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Remembrance Day: The 10 best First World War films

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There is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Second World War films. In the past few years alone, we’ve had Christopher Nolan’s epic ensemble drama Dunkirk, Mike Newell’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. But what about the great war films about the Great War?

As The Guardian points out, Wikipedia’s compilation of First World War cinema lists just over 130 films; there are 10 times more about its 1939 successor. Perhaps the lack of easy moral clarity, and the gruelling but often inert nature of trench warfare, just doesn’t appeal to Hollywood as much as an indisputable triumph against evil. But those who have waded into the quagmire of the “war to end all wars” have created some masterpieces.

As we reach the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, here are some of the best examples of Great War-themed cinema.

All Quiet on the Western Front trailer

A Very Long Engagement (2004)

At once a romance, a war film and a detective drama, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement follows Audrey Tautou’s Mathilde as she attempts to find her fiancé, who was among five men sentenced to death for attempting to self-inflict injuries that would have them removed from the front line.

Jeunet is best known for the almost unpalatably whimsical Amélie (in which Tautou also stars), yet this, its follow-up, is a very different beast – stylish but unflinching, and with depictions of trench warfare that film critic Philip French deemed to be “among the most terrifying and viscerally affecting ever filmed”. Alexandra Pollard

Gallipoli (1981)

Australia lost eight and a half thousand men in the bloody and ultimately futile Gallipoli Campaign against the Ottoman Turks during the First World War. The battle to take the peninsula by British Empire forces raged throughout 1915.

The great Australian director Peter Weir, who had already made Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and would go on to make Witness (1985) and The Truman Show (1998), captured an elegiac image of life before the recruits found themselves in hellish conditions in the Middle Eastern theatre. It’s a devastating portrayal of lost innocence, with a strong performance from a young Mel Gibson. The battle scenes are gruelling and painful. Chris Harvey  

leftCreated with Sketch.
rightCreated with Sketch.

1/17 The Guardians

From its slow-burning beginning, The Guardians develops into an epic melodrama. It’s a wartime story in which, for a change, the men are relegated to supporting roles. It follows in a tradition of French rural family sagas like Jean De Florette or Manon Des Sources. The landscapes and the changing seasons play as much of a part in the story as the main characters.

2/17 Dark River

Dark River offers little such consolation. It has some lyrical and delicate moments but the mood is generally overwhelmingly bleak and lugubrious. Incest and abuse don’t leave much space for any comic interludes. This is a powerful film with a grinding intensity about it. Light relief it isn’t but Dark River still has quite an impact.

Alamy

3/17 Zama

Late on in Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel’s startling, highly original new feature, Zama, a character who has just had both his arms cut off, is advised to “shove your stumps in the sand … if you don’t bleed out, you’ll survive.” It’s a grisly, darkly humorous moment in a film that continually surprises us with both its brutality and its lyricism.

The Match Factory

4/17 The Breadwinner

The most dispiriting aspect of this otherwise enrapturing Oscar-nominated animated feature is that its storyline still seems so current. The film depicts an Afghan society in which women don’t have a face. It is set during the Taliban rule, which lasted from the mid-1990s until late 2001, but this doesn’t feel like a period piece. Seventeen years after the Taliban were ousted from power in Afghanistan following the US invasion, the plight of women in the country appears hardly to have improved.

GKIDS

5/17 BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee’s work sometimes risks sensory overload. He fires off so many different ideas and storytelling styles that audiences can become bamboozled by his scattergun approach. BlacKkKlansman is one of his very best films because the digressions are as entertaining as ever but don’t get in the way of the main story.

AP

6/17 Early Man

Much of the pleasure in Aardman films has always lain in their gently ironic, Alan Bennett-like humour. They take very exotic characters and subject matter but then deal with them in a matter-of-fact fashion. They make a virtue out of their own relative modesty. Early Man isn’t the flashiest animated feature that you’ll see this year but it is certainly the most likeable.

7/17 Isle of Dogs

Like all of Wes Anderson’s work, Isle Of Dogs is very stylised, very offbeat and characterised by its extremely dry and often ironic humour. This Japanese-set stop-motion fable is also gorgeous to look at – packed full of intricate visual detail. It deals with some weighty themes (ethnic cleansing, fascism and corruption) but does so in an idiosyncratic fashion.

8/17 Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri

Writer-director Martin McDonagh has a host of award-winning plays behind him but his movies haven’t always lived up to his stage work. This one certainly does. It shares some of the dark and nihilistic humour found in McDonagh’s previous film, Seven Psychopaths.

