Ceremonies this month note the 100th anniversary of America’s April 1917 entry into World War I. In later decades, when Hollywood emerged from silent films, one of the most interesting genres was about the Great War. My choice of the best of WWI movies:
What Price Glory (1926): Originally a successful Broadway play by Sherwood Anderson and Laurence Stallings, it’s about two crusty U.S. Marines whose friendship and rivalry go back many years. They’re together again as the Marines fight in the trenches of WWI.
The silent movie stars Victor McLaughlen as Captain Flagg and Edmund Lowe as Top Sergeant Quirt. Dolores del Rio, a popular Spanish actress of the era, portrays Charmaine, the French girl love object of both men.
The story was told again in a 1952 Technicolor production. It starred James Cagney as Flagg, Dan Dailey as Quirt and French actress Corinne Calvet as Charmaine.
All Quiet On The Western Front (1930): Written by Erich Maria Remarque, the story is told from the perspective of Paul, a naive young German student caught up in the intense patriotism of 1914 as his country goes to war. After bloody battles and the deaths of friends, disillusionment overwhelms him.
The title phrase describes the trenches as the war is winding down. However, in an ironic ending, when the young soldier reaches out to pick a flower, he’s killed by a sniper. Lew Ayres portrays the ill-fated Paul. The story was repeated as a TV movie in 1979, starring Richard Thomas as Paul.
Sergeant York (1941): It’s the Hollywood version of the exploits of an actual WWI hero. Sergeant Alvin C. York won the Congressional Medal of Honor for exploits as an infantryman in the Meuse-Argonne combat in France.
Starting with his humble beginnings in rural Tennessee, York, as portrayed by Gary Cooper, was a conscientious objector. After being drafted, he put aside his strong religious beliefs because of the patiotic fervor of the time.
Paths of Glory (1957): This is about a French infantry unit and based on actual incidents during WWI. Soldiers fail to capture a German stronghold and then retreat back to their lines. Angry high-ranking officers order several to be shot as examples of cowardice.
Kirk Douglas portrays Colonel Dax, who leads what becomes a hopeless attack. After his unit suffers terrible casualties, he orders the retreat. One of his lieutenants is then required to select three soldiers to be tried and doomed to a firing squad. An attorney in civilian life, the colonel insists on defending them in a travesty of a court martial.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Set in an area of the world not often selected to represent WWI battlefields in Hollywood movies. In this classic, Peter O’Toole portrays the real-life hero, Colonel T.E. Lawrence.
A young British Army lieutenant, he leads Arab tribal armies across the deserts. With Lawrence as leader, they successfully conquer the cities of Aqaba and Damascus from Turkey, allied with Germany in that war.
After WWI, Lawrence is considered a fanatic, mustered out of the army and abandoned. He enlists under an assumed name as a private in the Royal Air Force. As depicted in the film, is killed in a motorcycle accident in 1935.