Best World War I Movies

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Paths of Glory (1957) six sheet movie poster (Heritage Auction Galleries)

The First World War was a bloody, frightening spectacle. Waged from 1914-18, the Great War (as it was originally called) accounted for over 16 million deaths – 9.7 million military personnel and 6.8 million civilians. Also known as “the war to end all wars,” World War I brought into our vernacular such buzzwords as no man’s land, Verdun, the Lusitania, shell shock, the Somme, trench foot and Belleau Wood.

Here are seven motion pictures that no serious World War I film buff should ever miss. Over the top, boys!

 Paths of Glory (United Artists, 1957)

Based on the 1935 Humphrey Cobb novel of the same name, Paths of Glory was scripted by Stanley Kubrick, Jim Thompson and Calder Willingham with Kubrick also serving as director. Kubrick and his business partners paid $10,000 for the movie rights to Cobb’s novel.

Kirk Douglas (Col. Dax), Ralph Meeker (Cpl. Paris), Adolphe Menjou (Gen. Broulard), George Macready (Gen. Mireau) and Wayne Morris (Lt. Roget) head the strong cast. Set in 1916, Paths of Glory features Douglas as a French Army colonel who is given the impossible task of storming a fortified enemy position known as the “Anthill.” When the attack ends in failure, the general in charge looks for scapegoats, eventually ordering the execution of three soldiers in order to set an example that “cowardice” will not be tolerated.

Budgeted at $935,000, Paths of Glory was filmed on location in Munich, Germany. Schleissheim Castle was used as the site of the court martial while producers constructed a realistic World War I battlefield in a farmer’s pasture, complete with trenches, shell holes, tons of explosives and their own no man’s land.

“The close, hard eye of Mr. Kubrick’s sullen camera bores directly into the minds of scheming men and into the hearts of patient, frightened soldiers who have to accept orders to die,” reported Bosley Crowther of The New York Times (12/26/57).

  • On DVD: Paths of Glory (MGM, 1999)

 All Quiet on the Western Front (Universal, 1930)

Producer Carl Laemmle Jr. brought the famous 1929 Erich Maria Remarque novel to the big screen in 1930. Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott, Del Andrews and Lewis Milestone penned the screenplay with Milestone also directing. Louis Wolheim (Katczinsky), Lew Ayres (Paul Baumer), John Wray (Himmelstoss), Arnold Lucy (Professor Kantorek) and Ben Alexander (Franz Kemmerich) head the fine cast.

Told from the German point of view, All Quiet on the Western Front follows the war’s progression through the eyes of a small group of schoolboys. Urged on by their impassioned teacher, the boys join the German Army where they soon find themselves in the midst of the horror and wholesale slaughter that was the Western Front.

Budgeted at a then-staggering $1.4 million, All Quiet on the Western Front’s battle scenes were filmed on 20 acres at the Irvine Ranch in Laguna Beach, California. More than 2,000 ex-servicemen were used in recreating the terror of trench warfare.

“My eyes! I’m blind! I can’t see!” one newbie calls out during a bombardment, wandering out in the open where he is ruthlessly machine-gunned. That memorable scene, and many like it, make All Quiet on the Western Front one of Hollywood’s greatest war movies.

  • On DVD: All Quiet on the Western Front (Universal, 2007)

Lawrence of Arabia (Columbia, 1962)

Lawrence of Arabia recounts the life and times of the fabled British soldier-adventurer T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935). Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson wrote the screenplay, with David Lean high atop the director’s chair. Peter O’Toole (Lawrence), Alec Guinness (Prince Feisal), Anthony Quinn (Auda abu Tayi), Jack Hawkins (General Allenby), Omar Sharif (Sherif Ali) and Jose Ferrer (Turkish Bey) head the large cast.

Budgeted at $15 million, Lawrence of Arabia was filmed in Spain, Morocco, the United Kingdom, Jordan and the United States. Imperial Sand Dunes in Glamis, California, was used for some desert scenes.

Lawrence of Arabia is a sweeping historical spectacle, complete with some of the best World War I sequences ever filmed. The movie’s principal war focus is the Middle East, where British Army officer Lawrence and his Arab cohorts wage a bloody guerrilla campaign against the Ottoman Empire.

Lawrence of Arabia won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography (Freddie Young) and Best Music Score (Maurice Jarre). “Authentic desert locations, a stellar cast and an intriguing subject combine to put this into the blockbuster league,” opined Variety (12/19/62).

  •  On DVD: Lawrence of Arabia Collector’s Edition (Columbia, 2008)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) lobby card (Heritage Auction Galleries)

Sergeant York (Warner Bros., 1941)

The life of World War I hero Alvin Cullom York (1887-1964) was brought to the silver screen in 1941 courtesy of producer Jesse L. Lasky. Abem Finkel, Harry Chandlee, Howard Koch, John Huston and Sam Cowan penned the screenplay with Howard Hawks directing. Gary Cooper (York), Walter Brennan (Pastor Rosier Pile), Joan Leslie (Gracie), George Tobias (Pusher Ross), Stanley Ridges (Major Buxton) and Margaret Wycherly (Mother York) head the cast.

