This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is World War I, or The Great War as it was called at the time (seeing as World War II hadn't happened yet). There are plenty of stories regarding the men who died in the trenches, with casualties numbering well into the millions on all sides. While the groundwork for World War I had been laid down over the previous decade, mainly in the form of different countries attempting to build empires, it is usually said to have started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, and concluded in 1918 with the treaty of Versailles. Those four years saw a new kind of war. Technological advancements produced new weapons. Tanks and airplanes were used for the first time.
The most insulting part of the war, however, was that nobody learned from it. After "winning" (if you can call it that), World War I concluded with the Treaty of Versailles, in which all participants were on the same side. The negotiations were a joke, and in the end they concluded that Germany was to blame, and that it should be punished. Over the following years, the German economy was destroyed (though it did manage to run a successful film industry), Anti-Semitism overpowered rational thought, and there was a strong desire for a leader who could restore the country. Not surprisingly, this created the perfect opportunity for Adolf Hitler to take over and begin a global military campaign. In other words, World War I was directly responsible for World War II.
Now unsurprisingly, this is an area I have plenty of experience in, having studied World War I and many of those who fought in it. In fact, the Canadian Ace Billy Bishop was something of an idol to me in Middle School. I've also seen a lot of war films. As far as Hollywood is concerned, World War I has been greatly overshadowed by World War II, and it is harder to find a good selection of films. Still, there have been some beautifully made films dealing with World War I, and I am here to share three of them.
Paths of Glory (1957)
There are few movies that manage to so effectively capture the pointlessness and futility of war like Stanley Kubrick's fourth feature film. When it first premiered, it sparked such a huge controversy it's amazing Kubrick even managed to find work afterwards. It sparked a huge backlash and was banned in both France and Germany. While the plot is straight forward enough, it is executed so effectively to stir every possible emotion. The battle scenes alone are beautifully shot, and that's not even getting into the court-case that drives most of the narrative (which is also very effective in showing the ways in which people die for nothing). In watching a film like this, one is forced to ask a lot of questions, especially what exactly it means to be a "coward."
Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)
Okay, so I'm cheating with this one. However, that does not stop Monty Python from presenting a very... unusual interpretation of World War I, while still emphasizing the futility of the whole conflict through the use of dark humor. In this case, the focus is on a small group of soldiers who try to with their Sergeant a Happy Birthday while under fire, going as far as to make him a cake and present him with gifts. Of course, as the sketch goes on, shots fly, and members of the squad fall. Eventually, the situation becomes so hopeless that the Sergeant finally decides to try to ignore the enemy's attack and enjoy what he can while he's still standing.
As should be clear from the title, Paul Gross's directorial debut gives us one of the most devastating and tragic battles of the war. Like much of World War I, thousands of Canadian and German soldiers were killing each other over land. What made this battle different was the terrain. The Canadian soldiers fighting here didn't even have the cover of trenches, and had to traverse deep mud in order to survive. Gross's film shows the brutality of World War I at this moment as seen through the eyes of three protagonists: two soldiers and an army nurse. While some have criticized the romantic aspect of the story, few can deny the visual impact once the film reaches its climax.