9/17 A Quiet Place

In an era of wearisome poltergeist movies, haunted house stories and torture porn, A Quiet Place is a refreshingly pared-down and very original affair. Director John Krasinski relies on editing, sound effects and off-screen action to crank up the tension. We do see the creatures from time to time, sometimes even in extreme closeup. They are very grotesque, bigger versions of the polyp-like succubus which exploded out of John Hurt’s stomach in Alien. However, the most terrifying moments here come when the humans are waiting for them to appear, desperately hoping that they won’t.

Paramount Pictures

10/17 Lady Bird

Lady Bird is one of the best American coming-of-age films since Barry Levinson’s Diner. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, it offers an utterly winning mix of humour, poignancy and sharp-eyed social observation. Gerwig approaches her subject matter with the same tenderness and affectionate irony with which the adolescent Lady Bird regards Sacramento. Gerwig also shows Lady Bird’s heroism as the young heroine strives against the odds to become the very best version of herself she can be.

A24

11/17 Phantom Thread

If Phantom Thread is indeed Daniel Day-Lewis’s final film as an actor, he is going out on a wondrously bizarre note. This must be the oddest film in his career, one in which he gives a typically commanding but very idiosyncratic performance. Almost everything here is jarring – but generally in a very positive way.

12/17 First Reformed

It is not so long ago that Paul Schrader seemed to be giving up on cinema. The American writer-director (whose credits include Taxi Driver, American Gigolo and Affliction) had taken to making movies like the sour Hollywood satire The Canyons with Lindsay Lohan and the cartoonishly violent Dog Eat Dog, shot cheaply, aimed at a VOD audience. The former had a montage of closed-down movie theatres. In interviews, Schrader struck a gloomy note about the future of the industry. This is why First Reformed is so refreshing. This is not just Schrader’s best film in a very long while. It is also a re-affirmation of the director’s belief in the medium.

Rex

13/17 The Happy Prince

Oscar Wilde goes to ruin in Rupert Everett’s debut feature as director. Everett also wrote and stars in the film, giving a grandstanding performance as the Irish writer at the end of his life, after his release from prison, where he has been doing hard labour for “gross indecency”. This is a moving and surprising biopic that squeezes out every last drop of pathos from its subject matter.

BBC Films

14/17 Black Panther

Black Panther is not only one of the most entertaining recent superhero films but has an intelligence and a political dimension that such inchoate offerings as Suicide Squad and Justice League completely lacked. It is an action movie which touches on Pan-Africanism and which owes as much to Malcolm X as it does to Batman or Captain America.

Marvel Studios / Disney

15/17 Sicilian Ghost Story

Sicilian Ghost Story is a genre-bending affair that combines elements of teen romance, gothic psycho-drama and political thriller. It is loosely based on a true story of a boy called Giuseppe Di Matteo whose father, an ex-member of the Sicilian Mafia, turned “grass” against his erstwhile associates. The Mafia responded by kidnapping Giuseppe and keeping him in captivity for nearly 800 days.

Altitude

16/17 First Man

First Man is all about understated heroism. It’s affecting precisely because Armstrong (played with quiet intensity by Ryan Gosling) doesn’t feel the continual need to boast about his mission. The film is a tearjerker but a very subtle one.

AP

17/17 Dogman

Dogman is one of the best Italian films of recent times, a modern day neo realist fable that bears comparison with the great work of Fellini, Rossellini, De Sica et al. Its main character, the dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte), is a wonderful creation: loveable, vulnerable, seedy and comic all at the same time.

Curzon Artificial Eye

1/17 The Guardians

From its slow-burning beginning, The Guardians develops into an epic melodrama. It’s a wartime story in which, for a change, the men are relegated to supporting roles. It follows in a tradition of French rural family sagas like Jean De Florette or Manon Des Sources. The landscapes and the changing seasons play as much of a part in the story as the main characters.

2/17 Dark River

Dark River offers little such consolation. It has some lyrical and delicate moments but the mood is generally overwhelmingly bleak and lugubrious. Incest and abuse don’t leave much space for any comic interludes. This is a powerful film with a grinding intensity about it. Light relief it isn’t but Dark River still has quite an impact.

Alamy

3/17 Zama

Late on in Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel’s startling, highly original new feature, Zama, a character who has just had both his arms cut off, is advised to “shove your stumps in the sand … if you don’t bleed out, you’ll survive.” It’s a grisly, darkly humorous moment in a film that continually surprises us with both its brutality and its lyricism.

