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From 1917 to They Shall Not Grow Old, looking at World War I depictions on screen

As the Battle of the Marne marks 107 years, here’s a deep dive into World War I films and documentaries

Shreya Paul
Sep 06, 2021
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War films have always dominated a major part of film craftsmanship through the ages. Arguably one of the biggest crowd-pullers on special national occasions, such films are always a grave reminder of how not to repeat the gruesome and unfortunate histories of eras past. When thinking of the rare occasions when the world was faced with a global political crisis, the first event that pops into the consciousness is the period between 1914-1918, which is also known as The Great War of World War I.

This time period has been amply portrayed on celluloid, to bring forth the sheer struggle that men, women, and children were thrust into, owing to the political unrest across the globe. While films like Johnny Got His Gun (1971, based on Dalton Trumbo’s novel), focused on the perils of soldiers forced into war, the more recent features like a 1917 (2019 film), took an incisive look at the doomed offensive attack that compelled the German soldiers behind the Hindenburg Line during the infamous Operation Albrerich.

As the Battle of Marne, fought between the Allied forces against Germany, clocks in almost a century, it’s imperative we revisit a few of the most compelling World War I films and documentaries.

One of the most authentic and well-researched films on the period is The Harlem Hellfighters' Great War, a poignant documentary on The History Channel. Focusing on the activities of the US Army’s 369th Infantry Regiment and how certain soldiers were doomed for lesser success despite their relentless efforts towards the cause, the film charts the ill-fated Black soldiers who returned from the exhaustive war, only to face racism and ostracisation from the citizens of their country. While their white counterparts celebrated, these valiant soldiers were subject to intense ridicule. With a visual accompaniment of Max Brook’s incredible documentation of the regiment, The Harlem Hellfighters' Great War told tales of a time when national heroes were snubbed due to their skin colour.

Among the few films that took a cathartic approach to the subject, Steven Spielberg's War Horse was a frontrunner. Much like his critically acclaimed World War II saga Schindler’s List (1993), War Horse (2011) had all the elements of a heartbreaking film. 

The pastiche in the film immediately reminded audiences of simpler times before the war, when the world functioned at a languid pace and was not grappled with widespread socio-economic issues. With the transformative power of military conflict at its epicentre, War Horse spoke of emotions and transcended the brutality behind the aftermath of the global war.

Spectrally opposite to this make-belief world created by Spielberg, was Peter Jackson’s 2018 docudrama They Shall Not Grow Old.

One of the highlights of the film, which lent a sheen of authenticity to it, was the use of original footage of the war, accessed from the Imperial War Museum (IWM) archives. The footage was then treated and colourised before being presented. The audio too had been sourced from BBC and IWM collections. Jackson’s debut into making documentaries consisted of an exhaustive 600 hours of interviews with over 200 veterans, alongside 100 hours of original film footage, giving the documentary a well-rounded edge over many others.

Another prime example of authentic retelling is Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. A 1957 anti-war film, Kubrick’s take on Humphrey Cobb’s eponymous novel highlighted the genius of Kirk Douglas, playing a French colonel at war. The film took a keen look at the bizarre nature of human warfare and how dehumanisation is always a consequent byproduct of mass warfare.

On a similar strain, 1964’s King & Country, a Joseph Losey directorial, charts the story of Private Hampand and Captain Hargreaves; the former, a cell inmate awaiting court-martial for desertion, while the latter a conscientious officer. The story followed war atrocities and how it stripped people of any agency, propelling them towards violence and mindless killings.

Wars are never an easy subject to deal with. But innumerable filmmakers have had the gumption to take a deep-dive into the annals of history to portray these atrocious human events for posterity, almost like an artist’s warning to never revert to such extreme measures.

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