War in Movies: World War I

Since I’ve pretty much exhausted all the mythology-related movies I’m familiar with (or at least the ones worth talking about), Courtney and I will now embark on a new blog series: WAR IN MOVIES! Which is a tough category to narrow down, considering the number of incredible films centering on war. But we’ll do our best.

To start things off, we have The War to End All Wars, The Great War, also known as… World War I.

Legends of the Fall brothers

Legends of the Fall is an epic period piece, a family drama set on the plains of Montana – and as I mentioned in my quick Camelot overview, Julia Ormond is a homewrecker. Ormond moves to the Ludlow family homestead with her fiance, youngest brother Samuel, and becomes witness to the strong bonds between him and his two brothers Alfred (Aidan Quinn) and wild-spirited Tristan (Brad Pitt), and their father, Col. Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins). All too soon, news of a war in Europe reaches them, and as the wide-eyed idealist – who also happens to speak German – Samuel is determined to volunteer to fight against the Kaiser. His older brothers follow suit to protect him, but tragedy strikes on the battlefield!

Legends of the Fall WWI

Later Julia marries a different brother while pining after the third and just generally being awful (but you know, in a sympathetic, she-can’t-help-who-she-loves kinda b.s. way). Melodrama at its best, and Brad Pitt has never been dreamier.

Legends of the Fall WWI

Based on a 1979 novella, the movie is more of a family chronicle than a war film, so talk of historical accuracy is basically moot. It is true that many enthusiastic Americans traveled to Canada to fight in WWI – as the Ludlow brothers did – up to 3 years before the US entered the war in 1917. But mainly the war serves to provide a sense of atmosphere and drama for the family to confront, overcome, and move past, though not unchanged.

Gallipoli follows another idealistic young volunteer, but on the other side of the globe: Australia. In 1915, Archy (Mark Lee) travels across the country to enlist, pairing up with a shockingly young Mel Gibson. Both are competitive sprinters, which results in them becoming message-runners when the troops are deployed to Egypt and Turkey.

Gallipoli WWI

I watched this when I was fairly young for the novelty of seeing a 25 year old Mel Gibson (before we knew he was crazy!), and remember being bored by the early portions of it. But once they reach Gallipoli (a peninsula in Turkey), the movie shows some of the harrowing conditions soldiers lived under, and in particular the maddening futility of trench warfare which we saw brief glimpses of in Legends of the Fall. The final scenes show Mel Gibson as a runner trying to deconflict and hopefully cancel attack orders before the Battle of the Nek; but ultimately the attack is carried out and hundreds of men are mowed down by gunfire within seconds.

Gallipoli WWI

The Gallipoli Campaign is not well known in the U.S., but it’s commemorated every year in Australia and New Zealand. It had huge ramifications during the war itself; it was a devastating loss for the Allies and considered a historic victory for the Turks. As for historical accuracy: many people criticize Gallipoli for portraying the British in a very unsympathetic light, and falsely claiming Australians died to provide a diversion while the Brits “made tea on the beach.”

Gallipoli War Propoganda


If you’re not a classics buff, you might still recognize this one from the constant references in Prometheus. As the android David, Michael Fassbender emulated Peter O’Toole’s legendary performance as the real-life English officer who struggled with violence, cultural allegiances, and personal identity in Saudi Arabia during World War I.

Prometheus Lawrence of Arabia quote

The timelines, geography, and character portrayals in Lawrence of Arabia aren’t overly accurate: the attack on Aqaba, the portrayals of the Arab Council, and the desertion of Lawrence’s army were all highly fictionalized. But the focus here is on a controversial depiction of the man himself as homosexual, egotistical, and sado-masochistic. It’s hard to say how accurate or inaccurate that depiction is though; while the film received a good bit of criticism from historians at the time, subsequent biographers have suggested it may be more accurate than previously thought.

Lawrence of Arabia

In any case, the performance garnered O’Toole his first of 8 Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, making him the most-nominated to never win. (He did get an Honorary Oscar, but he wasn’t too pleased about it)


I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually haven’t seen this classic! Based on a 1929 book, the film depicts the harrowing conditions faced by German soldiers during the war. It follows a young man motivated to join the army and “defend the Fatherland,” who becomes disenchanted upon seeing the brutality and futility of the battlefield.The soldiers speculate as to the causes and nature of conflict, presenting a clear anti-war message. Up until this point war had been romanticized in popular culture, but the graphic depictions of violence and wartime conditions in both the book and film were eye-opening to the public and a heavy influence on subsequent authors and directors.

All Quiet on the Western Front gif

Fun fact: this was the first all-talking, non-musical film to win Best Picture!

15 thoughts on “War in Movies: World War I”

  1. Lawrence of a Arabia is on my watchlist, going to watch it soon. Gallipoli I saw years ago, need to revisit that one.

    I don’t know if you will be doing more WW1 posts, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) I’d also throw into the mix.

  2. Excellent post. I love your choice of moies.. I haven’t seen All Quiet either, but the book is one of my all time favorites.

  3. As was listed above, Paths of Glory should be included in this list. It starred Kirk Douglas, pre Spartacus, and he was nominated for the academy award. Great film that points out the stupidity of the tactics used by the aging French generals in WWI. They were still using Napoleon’s tactics against modern weaponry. Douglas was brilliant and Kubrick’s direction impeccable. That collabaration led them to do Spartacus together.

    1. I’ll have to put that one on Netflix! Several of the ones I mentioned show how painfully stupid trench warfare was, it’s really hard to watch these boys charging to their deaths for nothing.

  4. Excellent topic … I am excited to see what else you include in this series. I love your choices, especially All Quiet on the Western Front. And I have yet to see Lawrence of Arabia. I need to get to that soon.

    1. Good to hear an endorsement for All Quiet, I’m looking forward to checking it out! Fair warning, Lawrence of Arabia requires some stamina; kind of like The English Patient, you know it’ll be good if you can focus and stay awake long enough XD

  5. Great list! Lawrence of Arabia is such a perfect film, I really need to see that one again soon.

    I’ll also jump on the Paths of Glory bandwagon – definitely the finest WWI movie I’ve seen. Hope you enjoy it!

  6. Oh my, a few I could mention here includes the classics: Gary Cooper in “Sergeant York” (1941), James Cagney in “The Fighting 69th” (1940), Humphrey Bogart & Katharine Hepburn in “The African Queen” (1951), and George Peppard in “The Blue Max” (1966). Also set during WW1 are “Zeppelin” (1970 with Michael York), Simon Wincer’s “The Lighthorsemen” (1987), and “Flyboys” (2006). Special mention should go to the film “Wings” (1927), winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture. I also know that there are a few other WW1 films out there, including a couple on the Red Baron, but I’m not as familiar with them as I am the ones listed above or the ones I’ve mentioned here.

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