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Poignant Cinema Sprung From 'The War To End All Wars'

Paramount Pictures
Film in the public domain
Gary Cooper (left) & Jack La Rue in 1932's 'A Farewell to Arms.'

As we commemorate its 100th anniversary, it's worth noting that films about World War I are nothing like the movies about World War II. While World War II films typically picture the end of the war as triumph, World War I movies reflect that ghastly absurd logic, and tend to end on notes of waste, loss and futility.

Most WWI films are anti-war, and there’s no such thing as triumph.

 Take a look at the 1932 version of A Farewell to Arms, directed by Frank Borzage from Ernest Hemingway’s novel, with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. It’s a stunning, gauzy melodrama which helped define the look of WWI in movies – the stylized barren, cratered landscape with fallen barbed wire fences and dead trees looking like tortured abstract paintings. Cooper’s Lt. Henry deserts the Italian army to meet his great love Catherine who has escaped to Switzerland. In one of the essential movie descriptions of the war, he flees in a tumultuous nighttime through hordes of refugees, war graves on hillsides, abandoned weapons, rain and chaos.

French director Jean Renoir’s 1937 The Grand Illusion, one of the greatest films ever, gets to the futility of war with no combat scenes and only four or five shots fired, as if Renoir refused to dignify the stupidity of the war he fought in by showing any imitation of it. Instead, Renoir films the ridiculous persistence of social snobbery in prisoner-of-war camps, because this war was largely about social class.

A bunch of American pictures from the 1930s take on something like what we now call PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder. In the beautiful, morally surprising 1932 I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Paul Muni plays a WWI veteran who can’t handle middle class life anymore. He’s restless and dissatisfied, but society won’t tolerate such a guy and drives him away. American gangster pictures from the thirties, like The Roaring Twenties blame WWI for turning good people into criminals.

One of the nastiest films about the time isn’t about the war at all. Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, from 2009 is set in a German village just before the war. The place is a morass of venality, oppressive religion, abuse and blame. It’s Haneke’s vision of the kind of warped society that wanted and created the war.

These films are all in black and white.

The abstraction of black and white cinematography fits the fundamental bleakness of how filmmakers look upon this war to end all wars. But one color film also catches the empty destruction the war visited on human life.

French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier’s 1989 masterpiece Life and Nothing But takes place at the end of the war. A French officer is the one person in charge of accounting for over 300,000 missing French soldiers. A young widow with political connections wants him to find her husband. She’s entitled and persistent; he’s enraged by her. They fall in love, but they’re both too damaged to act on those feelings.

These are only a few of the exquisite films about WWI: King Vidor’s 1925 The Big Parade; William Wellman’s 1927 Wings, the first film to win the Oscar for Best Picture; All Quiet on the Western Front; and Charles Chaplin’s 1918 comedy, Shoulder Arms. All of these films expose the murderous shabbiness of the familiar hype and justification for war.

None of them are out of date.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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