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Why Hollywood Needs to Make More Films About World War I

With the anniversary of The Great War, a plea for more stories set in that era.

The World War II deluge of films that usually come in droves during Oscar season will be upon us very soon, as Hollywood readies to unveil its most treasured cliché. This year we already got a sneak preview of what’s around the bend with Monuments Men and Railway Man both landing early, and on the horizon are three more with Fury, Unbroken and Imitation Game set to dominate the awards season.

Hollywood has an utter devotion to milking World War II nostalgia and iconography for all its worth. Hollywood has now mined almost every facet of the story for possible ideas. Hell, Steven Spielberg (1941, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List) and Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima) have almost done that already on their own. Hollywood has now touched on almost every region involved in the conflict and done so from seemingly every vantage point, even reluctantly offering a glimpse at the soviet sacrifice in Enemy at the Gates, a viewpoint that will be pushed under the rug most likely until the Putin issue is squared away. 

This month marks the centennial anniversary of an oft-neglected war that arguably left more destruction in its wake than its successor. As Jon Meacham so eloquently pointed out in a recent column in Time Magazine, the aftershocks are still being felt today, and the resolution that was so sought after has never been wholly achieved. The end of conflict ultimately began to sound the death knell for the reign of monarchs and gave rise to the perilous forces of Marxism and Fascism. 

So why is it that Hollywood has been staring down the same barrels of old, and turning to the comfort zone of World War II as a source of constant inspiration? From the perspective of storytelling, World War II on its surface seems to offer up the more compelling mise en scene. It featured an almost chimerical cast of characters that ranged from Janus-like Josef Stalin, to baleful Adolf Hitler to Falstaffian Winston Churchill to the Emperor himself, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

At the same time one can plumb the depths of sheer terror and human wickedness through the Holocaust, incomparable sacrifice by exploring the heroism of soldiers and zero in on the remarkable plucky demonstrated by women and their children who held strong back home. It also helps instill some degree of pride in Americans in witnessing a war where the United States was in the right, and the triumphalism that follows seems somewhat justified. Yet despite the surfeit of films that have explored these themes, we have now reached a point where their impact no longer seems to pack much of an emotional punch. These characters have been dredged up, explored and analyzed beyond their expiration date and here’s hoping that this anniversary allows us to reflect on World War I as a compelling source for narrative non-fiction.

The milieu of the “Great War” deals with questions of permanence, skews the boundaries of morality and provides an outlet for brief moments of joy amid destruction.

In canvassing the dearth of World War I films released over the last hundred years, you begin to see a surprising pattern; an inordinate amount of them are superlative movies. While trenches lack the grandiosity of besieged beaches and nuclear wastelands, they provide an intimate opportunity for esprit d’corps among the men fighting and a healthy degree of situational unease. The clash of classes, and the cross-national bonds inherent among nobility spice up the narrative and the sparring forces of good verse evil are concealed, providing a subtlety that can’t be felt in the often black and white skirmishes of World War II. The milieu of the “Great War” deals with questions of permanence, skews the boundaries of morality and provides an outlet for brief moments of joy amid destruction.

It’s hard to brush over the run of noteworthy films that have dealt with the titanic issues at stake during World War II, and have paid homage to the various individuals who helped secure peace. That being said, I'd like to fundamentally dispel the misguided notion that World War I lacks as much brio or opportunity for gripping storylines. In fact, I believe that the record on World War I pictures run roughshod over that of World War II pictures and for once I hope that Hollywood is taking notice. But how can you forget The Bridge on the River Kwai, the Pianist, The Thin Red Line or The Great Escape, you might ask? The truth is I can’t argue with those masterpieces, but I can say that for every truly great picture from that era, there has been an assortment of incomparable duds, ranging from the Good German to Pearl Harbor to the Miracle of Santa Anna, that have come along with it.

The dirty little truth is that World War I films are harder to get funding for, but I genuinely wonder why after gleaning through their vaunted film recreations and impressive track record. Kubrick, Huston, Renoir and Lean have all relied on World War I for some of their finest work, with Paths of Glory, African Queen, Grande Illusion and Lawrence of Arabia being the fruits of their labor. Those films have lived on, and lest we forget All Quiet on the Western Front and Wings which both bear mention.

Hollywood needs to take a step back from the banal and platitudinous backdrop that it has been addicted to over the last few decades and return its lens a few decades back to the treasure trove of stories that are collecting dust in libraries across the country. As we gather together to shine a light on the centennial anniversary, I’m hoping that filmmakers rediscover the potent narratives intrinsic to World War I that were explored by the auteurs of the past and deserve to be reinvented. I’m sure the resulting films will be a whole lot more interesting.


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