Films from the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st century are primarily made now by foreign filmmakers from England, France, Germany, and Italy. Each country has presented their narratives based on the events from WWI. England, significantly affected by massive casualties on the Western Front, has created a sense of profound nostalgia for a war that devastated their people. Most importantly, France and Germany, have produced stories from their perspectives, giving the world a look into foreign allied and enemy experiences. European filmmakers have made a point to tell these stories as a way to preserve world history for posterity.
Post-9/11, America proved ready for another war film despite its engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2006, Flyboys gave audiences a visual landscape from the famous combat pilots, the Lafayette Escadrille. The film stars James Franco (The Disaster Artist) as a determined Texas rancher named Blaine Rawlings, who becomes swept up in his duty as a pilot and lover in France.
In 1916, a group of young Americans enlisted in the French Air Service and began training for aerial combat. After completing rigorous training, they are assigned a challenging first mission that involves accompanying bombers to attack a critical German ammunitions base. Rawlings and his pilots are grossly unprepared for what awaits them on the mission, resulting in several casualties. Fueled by revenge, Rawlings becomes resolute in his mission to take down as many German planes as possible. This precarious position also puts his love for the foreign Lucienne in jeopardy.
This movie tried to use real historical accounts to provide authenticity to a fictional love story. Despite efforts to infuse such events into the narrative, critics proposed that the movie was rife with historical inaccuracies. Many technical and mechanical errors were also left in the film so audiences could focus solely on the heroic and daring aerial combat scenes. In a time of terrorism and the verge of a Third World War, Flyboys was, despite its box office failure, a film about heroes of World War I in an uncertain modern age.
War Horse (2011)
War Horse (2011) is an exciting and touching story of a boy, Albert, and his horse, Joey, in the time of the Great War. This film is uniquely a joint venture by America and England with screenwriter Richard Curtis (think Love Actually) and director Steven Speilberg. Both cast and crew bring to life the English novel and stage play by the same brilliant fashion that intrigues from start to finish.
During World War I, England still employed a sizable and highly-decorated cavalry. Unfortunately, the country experiences one great loss after another as it is not equipped to battle the Germans in trench warfare. It is Albert’s connection with Joey throughout the film that leaves the audience and England hopeful for victory. The film expertly pulls the audience into the action with a sweeping narrative and precise camera angles, putting viewers in harsh situations against beautiful scenery.
War Horse was instantly adored by both critics and audiences around the world. The movie made $177.6 million worldwide and was crowned AFI’s Film of the Year. War Horse was nominated for Academy Awards, BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and Critics’ Choice Awards in multiple categories. Speilberg and crew expertly turn out a heartfelt story and a history lesson that is entirely appropriate for families to enjoy with older children. The entire movie was shot onsite in Devon and Surrey, home of the highly-decorated Devonshire Regiment. The modern-day production quality sets War Horse apart as a cinematic celebration of World War I heroism. Films like this one should renew our collective interest in World War I and its lasting legacy on our world.
The short list of WWI-centric films features celebrated gems like Lawrence of Arabia and All Quiet on the Western Front. These films have racked up numerous awards as well as preservation for cultural significance by the National Film Registry. This critical success makes it hard to understand why more WWI films are not being produced. Historian Kees Ribbens suggested that the Great War is still viewed as a dark topic despite the heroics of the La Fayette Escadrille, Sergeant York, and the Devonshire Regiment. Later wars provide with Hollywood inspiration for films like Schindler’s List (1993) and Dunkirk (2017) despite displaying equally dark war themes. WWII era movies created the first real sense of nostalgia and romanticism for the Greatest Generation (1901-1924).
Though the War to End All Wars does not provide a vibrant muse for Hollywood, its influence is infused in other works. Most recently, Wonder Woman (2017) featured WWI as the backdrop and societal parallel for war and nationalism. J. R. R. Tolkien used his personal WWI service as the framework for his The Lord of the Rings book trilogy. Personally affected on a spiritual level from his service, C. S. Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe after the Battle of Somme. Both writers, moved by their experiences, went on to pen some of the greatest novels of the 20th century (and film versions). Their characters have become the preserved voices from the Lost Generation (1883-1900).
This year PBS began streaming its three-part documentary series called The Great War. The series is an effort to preserve and celebrate WWI and its lasting legacy in our collective world history. Accompanying the video series are articles, digital shorts, and photo galleries that round out the immersive experience. Viewers can dive deeper into various subjects such as the Battle of Belleau Wood, war propaganda, and women’s suffrage.
The Library of Congress also features digitized documents (previously on microfilm) about WWI policies, battle maps, and the American home front. The site also features several galleries and exhibitions with American voices during a time of momentous change. Both the Library of Congress and PBS have made commitments to preserving the First World War for future generations. These digital archives, paired with American film, have become part of the preservation act for a nation. What can you do to help preserve and celebrate the legacy of WWI?
“Lafayette Escadrille.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Aug. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lafayette_Escadrille.
Heller, Chris. “’War Horse’ Is a War Film, Even If Spielberg Doesn’t Want It to Be.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 24 Dec. 2011, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/12/war-horse-is-a-war-film-even-if-spielberg-doesnt-want-it-to-be/250448/.
“The Devonshire Regiment In the First World War.” The Battle of Plassey – The Keep Military Museum, Dorchester, Dorset, www.keepmilitarymuseum.org/history/first world war/the devonshire regiment.
Bergdahl, Esther. “Why Do So Few Hollywood Movies Take Place During World War I?” Pacific Standard, Pacific Standard, 27 June 2017, psmag.com/social-justice/lets-have-more-movies-like-wonder-woman-please.
Rhys-Davies, John. “How Was The Lord of the Rings Influenced by World War One?” BBC, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zgr9kqt.
Bowyer, Jerry. “The Inklings At War: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, And WWI.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 26 July 2016, www.forbes.com/sites/jerrybowyer/2016/07/26/the-inklings-at-war-c-s-lewis-j-r-r-tolkien-and-wwi/#1c434c5b438a.
“The Great War.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/great-war/.
“A Guide to World War I Materials.” Apple Computers: This Month in Business History (Business Reference Services, Library of Congress), Victor, www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/wwi/wwi.html.