Made for $1.4 million, Sergeant York was filmed from February to May 1941. The battle scenes were primarily shot in Simi Hills, California.

Sergeant York follows the incredible story of Alvin York, from Tennessee backwoodsman to conscientious objector to Medal of Honor winner. The best scenes come during the 1918 Battle of the Argonne, where sharpshooter York becomes a one-man army, storming machine gun nests, picking off enemy soldiers and taking prisoner 132 surrendering Germans.

Sergeant York – which premiered at New York City’s Astor Theater on July 2, 1941, with the real Alvin York in attendance – won Oscars for Best Actor (Cooper) and Best Film Editing (William Holmes). “Sergeant York is good native drama, inspiring in parts and full of life,” reported Bosley Crowther of The New York Times (7/3/41).

  •  On DVD: Sergeant York Two-Disc Special Edition (Warner, 2006)

Gallipoli (Paramount, 1981)

The disastrous Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-16 was the subject of this Australian-made film scripted by David Williamson and Peter Weir with the latter also directing. Mark Lee (Archy Hamilton), Bill Kerr (Jack), Harold Hopkins (Les McCann), Mel Gibson (Frank Dunne), Charles Yunipingli (Zac), Heath Harris (Stockman), Ron Graham (Wallace Hamilton), Gerda Nicolson (Rose Hamilton) and Robert Grubb (Billy) head the predominantly Aussie cast.

Budgeted at $2.8 million, Gallipoli was filmed in Australia and Egypt. The movie follows the travels of two young Western Australians, Lee and Gibson, who join the Australian Army during World War I. Their first overseas stop is Egypt, followed by a posting to Gallipoli on the Turkish coast where they are introduced to trench warfare.

The movie’s best scenes come in the final moments. Arriving too late with a message to cancel the attack, Gibson watches in horror as a wave of ANZAC troops mount a suicidal charge into no man’s land.

  •  On DVD: Gallipoli (Paramount, 2005)

 Hell’s Angels (United Artists, 1930)

Howard Hughes and his The Caddo Company brought this stirring tale of World War I aerial combat to movie theaters in 1930. Harry Behn, Howard Estabrook, Joseph Moncure March and Marshall Neilan penned the screenplay while the amazing Mr. Hughes produced and directed. Ben Lyon (Monte Rutledge), James Hall (Roy Rutledge), Jean Harlow (Helen), John Darrow (Karl Armstedt) and Lucien Prival (Baron Von Kranz) are the featured players.

Made for a then-staggering $3.95 million, Hell’s Angels was aviator-adventurer Howard Hughes’ bold gamble into the wild blue yonder. Filmed in California, Hughes and company employed actual WW I aces to fly the bi-planes. When several stunt pilots refused to fly a certain aerial sequence designed by Hughes, the millionaire director jumped into the plane, performed the requisite move and then crashed, breaking several bones.

Hell’s Angels follows the exploits of brothers Monte and Roy Rutledge, who leave Oxford to join Britain’s Royal Flying Corps during the Great War. The movie’s main attraction – other than the young, sultry Jean Harlow – are the superb flying sequences, which tragically claimed the lives of three pilots during production.

  • On DVD: Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (Universal, 2004)

Hell’s Angels (1930) lobby card (Heritage Auction Galleries)

The Big Parade (MGM, 1925)

Seven years after the end of the Great War MGM’s silent epic The Great Parade marched into movie theaters. Harry Behn, Joseph Farnham, Laurence Stallings and King Vidor combined to write the screenplay with Vidor in the director’s chair. John Gilbert (James Apperson), Renee Adoree (Melisande), Hobart Bosworth (Mr. Apperson), Claire McDowell (Mrs. Apperson), Claire Adams (Justyn Reed) and Tom Ober (Harry) head the cast.

Budgeted at $245,000, The Big Parade was shot in Texas and California. The U.S. War Department was instrumental in making the picture, loaning the production some 4,000 soldiers along with 200 trucks and 100 airplanes. On the orders of MGM production head Irving Thalberg, uncredited director George W. Hill later filmed additional battle scenes.

The Big Parade features silent film star John Gilbert as a wealthy youth who enlists in the U.S. Army. Assigned to the 42nd Infantry “Rainbow” Division, Gilbert romances a French girl and experiences the horrors of trench warfare, where he loses a leg in battle.

The Big Parade was a monster hit, grossing $6.4 million at the domestic box office and a staggering $22 million worldwide. “The battle scenes excel anything that has been pictured on the screen…” reported Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times (11/20/25).

  • On VHS only: King Vidor’s Production of The Big Parade (Warner, 1992)

Other World War I Movie Favorites

  • The Dawn Patrol (1930)
  • Grand Illusion (1937)
  • The Blue Max (1966)
  • A Farewell to Arms (1932)
  • Lafayette Escadrille (1958)
  • What Price Glory (1952)
  • Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
  • The African Queen (1951)
  • The Lost Patrol (1934)
  • The Fighting 69th (1940)

The Blue Max (1966) one sheet movie poster (Heritage Auction Galleries)

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