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The Great War on Film

100 years after the Armistice, we look back at the cinematic depictions of the 20th century’s first modern war

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by Piers Handling
Nov 7, 2018

The TIFF Cinematheque retrospective The Great War on Film begins Saturday, November 10.

The Great War ushered in cataclysmic changes. Kingdoms and empires were swept away, kaisers, czars, emperors, and sultans were consigned to the dustbin of history; new countries were born, and borders redrawn. More important than these geopolitical realignments, however, was the scale of the conflict and the destruction it wrought — a human toll that beggared comprehension.

The war affected virtually every inhabited continent, drawing hundreds of millions of people into its vortex. Tens of millions were killed. Canada, a nation of six million in 1914, sent 600,000 men to fight, of which 60,000 died. The European combatants saw their societies and the convictions on which they were founded fracture and fissure, leaving psychological wounds that ran deep for generations. At the same time, the war created new myths and new ideologies. For many Canadians, the assault on Vimy Ridge marked the birthplace of modern Canada, the moment when the former colony became a nation. For the Australians it was Gallipoli. The Somme and Verdun became symbols of sacrifice for the British and the French respectively, while the Germans carried the “stab in the back” myth with them, with catastrophic consequences, into the Weimar years.

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Paul Gross in Passchendaele

The war also had an indelible influence on the new medium of the moving image. In an industrial context, it paved the way for Hollywood’s international hegemony, as the US’ late entry into the war allowed American studios to conquer the markets evacuated by the once formidable French and Italian industries. Film also began to play an important documentary (and propagandistic) role in the conflict. Newsreels captured the boys going off to war in that fateful summer of 1914, and showed soldiers training and deploying in the rear areas of the battle zones. (Actual combat footage was much rarer, as it was simply too dangerous for cameramen to film on the front lines; most battle scenes were re-staged later, safely away from the killing fields.)

While documentation was initially the primary role for the moving image in the war, it was not long before some of the world’s major filmmakers became intrigued by the cinematic possibilities of actual combat. In 1917, the British government gave D.W. Griffith unprecedented access to the front lines for his film Hearts of the World. Abel Gance, who would later make history with his 1927 epic Napoléon, had himself assigned to the combat zone in 1918, where he shot footage that he later incorporated into his devastating antiwar classic J’accuse.

Griffith and Gance were the pioneers, and many would follow in their footsteps. In the interwar period from 1918 to 1939, such eminent directors as King Vidor, Jean Renoir, G.W. Pabst, William Wellman, James Whale, Allan Dwan, Lewis Milestone, Luis Trenker, and Raoul Walsh presented powerful fictionalized versions of the conflict; John Ford and Howard Hawks directed four films apiece on the subject. While many American filmmakers naturally focused on American experiences in the war, they also showed little hesitation about depicting the wartime experiences of other nations, including those of the enemy. Ford, Hawks, Milestone, and Whale made films presenting British, French, and German viewpoints on the conflict. The war transcended national barriers, and thus, in a way, it belonged to everyone.

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From the other side: Louis Wolheim and Lew Ayres as German soldiers in the Hollywood adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front

As one would expect from such a prolific body of work, certain narratives would became commonplace in films about the war. The most characteristic was that centring on the couple of buddies who join up in the euphoria of the moment, go off to France, pine over a girl left behind or engage in a romantic interlude with a French girl from the estaminets or bars of the small villages behind the lines, have their noble illusions shattered by the bloody reality of the trenches, and often end up dead (or at least one of them does). Disillusionment was a central motif of the war film, as was a commitment to realism (or at least a certain degree of realism). Actual veterans were employed onscreen to powerful effect, and many of the films were made by men who had been directly involved in the events they were now recreating.

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Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory

Post-WWII films about the Great War brought a distinct change of tone. A generation removed from that original cataclysm (and in the wake of a greater and more recent one), they introduced more contemporary concerns into their narratives. Two of the most important Great War films from this era, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Joseph Losey’s King and Country — both made by Americans who ended up in “exile” in the UK, and both of which were haunted in some ways by the HUAC/McCarthy witch hunts of the early ’50s — centre on the trials of Allied soldiers who are being used either as scapegoats or as examples by their superiors. This little-known (or little-acknowledged) fact about the war was new narrative territory for the cinema. While interwar films had depicted the war as an abomination, none had dared tackle the thorny issue of killing not the enemy, but our own.

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Peter O’Toole in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia

While the Losey and Kubrick films attacked the military and political elites, David Lean’s masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia interrogated the idea of the charismatic warrior. Heroism in the classical sense had never truly been a subject of the interwar films, which instead tended to celebrate the quiet stoicism of the ordinary soldier. But Lean explored the idea of the hero in a very complex way, depicting Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence as a man in conflict with both himself and the very country for which he fights.

The generations of filmmakers that followed brought their own unique concerns to bear, and delved into previously untold stories about the war: women on the homefront trying to cope with their grief at losing husbands, lovers, or sons; the famous Christmas 1914 “armistice”; the experiences of artists in the war; the struggles of those suffering from war wounds (both physical and psychological); the postwar search for loved ones whose fates remained unknown. Others returned to the classic tropes of the first generation of Great War filmmakers: boys idealistically marching off to war only to be shocked and shattered by the violence of the killing fields.

In assembling this programme I wanted to present not just recognized classics, but to reflect the experiences and perspectives of the many different nationalities that participated in the war: British, French, German, Italian, Austro-Hungarian, Canadian, Australian. (Inevitably, some nations are not represented here, often because they did not produce any films on the subject). Even as the war served to some extent as a great leveller, different cultures experienced and reacted to it in different ways, and the manner in which the war is depicted in films from these cultures can give us some insight into the way in which the conflict was perceived by them.

The national is only one lens through which to approach the Great War on film, however, and this series will explore several other angles, approaches, and ideas about the conflict through the many expert guests we are welcoming to our screenings. What was it like for those who survived the war with grievous wounds, for those who participated in the first generation of aerial combat, for the doctors and nurses who attended to the combatants, for prisoners of war, for women on the home front, for the photographers who brought back still or moving images of the conflict?

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Xavier Beauvois’ The Guardians

One hundred years after the end of one of the most brutal conflicts in history, the reality of the war has become a dim memory. All the veterans of the conflict are now dead, as are most of their children. But their grandchildren still remember, and still make pilgrimages to the sites of battle and the resting places of family members, as I did to the graves of our relatives who fell at far too young an age. These films are a point of access into that momentous moment when millions of young men and women found themselves at war, facing their counterparts across trenches or in the air or at sea, playing their part, disrupting their lives, not knowing what the future might hold in store, being terrified, losing friends, wondering if it was all worth the sacrifice. It is to their memory that this retrospective is dedicated.