other First World War pictures which simply decry man's inhumanity to man, the politically astute Pudovkin explains war's root causes. A bloody battle sequence is intercut with stockbrokers profiteering from the conflict. Hungry women on the home front riot for food as a title proclaims: "Cannon shells instead of bread." When Kerensky withdraws troops from the frontlines to protect him from the masses, a Bolshevik agitator sways them to shoot their commanding officer and join the revolt. The revolutionary role of radicalized soldiers and sailors is shown as they participate in storming the Winter Palace, overthrowing the government. Unlike many social democrats, who backed WWI, the Bolsheviks and other leftists opposed it with the slogan: "Bread! Peace! Land!" (See the video here.)
"All Quiet on the Western Front"
Lewis Milestone's 1930 masterpiece of pacifism won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, and playwright Maxwell Anderson was co-nominated for this Hollywood adaptation of German writer Erich Maria Remarque's novel about German soldiers that dared humanize the dreaded "Hun." As war is declared, a teacher exhorts Paul (Lew Ayres) and other schoolboys to fight for the fatherland; the rest of the movie debunks this chauvinistic brainwashing. The German soldier Kat asserts that instead of countries fighting it out: "Whenever there's a big war comin' on, you should rope off a big field ... take all the kings and their cabinets and their generals, put 'em in the center dressed in their underpants, and let 'em fight it out with clubs. The best country wins." The finale -- when Paul is shot while reaching out from a trench for a butterfly -- is heartbreaking in this tour de force against the use of force. (See the video here.)
This classic by Austrian director G.W. Pabst -- a master of Weimar Republic cinema -- which also opened in 1930 and is told from the point of view of Central Powers soldiers, is even more bone-chillingly terrifying than Milestone's movie. Long tracking shots in Pabst's first talkie convey the cruelty of combat in No Man's Land. In addition to realistically portraying the bleakness of life at the French front. it depicts hardships on the home front. When a German infantryman returns home on leave after 18 months in the trenches, he discovers his lonely wife in bed with the neighborhood butcher, exchanging sexual favors for meat. A shell-shocked officer goes stark-raving mad and a hospital is full of maimed combatants. Pabst, the profound social critic, prophetically follows the title announcing "the end" with a question mark. (See the video here.)
"La Grande Illusion"
In Jean Renoir's 1937 critique of the delusion that war is a glorious, ennobling enterprise, Jean Gabin plays a downed French pilot who becomes a prisoner of war. Erich von Stroheim -- noted for portraying Prussian militarists -- is a flying ace and, after being wounded, a POW camp commandant at a medieval fortress. Shot around the time of Prime Minister Léon Blum's Popular Front government in France, Renoir's humanist picture also denounced class snobbery and anti-Semitism, and -- in another contemporary reference to Nazis -- book burning. Full of the POWs' longing for female companionship, "Illusion" depicts a touching affair between Gabin and a lonely German woman whose husband was killed in combat. Gabin ultimately escapes with a Jewish officer to neutral Switzerland, refuge from the warfare devastating Europe. Few films have ever questioned war's underlying rationales as poignantly as Renoir's expose of the emptiness of the officers' code of honor. (See the video here.)
"Paths of Glory"
While America prepared to enter WWII, the pacifist strain in WWI movies disappeared; indeed, in Howard Hawks' 1941 biopic "Sergeant York," Gary Cooper puts aside his "thou shalt not kill" religious convictions to become a war hero. But anti-militarism returned with a vengeance in Stanley Kubrick's hard hitting 1957 expose, based on an actual incident. With hyper-realistic black and white scenes of trench warfare and great tracking shots, a suicidal advance across No Man's Land to take the Ant Hill is ordered by General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou). But when French forces fail to prevail, as a face-saving measure for the brass, three infantrymen are court-martialed for cowardice. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) defends the trio, and lambastes the military bureaucracy and the vaingloriousness of high-ranking officers who thoughtlessly sacrifice soldiers for promotions and prestige. (The film also has an intriguing Hollywood Blacklist subtext: Its kangaroo court suggests the House Un-American Activities Committee's hearings, where the virulently anti-communist Menjou was a "friendly witness." "Paths" was produced by Douglas's company Bryna Productions, which three years later made "Spartacus," starring Douglas, directed by Kubrick -- and written by former Communist Dalton Trumbo, who received screen credit, thus helping to end the Blacklist.) (See the video here.)
