The 10 most intense WWI films

With the spectacular 1917 generating great reviews and word of mouth, critic Travis Johnson serves up another 10 incredibly intense WWI films to watch.

Director Sam Mendes’ critically acclaimed WWI film 1917 (see all movies now playing in cinemas) has chalked up 10 nominations for this year’s Academy Awards. It is far from the only fine film set during The War to End All Wars (yeah, they got that one wrong).

While World War II films can make hay from the moral rightness of fighting Nazis and films about later conflicts often centre on the human cost of battle, the sheer scale of the slaughter in the trenches mean that WWI movies tend to be the most somber and heartbreaking of the lot.

So, don’t expect much flag-waving in…

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Based on the Erich Maria Remarque novel of the same name, this pre-Code masterpiece follows idealistic young German recruit Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayers) and his fellow soldiers into the hell of trench warfare, from which no one will return unscathed.

Don’t let the age of the film put you off: All Quiet… has lost none of its power in the last 90 years, thanks to astute direction, on-point performances, astounding technical accuracy (German Army veterans resettled in Los Angeles served as extras and technical advisors) and an unflinching commitment to stripping all the glory from the spectacle of war.

Paths of Glory (1957)

The second best military courtroom drama of all time (Breaker Morant takes the top slot) sees the great Kirk Douglas – under the direction of the even greater Stanley Kubrick – as French Colonel Dax, who volunteers to defend three soldiers charged with cowardice after a failed suicide attack on a German position.

Dax knows the men are innocent, but the officer class needs to save face, and the outcome is all but preordained. Paths of Glory asks us to compare the overt warfare of the trenches with the class warfare that feeds good men into no man’s land, and the firing squad, while letting those responsible for conducting the war survive unscathed.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Not just one of the best World War I films, nor just one of the best war films, but one of the best films ever made, period. David Lean’s jaw-dropping epic celebrates and deconstructs the legend of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), the British officer who became a leading figure in the Arab revolt against Turkish rule during the war. Yes, it is stunningly shot and staged. No, they don’t make ‘em like this any more, but what makes Lawrence of Arabia truly great is its ambivalent attitude to war and violence; like Lawrence himself, it both revels in the legendary and recoils from the horror.

King and Country (1964)

Another courtroom drama. This time it’s Dirk Bogarde as the officer, Captain Hargreaves, who must defend a soldier, Arthur Hamp (Tom Courtenay), who has been charged with desertion. It’s clear to anyone with eyes that the simple Hamp is suffering from PTSD – “shellshock” in the parlance of the time” – but the wheels of military justice must be oiled with blood, and so poor Hamp is made an example of. While King and Country explores territory previously covered by Paths of Glory and later by Breaker Morant, its climax is more shocking than either. Make an effort to track this one down; it is undeservingly obscure.

The Blue Max (1966)

George Peppard plays a working class German fighter pilot determined to win the coveted Blue Max medal and prove himself better than the aristocratic aces in his squadron, but the ruthlessness with which he strives for his goal soon alienates all around him. However, what look like war crimes and naked ambition up close are valuable propaganda on the home front, and so his reckless behaviour is tacitly encouraged as tragedy piles upon tragedy.

Prefiguring Sam Peckinpah’s hallucinatory Cross of Iron by 11 years, journeyman director John Guillerman (the bad King Kong) gives us a merciless take on the price of glory – and, it must be said, some stunning aerial choreography to boot.

Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

Legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo adapts and directs his own 1938 novel, a surreal psychodrama that sees young soldier Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms) lose his limbs, eyes, ears, mouth and nose in an artillery strike. Confined to a hospital bed, he hallucinates passages of his life while trying to beg for euthanasia by tapping “kill me” in Morse Code. By keeping the focus on the horrible human outcome of conflict, Trumbo forges an anti-war statement arguably more powerful and piercing than any grander film on the list.

Gallipoli (1981)

The second best Australian war movie of all time (Breaker Morant takes the top slot), Peter Weir’s magisterial attempt to reconcile the pointless horror of war with the forging of the ANZAC myth sees wide-eyed farm kid Archy (Mark Lee) and knockabout larrikin Frank (Mel Gibson) enlist in the Australian Imperial Force and set off for the Dardenelles, where tragedy inevitably awaits on the titular peninsula. Gallipoli is, for most of its running time, a heartfelt ode to mateship, camaraderie, and the spirit of the Aussie battler – which means when tragedy strikes, most often off screen, it hits all the harder.

War Horse (2011)

Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel has weathered accusations of sentimentality. Yes, the rosy John Ford How Green Was My Valley opening passages may stretch the patience of modern viewers, but they serve to counterpoint the latter acts. These chart a course through the length and breadth of the Western Front from the point of view of farm horse Joey, initially purchased for the British cavalry but later pressganged into various roles throughout the theatre.

There’s genius in viewing war from an animal’s point of view. The beast’s simple presence in this man-made hell effortlessly evokes our sympathies, and the ‘Berg’s superlative craft drives the message home with uncommon power.

Testament of Youth (2015)

Alicia Vikander is Vera Brittain in this sumptuous and thoughtful adaptation of the famed anti-war activist’s memoir of World War One. When hostilities break out, she leaves her studies at Oxford volunteers as a nurse, while her brother Edward (Taron Egerton), lover Roland (Kit Harrington), and friend Victor (Colin Morgan) sing up for the army – and are fed right into the grinder.

The film’s strength is to convey, with sheer, cold, mounting impassivity, the scale of the carnage simply by dint of the number of young men who march off to war and are never seen again. Testament of Youth isn’t horrifying; it’s heartbreaking.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

Peter Jackson directs and produces this staggeringly ambitious act of archival filmmaking, painstakingly colourising reams of footage from Britain’s Imperial War Museum to bring World War One to life in a way that has simply never been seen before.

Using modern sound effects, old interview audio, and the odd spot of voice acting, They Shall Not Grow Old’s triumph is to humanise and actualise the long-dead soldiers it depicts in a way that modern audiences simply cannot dismiss as distant and irrelevant. Not only a stunning filmmaking achievement, but an indelible reminder of how close the past really lies.