Through the Lens: Focus on World War I

As time goes by it gets harder to remember events in our collective past, that includes World War I. Often we hear of daring stories from World War II. Of downed planes and liberated peoples. And most importantly, of victory at the war’s end. But how many of us can recall the events of the world’s first war?

One of the ways we can remember the war is through films. The first half of the 20th century, Americans made a point to focus on the events of World War I. Through the decades the war has been portrayed by way of musical, action, and silent films.

The next four blog posts will take a closer look at World War I film through the decades. More importantly, it is to explore what World War I has contributed to American film and why Americans no longer look back on this war in the same way.

The Little American (1917)

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The Little American is significant because it is the first film to include events of World War I as it was unfolding. The Little American is an American silent romantic war drama film at just over an hour long, which can be watched on Youtube. It is directed by Cecille De Mille who also co-produced the film with Mary Pickford, the main actress. Angela More (Pickford) is an American in love with both a German and a French soldier, who struggles between the affections of Karl Von Austriem and Jules De Destin. The men are called to war and Angela finds herself in deeper than previously expected.

Something that makes this film stand out is that it was released during a time of conflict. The United States had just declared war against Germany, causing people to question the film itself. The Chicago Board of Sensors at first blocked the film deeming it anti- German with the possibility of inciting a riot. Artcraft challenged the board in a jury trial. The Board denied showing The Little American twice, even after it being court ordered. The film eventually won the right to show the movie in Chicago.

Click here to view The Little American.

Wings (1927)

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Wings is a 1927 American silent war film directed by William A. Wellman. It stars Clara Bow, Charles Rogers, Richard Arlen, and Gary Cooper. Town Rivals Jack Powell and David Armstrong who both enlist to be combat pilots in the air service. They end up billeting together and finding themselves at odds with each other throughout the war. The director, Wellman, was chosen for this film because he was the only Hollywood film director at the time that had World War I combat pilot experience, along with Richard Arlen. This film was the first to win an Academy Award for best picture in 1929 and is also the first silent film to do so.

One of the many things to love about Wings is that of the 300 plus extras used in the film, real pilots and planes were taken from the United States Army Air Corps, making the flight sequences more accurate. Also, in 1997 Wings was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”

Click here to view the trailer for Wings.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

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Despite America’s Great Depression, the film All Quiet on the Western Front was a green-lit success. The 1930 film was based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel by the same name about the Army’s bright young men of 2nd Company. These men were quickly broken down in training by a Corporal bent in preparing them for the harrowing front lines against the Germans.

Disillusioned, each man faces a tragedy that calls war’s purpose and patriotism into question. All Quiet on the Western Front presented the First World War in a raw and gritty fashion that resonated with Americans but not anywhere else. Its gruesome nature gained the film prohibited status in Australia, Italy, Austria, France, and Germany. Director Lewis Milestone’s film succeeded in celebrating and exposing war’s harsh reality while simultaneously garnering acclaim (first Oscar for Best Director) and cultural preservation (Library of Congress’ National Film Registry).

Click here to view the trailer for All Quiet on the Western Front.

All three films are from the pre-code movie era before MPAA ratings were issued. A lack of censorship allowed the films to portray war and the people of the time in their most raw forms, which included realistic fighting scenes and nudity. American audiences can now choose to view films by content rating, leaving the discretion to the viewer.

These three films were made while the war was still fresh in American minds. They are some of the most important movies of World War I because of their realistic portrayals. The Little American was banned for anti-German propaganda, which was seen as insensitive at the beginning of the war. Wings included our own US service members in expertly-reproduced aerial combat with actual military equipment. All Quiet on the Western Front introduced American audiences to gory combat sequences. Had these movies been made after the pre-code era, would they have presented World War I in such an authentic fashion?




“The Little American.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 2 Aug. 2018,

“Wings (1927 Film).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 Aug. 2018,

“All Quiet on the Western Front.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Aug. 2018,

Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1993.


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