"King of Hearts"
Director Philippe De Broca's whimsical 1966 comedy-drama questions the notion of sanity as the inmates literally take over the asylum in a war-torn French village. Who's crazier: War mongers or the mentally ill? Alan Bates co-stars as Scottish soldier Charles Plumpick, who is trying to defuse a bomb, while Genevieve Bujold plays the lovely "lunatic" Coquelicot. (See the video here.)
"Oh! What a Lovely War"
WWI stands-in for Vietnam in Richard Attenborough's surreal 1969 satire, which opens with Europe's grand pooh-bahs -- John Gielgud as Count Leopold, Jack Hawkins as Emperor Franz Joseph, Ralph Richardson as Britain's Foreign Secretary, etc. – bungling their way into global Armageddon. Laurence Olivier plays a field marshal who explains trench warfare's policy of attrition. But in a bit of canny casting, English activist/actress Vanessa Redgrave steals the show as British socialist suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, who traveled to the USSR and was convicted of sedition. At a pro-peace suffragette rally, Pankhurst reads an antiwar letter by George Bernard Shaw. Hecklers shout: "pacifists is traitors!" Pankhurst responds: "Who tells you this? The newspapers who refuse to publish the pacifists' letters. Who distort the facts about our so-called ‘victories'… The sons of Europe are being sacrificed on the barbed wire because you misguided masses are crying out for it. War cannot be won. No one can win a war. Is it your wish that the war goes on and on?" Another highlight includes spontaneous Christmas Eve fraternization of enemy soldiers, who leave their trenches to celebrate together in No Man's Land, which was the basis of Christian Carion's 2005 "Joyeux Noel." (See the video here.)
Director/co-writer Peter Weir's 1981 Australian New Wave movie about the infamous 1915 campaign at the eponymous Turkish peninsula depicts the ultimate futility of war, with ANZACS soldiers cavalierly used as cannon fodder the Brits. Mel Gibson plays Frank, an Aussie sprinter whose loss of innocence during the war symbolizes Australia's harsh coming of age. As Turkish machinegunners mow down Australians and New Zealanders, Frank desperately tries to relay a message during the melee to halt the carnage. The final freeze frame, as his mate and fellow runner Archy (Mark Lee) is shot, is reminiscent of Robert Capa's famous photo of a Spanish Civil War Loyalist soldier at the moment of death. Tomaso Albinoni's elegiac "Adagio in G Minor" helps set the tearful tone. (See the video here.)
According to conventional thinking, Archduke Ferdinand's assassination was carried out by members of the Serbian extremist group "Black Hand." However, like Oliver Stone's 1991 "JFK," this 2014 Austrian film directed by Andreas Prochaska and written by Martin Ambrosch proposes a counter-narrative to the official version of events. After Ferdinand's shooting, the authorities assign examining magistrate Dr. Leo Pfeffer (Florian Teichtmeister) to investigate the crime. Pfeffer uncovers the hidden hand of Austro-Hungarian and German military intelligence services, which have their own covert agendas: The liberal-minded Archduke wanted to grant the Empire's ethnic groups greater autonomy, so reactionary agent provocateurs eliminated him by secretly financing Serbian radicals before Ferdinand could ascend to the throne. His orchestrated liquidation provided the pretext that gung-ho German and Austro-Hungarian hawks needed to declare war on Serbia. The thought-provoking thriller premiered this year at the South East European Film Festival.