The Match Factory

4/17 The Breadwinner

The most dispiriting aspect of this otherwise enrapturing Oscar-nominated animated feature is that its storyline still seems so current. The film depicts an Afghan society in which women don’t have a face. It is set during the Taliban rule, which lasted from the mid-1990s until late 2001, but this doesn’t feel like a period piece. Seventeen years after the Taliban were ousted from power in Afghanistan following the US invasion, the plight of women in the country appears hardly to have improved.

GKIDS

5/17 BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee’s work sometimes risks sensory overload. He fires off so many different ideas and storytelling styles that audiences can become bamboozled by his scattergun approach. BlacKkKlansman is one of his very best films because the digressions are as entertaining as ever but don’t get in the way of the main story.

AP

6/17 Early Man

Much of the pleasure in Aardman films has always lain in their gently ironic, Alan Bennett-like humour. They take very exotic characters and subject matter but then deal with them in a matter-of-fact fashion. They make a virtue out of their own relative modesty. Early Man isn’t the flashiest animated feature that you’ll see this year but it is certainly the most likeable.

7/17 Isle of Dogs

Like all of Wes Anderson’s work, Isle Of Dogs is very stylised, very offbeat and characterised by its extremely dry and often ironic humour. This Japanese-set stop-motion fable is also gorgeous to look at – packed full of intricate visual detail. It deals with some weighty themes (ethnic cleansing, fascism and corruption) but does so in an idiosyncratic fashion.

8/17 Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri

Writer-director Martin McDonagh has a host of award-winning plays behind him but his movies haven’t always lived up to his stage work. This one certainly does. It shares some of the dark and nihilistic humour found in McDonagh’s previous film, Seven Psychopaths.

9/17 A Quiet Place

In an era of wearisome poltergeist movies, haunted house stories and torture porn, A Quiet Place is a refreshingly pared-down and very original affair. Director John Krasinski relies on editing, sound effects and off-screen action to crank up the tension. We do see the creatures from time to time, sometimes even in extreme closeup. They are very grotesque, bigger versions of the polyp-like succubus which exploded out of John Hurt’s stomach in Alien. However, the most terrifying moments here come when the humans are waiting for them to appear, desperately hoping that they won’t.

Paramount Pictures

10/17 Lady Bird

Lady Bird is one of the best American coming-of-age films since Barry Levinson’s Diner. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, it offers an utterly winning mix of humour, poignancy and sharp-eyed social observation. Gerwig approaches her subject matter with the same tenderness and affectionate irony with which the adolescent Lady Bird regards Sacramento. Gerwig also shows Lady Bird’s heroism as the young heroine strives against the odds to become the very best version of herself she can be.

A24

11/17 Phantom Thread

If Phantom Thread is indeed Daniel Day-Lewis’s final film as an actor, he is going out on a wondrously bizarre note. This must be the oddest film in his career, one in which he gives a typically commanding but very idiosyncratic performance. Almost everything here is jarring – but generally in a very positive way.

12/17 First Reformed

It is not so long ago that Paul Schrader seemed to be giving up on cinema. The American writer-director (whose credits include Taxi Driver, American Gigolo and Affliction) had taken to making movies like the sour Hollywood satire The Canyons with Lindsay Lohan and the cartoonishly violent Dog Eat Dog, shot cheaply, aimed at a VOD audience. The former had a montage of closed-down movie theatres. In interviews, Schrader struck a gloomy note about the future of the industry. This is why First Reformed is so refreshing. This is not just Schrader’s best film in a very long while. It is also a re-affirmation of the director’s belief in the medium.

Rex

13/17 The Happy Prince

Oscar Wilde goes to ruin in Rupert Everett’s debut feature as director. Everett also wrote and stars in the film, giving a grandstanding performance as the Irish writer at the end of his life, after his release from prison, where he has been doing hard labour for “gross indecency”. This is a moving and surprising biopic that squeezes out every last drop of pathos from its subject matter.

BBC Films

14/17 Black Panther

Black Panther is not only one of the most entertaining recent superhero films but has an intelligence and a political dimension that such inchoate offerings as Suicide Squad and Justice League completely lacked. It is an action movie which touches on Pan-Africanism and which owes as much to Malcolm X as it does to Batman or Captain America.

