As we begin to talk about the films in the next three decades, we will start to see the broad expanse of the war and the individuals that volunteered their lives to World War I. History books and films both regale stories of heroic individuals, but strictly in battle or at home. American films in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s turned from grittier depictions of World War I to tales of individuals on the fringes. Each character plays a part that has a profound impact on the war both at home and globally.
Sergeant York (1941)
A list of great WWI films would be incomplete without Sergeant York. Directed by Howard Hawks and starring Gary Cooper, who became famous through the previously mentioned film Wings. It’s based on the life of Alvin York, one of the most decorated soldiers of World War I. It starts with his humble life in a rural Tennessee town. He is an excellent marksman with a penchant for drinking and fighting. Seeing his life fall apart he joins a local church revival and vows to rid himself of anger. As a changed man the United States then enters World War I. York is drafted into the army, despite him trying to avoid induction by being a conscientious objector. The military learns of his abilities as a marksman and advances him to Corporal. Still objecting the war in his heart, York leans on his faith to get him through the troubling times.
Alvin York himself refused many times to let a film about his life. However, he but finally gave permission to use his story so he could finance an interdenominational bible school. He worked alongside the creators to ensure the authenticity of the story. Sergeant York was a huge success due to America’s activity in the Pacific Theater. Many theaters played the film well after its release date, inspiring young men to enlist.
Pictured above is first, actor Gary Cooper as Sergeant York and second, is Sergeant Alvin York.
Gary Cooper won an Academy Award for his portrayal of York’s character. It also won for Best Edited Film and was nominated in another nine categories. In 2008 Sergeant York was chosen to be preserved by the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Sergeant York was and still is one of the highest-grossing films to this day.
The African Queen (1951)
The African Queen is a British-American adventure film based on the 1935 novel by C.S. Forester. The film is directed by legendary director John Huston and features the talents of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. A brother and sister duo, Samuel and Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn), are Methodist Missionaries serving in German East India at the beginning of World War I. They receive their supplies by way of steamboat driven by Canadian Captain, Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart). Despite his warning of the war, the Sayers continued their efforts in Africa when eventually trouble comes. After being attacked by the Germans, Charlie and Rose find themselves trying to make a daring escape on board the African Queen.
Filming The African Queen did not come without its difficulties but the hard work paid off. A majority of the film was shot in Uganda and the Congo, which was something most films did not do in the 50’s. Many participants in the film caught local diseases from drinking the water. In some of the scenes it is said that Katharine Hepburn kept a bucket next to her for in-between takes because she was so often sick.
The African Queen was well-received. Many liked the war adventure with a hint of romance, the stunning scenery, and the charms of Humphrey and Katharine. The Academy Awards agreed with the general audience, awarding Humphrey Bogart with Best Actor (his only Oscar) and nominating Katherine Hepburn. Like some of the other films mentioned, the United States National Film Registry in 1994 chose to preserve The African Queen with the Library of Congress because the film was considered to be significant in culture and history.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
In the 1960’s people around the world did not know what hit them when Lawrence of Arabia hit theaters. If you haven’t seen the movie, you have at least heard of it! The film itself is based on the novel Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence and follows the life of Lawrence in the Arabian Peninsula during World War I. It mainly focuses on Lawrence’s attack on the Aqaba and Damascus. Most importantly, Lawrence’s grapples with his divided allegiance between native home Britain and their army, and his new found companions the tribes in the Arabian desert. Struggling with the violence brought on with war and the inner turmoil it brings, Lawrence finds himself enlisting others to fight for what he feels is right.
Pictured below is first, T.E. Lawrence and second, is actor Peter O’Toole portrayed as Lawrence.
Lawrence of Arabia was a huge success critically and financially. It is considered a masterpiece of world cinema and one of the greatest films ever made. The film was directed by David Lean and starred Peter O’Toole. Some argue the film’s historical accuracy, but a majority of the its story and characters are based on true events and characters to varying degrees. Casting Peter O’Toole was widely-argued because critics felt he was wrong for the part and too tall compared T.E. Lawrence’s 5’5”. But despite it all, O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence’s character is considered one of the greatest acting jobs in cinema history.
Lawrence of Arabia won seven of its ten Academy Awards, along with a Golden Globe, and many international accolades. Being one of the most widely acclaimed films, Lawrence of Arabia was also chosen to be preserved with the Library of Congress. To date the film maintains its spot on many top movie lists. The film itself influenced many directors, including George Lucas, Ridley Scott and Stephen Spielberg who has said the film was a “miracle”.
Each film showcases the Great War as seen through the eyes of a few. Directors from the Old Hollywood era had the benefit of larger budgets, trained actors, and exotic locations. Through these advanced techniques in their time, directors were able to explore World War I experiences on a larger scale. They focused their efforts on sharing stories outside of the norm, using World War I as a backdrop.
Hopefully you will watch these films and recognize the impact World War I had on Sergeant York, Charlie Allnut, and T. E. Lawrence. As a culture we consume more stories about World War II than any other past conflict. This leaves a gap in our knowledge of World War I and how the conflict and individual sacrifice shaped our world. Do we ever think of that one person and the impact they had on the large number of people involved in the Great War?
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Alvin York.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 11 May 2018, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Alvin-Cullum-York.
“Sergeant York (Film).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 2 Aug. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergeant_York_(film).
Hepburn, Katharine. The Making of The African Queen, or, How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall, and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. New American Library, 1987.
“The African Queen (Film).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 2 Aug. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_African_Queen_(film).
“Film Registry – National Film Preservation Board | Programs | Library of Congress.” Reference Services, Library of Congress), Victor, http://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/.
Lawrence, T. E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Kessinger Pub., 2004.
“Lawrence of Arabia (Film).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Aug. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_of_Arabia_(film).