When it comes to historical films, accuracy is often forsaken for drama and action. Screenwriting is about capturing the most visceral, jaw-dropping, and heart-stopping moments in any given story, and how these moments relate towards the characters and their goals. Sometimes, creative liberties must be taken for the sake of drama. As a result, historically accurate films are hard to come by.
War films are particularly hard to master in terms of accuracy as there must be a fine balance between action and the reality of warfare. Additionally, history plays just as important a role in war films as in any other historical film. World War II has long remained a centerfold for Hollywood. There is a clear enemy in mind when we think of World War II — the Allied forces taking on Hitler and his Nazi forces or Emperor Tojo and his Japanese forces after attacking Pearl Harbor.
But what about World War I? Arguably, it is the most visceral war in recent history. Implementations of modern weapons such as the machine gun, airplanes, and tanks were brought about because of this war. Additionally, what we see is the start and end to one of the most horrific styles of warfare: trench warfare. There's a reason no one fought in a trench after 1918.
Finally, what better occasion to remember the 100th anniversary of the war in 2014 than to revisit the artistic endeavors of filmmakers who sought to capture the best interpretation of the war they could muster. These five films are the most historically accurate in the context of World War I. In terms of their ranking, I have also taken into account (as any filmgoer should) their story, plot, thematic material, cinematography, and direction.
5. Paths Of Glory (Kubrick, 1957)
This Kubrick classic is set against the French sector of the war on the Western Front, which is a nice change of pace. Kirk Douglas plays the leading role as Colonel Dax, a French officer who empathizes with three French soldiers soon to be executed for disobeying orders in the line of fire. It's a wonderfully haunting piece about the nature of war behind the front lines.
At this point in the war, the French "poilu" (infantryman) is at his wits end, with barrages of artillery fire raining down and cold-hearted officers who continually send them over the line to be slaughtered mercilessly by German machine gun fire. Colonel Dax does his best to exonerate these condemned men before their execution. The plot is a bit long-winded; however, Kubrick's vision — coupled with Georg Krause's brilliant eye — make this film a harrowing anti-war film set against a bleak background.
4. The Wind That Shakes The Barley (Loach, 2006)
You may or may not have heard of the infamous IRA (Irish Republican Army), but this film does a wonderful job of illustrating their origins. The film focuses on the home front of the war for Great Britain. The Irish have long suffered under British rule; however, calls for home rule (Irish-based self governance) have been brought before Parliament, unleashing an Irish fervor that is at the brink of its tipping point.
Irish native Cillian Murphy plays Damien O'Donovan, who decides to join up with the IRA and tackle British oppression as the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921) and the Irish Civil War (1922–1923). The film has an excellent plot that deals with loyalties to one's nation, as well as moral choices during a war for independence. Loach's directing sets a fervent tone that may or may not truly pinpoint the exact attitude of British troops of the time, characterizing them as barbarous brutes who pillage Irish farms and mercilessly terrorize Irish civilians. However, it does paint a decent picture of what British rule in Ireland truly had been for the last three centuries up to that point.
3. Gallipoli (Weir, 1981)
This film once again shifts the focus of the war, giving it a scope that is more of a "world" war. The focus is on the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915, which is often cited as one of the most disastrous military campaigns in history. Fighting on this front are the ANZAC (Australia, New Zealand, and Canada) and British troops against Ottoman Turks along a coastline. The actual battle of the film is not reached until its third act, taking some creative liberties to show the plight of the Australian troop against a British superior who orders them to their death along a trench line.
Indeed, similar to Loach, Weir presents a tone of British superiority over the average Australian troop, who is doing the "real" fighting on this front. However, the story is a wonderful portrayal of what blind patriotism and merciless warfare can do to the innocence of man. The plot bends the rules of screenwriting a bit, but it is warranted, for wars never truly carry a happy ending.
2. All Quiet On The Western Front (Milestone, 1930)
We come back to the Western front with this classic film, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture. This film was ahead of its time, speaking about the horrors of warfare as well as the hardships soldiers had to go through in the hell of trench warfare. The actual war had just ended little over a decade prior to the making of this film, which allowed actual German World War I veterans to act as extras on the set, adding to the finite accuracy of the film.
Based on the novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque (who was also a German World War I veteran), the film's theme shifts from joy and excitement over joining the military to desolation and depression from the horror of war. Our main protagonist has one goal in mind: stay alive. It is hard to believe audiences in 1930 watching this film saw the horrors of trench warfare.
1. A Very Long Engagement (Jeunet, 2004)
You may remember how Paths of Glory told of soldiers on their way to executions, but A Very Long Engagement is so much more rich in thematic elegance that it reads almost like a well-written novel. Ironically, this film was also based on a novel of the same name by Sebastien Japrisot, who expertly researched the settings for this story.
What is most interesting about the film is not the war scenes, but the story of Mathilde (Audrey Tautou), who sets about on a mission to find out what exactly has happened to her fiancé (who was set to be executed along with four other men). A strange series of events transpire in those trenches that leaves the trail cold. As a result, her journey largely involves uncovering this mystery by talking to veterans and accomplices of the men who were to be executed. Jeunet's excellent direction, along with Bruno Delbonnel's superb cinematography — set mostly in a sepia tone — deliver a masterful film that deserves recognition as an outstanding World War I tale.
What is your favorite World War I movie?