New This Week
The Big Parade, the screen’s first great war film as well as anti-war film, was released just seven years after the end of World War I. As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war to end all wars on November 11, 2018, let’s pause to remember and plan to watch at least one of the best films about the war and its aftermath available on home video.
As noted in my recent profile of director King Vidor, The Big Parade premiered on a reserved seat basis in November 1925 and went into general release in September 1927. By 1930 it was still drawing audiences as a spate of other, even more powerful anti-war films came along. John Gilbert had his greatest role as the privileged son of a Midwest banker who forgoes the officer title his father secured for him to join his buddies as an ordinary foot soldier who sees the worst of it first-hand in France. There he falls in love with a local farm girl while on leave. Wounded in the war, he returns home to find his fiancée in love with his brother leaving him free to return to France to reunite with his true love.
In the midst of the success of The Big Parade came William Wellman’s 1927 film Wings the haunting drama of fighter pilots in the war that won the first Oscar for Best Production. Although it’s best remembered for its powerful imagery of planes in battle that became stock footage for aviation films for decades, the film’s powerful message about the waste of youth in war was a potent one that still tings true today. Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen, and, briefly, rising star Gary Cooper, all give unforgettable performances.
Both The Big Parade and Wings were silent films. 1930’s Oscar winner All Quiet on the Western Front was filmed and released in two versions, one silent one as a talkie. Both versions are available on Universal’s Blu-ray and DVD releases. Filmed at the same time as Lewis Milestone’s film of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, G.W. Pabst’s German film, Westfront 1918, released in the U.S. in 1931, covers the same territory but without the sentiment that somewhat softens the harshness of the material in Milestone’s film. Both films are shown from the viewpoint of disillusioned German foot soldiers, but whereas All Quiet shows a welcoming home-front for soldiers on leave, Westfront shows a bleak one as despairing as the war itself. In Milestone’s film, the final death is a poetic one as the last soldier reaches out to touch a butterfly. In Pabst’s film, the last soldier just keels over and dies.
1930 also gave us James Whale’s Journey’s End from the celebrated play, as well as the screen original, The Dawn Patrol. Both films show the war from the perspective of the officers who must send their men out to die almost certain deaths in the horrible war, Journey’s End in the trenches, The Dawn Patrol in the air. The Dawn Patrol would be remade eight years later with Errol Flynn, David Niven, and Basil Rathbone in roles originally played by Richard Barthelmess, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Neil Hamilton. A remake of Journey’s End would be released earlier this year with Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, and Paul Bettany in the roles previously inhabited by Colin Clive, David Manners, and Ian Maclaren.
A mere two years later, the celebrated Ernst Lubitsch released Broken Lullaby, a haunting tale of a French soldier (Phillips Holmes) who travels to Germany to visit the family of the soldier he killed and is mistaken for a friend of the son who had lived in Paris before the war. Befriended by the dead man’s parents (Lionel Barrymore, Louise Carter), and fiancé (Nancy Carroll), the Frenchman becomes part of the family until his conscience forces a confession. Despite the film’s critical acclaim, audiences weary of films about the war ignored it, creating the first flop of Lubitsch’s career causing him to vow never to make another serious film, which he didn’t. A French remake, last year’s Frantz, suffered a similar fate.
Early in 1939 shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, a 1937 film released in the U.S. in 1938, became the first foreign language film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar as one of the ten nominees for Best Picture of 1938. Although the film is about French prisoners of war in Germany, the thrust of this acclaimed film is the class differences amongst both the prisoners and their captives and how the war is blurring them.
Films about World War I soon gave way to films about World War II, with 1940’s The Fighting 69th and 1941’s Sergeant York the last major films about the war until 1957’s Paths of Glory.
Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory featured many of the elements of Journey’s End and added a few of its own including the aftermath of the refusal of soldiers to attack an enemy position resulting in a devastating court-martial of three soldiers selected at random. It featured Kirk Douglas in one of his finest performance as the junior officer forced to defend his men with stunning villainous portrayals by Adolphe Menjou and George Macready as his superiors.
The story of T.E. Lawrence, the British officer who united and led various Arab factions during the war was the foundation for David Lean’s monumental 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia, which still amazes with its epic cinematography. Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif achieved overnight stardom while Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Arthur Kennedy, José Ferrer, Claude Rains, Anthony Quayle, and others added to their reputations in supporting roles.
From John Mills’ singing of the title tune to Maggie Smith’s cunning “I’ll Make a Man of You” to Michael Redgrave’s warbling of “When You Wore a Tulip” to the chorus rendering “They Didn’t Believe Me” as the soldiers lying under rows and rows of tombstones, the clever, ironic musical Oh! What a Lovely War about the game of war was Richard Attenborough’s first film as a director and arguably his best. It came in second to Z in the 1969 voting of the New York Film Critics Circle but was shamefully ignored by Oscar.
Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli, focusing on two sprinters in the Australian army during the devastating British led battle of Gallipoli in Turkey during the war was a worldwide hit and made stars of its principal actors, Mark Lee (for a short time) and Mel Gilbson (forever!).
Based on a 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo and the 2011 Tony Award-winning play by Nick Stafford, Steven Spielberg’s late 2011 film War Horse was one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated films. Nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture, the film failed to win in any category. Although reviews were generally good, some critics and audiences were put off by the film’s narrative which follows the trajectory of a horse that is sold by its owner to the British army for use in the war rather than its many human characters, although it is reunited with the owner’s son, now a wounded soldier, at the end of the war. Some also found the reunion of horse and boy preposterous. A horse isn’t a dog, they reasoned. Nonetheless this last major film about World War I is one that should be seen at least once.
This week’s new releases include BlacKkKlansman and Incredibles 2.