This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, or the Great War, as it was known at the time. It was a modern war that coincided with the explosion of early Hollywood filmmaking, leading studios to pluck the thrilling stories of war to portray on the big screen to thrill audience with heroism and action scenes. Stories were also used to rouse the public as a new war (World War II) loomed on the horizon.
Warner Bros. has released a nice DVD box set of some early classic films portraying tales of World War I in The World War I Centennial Commemorative Collection.
The Big Parade
The Big Parade (1925)
The highest-grossing silent film of all time only recently got on my radar when it was recently released on Blu-ray. King Vidor’s World War I film follows a young man (John Gilbert) who is swept up in the patriotic fervor of his peers, enlists, and is sent to France. The comic and romantic scenes of the first part of the film as the soldiers train, contrasts with the inevitable (and, cinematically, hugely influential) war scenes that follow. If the Academy Awards had actually existed when this film was released, it certainly would have walked home with an armload. It is an astonishingly good movie, and is impressively timeless.
Sergeant York (1941)
This rousingly patriotic film was released as the U.S. was mulling over entering into World War II, which was already ravaging Europe. Gary Cooper (who won an Oscar for Best Actor for this role) plays Sergeant Alvin York… though, really, for the full first half of the film, he is simply Alvin, a small town guy from backwoods Tennessee. Troublemaker York changes his ways when he is struck by lightning, finds religion, and becomes a pacifist. But when he is drafted into the U.S. military, he finds that some wars are worth fighting, and becomes one of the most decorated heros of the conflict. Included in this set is a second DVD for Sergeant York, with an extra feature about the film, and a documentary about Gary Cooper narrated by Clint Eastwood.
The Dawn Patrol (1938)
Marquee stars Errol Flynn and David Niven get to portray their grittier dramatic sides in the story of British WWI aviators, and the grim reality of their daily lives. Flynn and Niven’s characters butt heads with their squadron leader, played by Basil Rathbone–as the men’s comrade’s are lost in battle, their leader replaces them with inexperienced “green” kids who are more than certain to meet their doom. The flying scenes are a fantastic, and though Flynn and Niven are surprisingly good in roles that require dramatic heft, it is the unhinged Rathbone who steals all his scenes.
Wings is known as the first film to be awarded the Academy Award for Best Picture, which immediately reserved it a place in Hollywood history. But, rightly, it is still celebrated for it’s unparalled flying sequences of air battle. Director William Wellman has actually flown fighter planes in WWI, so wanted to make sure that the scenes were as realistic as possible, and they are indeed breathtaking. “It” girl Clara Bow stars as a girl next door who volunteers as an ambulance driver to follow the boy next door, whom she love, to the war. Keep an eye out for Gary Cooper in one of his first film appearances.