Marvel Studios / Disney

15/17 Sicilian Ghost Story

Sicilian Ghost Story is a genre-bending affair that combines elements of teen romance, gothic psycho-drama and political thriller. It is loosely based on a true story of a boy called Giuseppe Di Matteo whose father, an ex-member of the Sicilian Mafia, turned “grass” against his erstwhile associates. The Mafia responded by kidnapping Giuseppe and keeping him in captivity for nearly 800 days.

Altitude

16/17 First Man

First Man is all about understated heroism. It’s affecting precisely because Armstrong (played with quiet intensity by Ryan Gosling) doesn’t feel the continual need to boast about his mission. The film is a tearjerker but a very subtle one.

AP

17/17 Dogman

Dogman is one of the best Italian films of recent times, a modern day neo realist fable that bears comparison with the great work of Fellini, Rossellini, De Sica et al. Its main character, the dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte), is a wonderful creation: loveable, vulnerable, seedy and comic all at the same time.

Curzon Artificial Eye

White Ribbon (2009)

Michael Haneke’s enigmatic parable about “the roots of evil” took more than ten years to come to fruition, with more than 7,000 children being seen for the film’s central roles – but in the end, the Funny Games director’s meticulousness was worth it. The film is set in the fictitious German village of Eichwald – a village which, even before it is torn apart by the outbreak of war, is beleaguered by unexplained acts of violence. Mysterious and deeply unsettling, Haneke’s masterpiece resists easy interpretation, and is all the more affecting for it. AP

La Grande Guerra (1959)

This bitter satire of the First World War, in which a comically bumbling duo – played by Vittorio Gassman and Alberto Sordi – reluctantly sign up to fight, won the Golden Lion at the 1959 Venice Film Festival, despite an initial campaign to ban it. Director Mario Monicelli’s film may at first appear comedic in tone, but tackles, full-on, the grim horrors of the trenches. It examines the darkness of innocent citizens being sucked into the brutality of a war which killed 650,000 in Italy – and was one of the few Italian films to do so. Elisa Bray

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Russian-born Lewis Milestone made a bold attempt to adapt Erich Maria Remarque’s superb novel about the physical and mental duress of German soldiers in the trenches of First World War into a Hollywood epic. Its sensitive, anti-war narrative helped it win both Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. Banned in Nazi Germany (where it was considered anti-German) and in Australia, Italy, France and Austria, it remains the definitive First World War movie. CH

Paths of Glory (1957)

Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory (1958) (United Artists/Kobal/REX)

Director Stanley Kubrick, fresh from the narratively experimental flop The Killing, applied a straightforward treatment to this tale of a failed First World War attack on the Germans. Kirk Douglas gives an infallible performance as the officer who refuses to let another man be court-martialed after the attack. Although the auteur’s later work contains increasingly visceral scenes, Paths of Glory is often restrained, with multiple scenes based in boardroom settings.

When Kubrick lets loose, it’s all the more enthralling, with one iconic tracking shot through no man’s land particularly unforgettable. Jack Shepherd

The Grand Illusion (1937)

La Grande Illusion may not be Jean Renoir’s masterpiece, but it’s certainly one of the most subtle – and beautifully-crafted – anti-war films in existence. By uniting soldiers from warring nations in one base – a prisoner of war camp – Renoir highlighted the futility of war: when they’re away from the battlefield, it’s their humanity that shines through regardless of their background

Renoir should know: he was a pilot in the First World War. Three years later, the Nazis would ban the film after invading France. Jacob Stolworthy 

Wings (1927)

William A Wellman’s gallant and sentimental tale set the standard for how we depict the battles of the skies. The winner of the very first Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929, the film follows two rival pilots, Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), who put their differences aside and become heroes while fighting in France. The original “it girl”, Clara Bow, is also on hand to provide the film’s star power. Clarisse Loughrey

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

David Lean’s depiction of British Army colonel TE Lawrence’s experiences as a military advisor in Arabia during the First World War won seven Academy Awards in 1963, including Best Picture and Best Director. The 6ft 2in Peter O’Toole memorably portrayed the 5ft 5in Lawrence as a heroic figure, while the historical accuracy of the 1917 Attack on Aqaba leaves much to be desired, but the film remains a widescreen epic unlike anything else in cinema. CH

Shoulder Arms (1918)

A testament to Charlie Chaplin’s ability to find comedy and humanity in the bleakest of circumstances, later put to such famous use in The Great Dictator (1940), Shoulder Arms managed to capture the reality of the trenches while still providing comfort to a world trying to process its horrors. The film stars Chaplin as a hapless recruit to the “awkward squad”, although the majority of the movie is revealed to be a dream sequence. CL

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