The Best World War I Movies You’ve Never Seen

(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week we go back in time with some movies set during the war to end all wars.)

World War I doesn’t get as much love in theaters as its younger brother World War II, and while there’s no good reason for that I assume it’s simply because WWII offers a greater variety of locales and military hardware to explore. There have been some acclaimed ones over the years, though, from All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) to Paths of Glory (1957) and from A Very Long Engagement (2004) to Mata Hari (1985). Fine, one of those wasn’t quite as acclaimed as the others, but I’m just making sure you’re paying attention.

While the death toll ranges depending on your Google source — seriously, I found numbers from nine to twenty-five million — there’s a reason it was called “the war to end war.” Sure, that was a bit presumptuous, but the point remains that it was an epic conflict involving tens of millions of lives. You’d think we’d have more stories up on the big screen, but in lieu of quantity we at least have quality starting with Sam Mendes’ beautiful and brilliantly structured 1917 which is currently in limited release and absolutely worth your time. While you wait for that one to expand into your area, though, might I recommend a few older titles? I might, and I will if you keep reading.

King & Country (1964)

Private Arthur Hamp left his post at the front lines and began walking home to England. He’s returned after being picked up in France and tried in the trenches as a deserter. A guilty verdict will mean death by firing squad, and the only man even remotely on his side is a Colonel tasked with defending him despite his own feelings on the matter.

Joseph Losey’s feature is an adaptation of a stage play, and despite the shift to the screen that origin is still clear at times as the majority of the film’s action involves people talking to each other in desperate times. We move between the Colonel and the Private discussing details over to other enlisted men play-acting their own mock trial for a rat accused of biting a man’s ear. The madness is palpable, and all of it — every minute of the film — features the sounds of bombs and/or merciless rain falling in the background.

The trial itself is the focus, and both its locale and rushed nature add to the insane drama unfolding. The mere idea of killing one of your own soldiers on the spot simply because they couldn’t will themselves into the fire is a nonsensical reality. It’s just one of the many horrors of the war, and the film sees its merits argued until the final moments. Some show passion for what they believe, while others are simply following protocol, and it’s all a nightmare.

King & Country is available to stream and on DVD.

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

It’s 1914, and the world is excited about having a war! The Smith family is especially optimistic about the coming conflict, and as a parade unfolds they join in song about the many positive outcomes heading their way. As the years pass, though, and the casualties mount, the songs struggle to maintain the same naivete and hopefulness.

As the word “song” probably suggests, this late 60s gem is a musical. It originated on the stage, but director Richard Attenborough — making his feature debut — brings it to the screen with an energy and life all its own. The song lyrics and upbeat tone mock the mislaid enthusiasm and positivity towards war but grow decreasingly subtle with their anti-war message as the truth unfolds and the death toll rises. It’s a film that requires attention as your ears and eyes sense competing feelings. Bright colors and smiling faces sing peppy songs, but in the background we see the number of dead, the deceptive ways in which young men were lured into battle, and artistic renderings of assassination.

It’s far from one of Attenborough’s best remembered films, but any fan of his work or of musicals or of its cast should seek it out. Speaking of its cast — Ian Holm, Edward Fox, Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, Susanna York, John Mills, and an uncredited Jane Seymour are among the familiar faces. It’s an ensemble piece in service of an elaborately staged call to put down arms, and by the time it ends with an aerial POV showing an endless number of graves its effect is secured.

Oh! What a Lovely War is available to stream and on DVD.

The Trench (1999)

The Battle of Somme approaches, and as the hours tick down the men in the front line trenches carry on living secure in the knowledge that they’ll soon be dying. They pass the time with banter, worry, and recollection on what they’ve left behind, and as the pressure mounts the bond between individuals and classes comes clearer.

This battle remains the deadliest ever fought by the British with a reported 60,000 soldiers killed or wounded in its first two hours — that’s insane — but writer/director William Boyd’s film isn’t about the action and carnage. It instead hangs out with characters brought to vivid life by the likes of Daniel Craig, Danny Dyer, James D’Arcy, Cillian Murphy, and Ben Whishaw, and we see their personalities clash and their defenses crumble beneath the weight of expectations.

Like King & Country above, The Trench feels like a play more often than not and once again benefits from that personal attention. We remain in the trench with these men for the bulk of the film, and the claustrophobia they feel becomes our own. Brief glimpses of the battlefield beyond tease wide open spaces, but we and the men won’t reach them until the very end. That build up highlights the growing tension well as enlisted men and officers worry in different ways. It’s a low-key film in many ways, but it captures well the wait before dying.

The Trench is available to stream.

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