With the last World War One veteran having died in 2012, it has never been more important to try and keep the memory of the conflict alive. While much is known today about World War One via a ubiquitous media and educational curriculums, the misery and slaughter of the war was largely hidden from public view at the time. In the years since, it has often only been through fictional, dramatised retellings that millions of war stories have been heard.
Effectively portraying the wartime experience on screen is a challenge that few have successfully achieved. However, there are a number of notable documentaries, television dramas and films that are widely praised for their historical accuracy, empathetic portrayals and searing realism.
Here’s our selection of 10 key screen portrayals of World War One.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Frequently described as one of the most significant war films ever made, All Quiet on the Western Front, based upon a novel of the same name, won wide acclaim – including best film and director Oscars – for its anti-war portrayal of World War One. It follows a group of German soldiers sent to the deadly western front. It was highly controversial, and boycotted by both the American Legion and German Nazis at the time. Subsequent adaptations in 1979 and 2022 were also critically acclaimed.
Paths of Glory (1957)
Co-written and directed by Stanley Kubrick, Paths of Glory is an anti-war film based upon the novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb. It follows French soldiers who refuse to continue a suicidal attack, and the resultant threat of court martial that comes their way thereafter. Due to its anti-war sentiment, it was widely objected to or even banned by countries around the world such as France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and the US.
Lawrence of Arabia (1963)
Nominated for 10 Oscars, Lawrence of Arabia is a 1962 British epic historical drama film based upon the life of T. E. Lawrence and his 1926 book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It depicts Lawrence’s experiences in the Ottoman provinces of Hejaz and Greater Syria during World War One, and his involvement with the Arab National Council. It examines Lawrence’s emotional struggles with the violence of war, as well as his divided allegiance between his native Britain and new found Arabian comrades. It is frequently voted one of the most significant war films ever made.
Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
Richard Attenborough’s comedy musical film, based upon the stage musical of the same name, provides a general commentary on the war by using popular contemporary songs and a stellar ensemble cast including Maggie Smith, Michael and Vanessa Redgrave and Laurence Olivier. It was praised for effectively transforming a highly-political and specific topic into a timeless and timely tragic allegory.
Starring Mel Gibson, Gallipoli revolves around young men who enlist in the Australian Army during World War One. They take part in the Gallipoli campaign, and over the course of the film become increasingly disillusioned with the war. A particularly climactic moment in the film details the Anzac battlefield at Gallipoli.
Blackadder Goes Forth (1989)
The famous BBC series featured the recurring characters of Blackadder, Baldrick and George in a Flanders trench during World War One, and followed their various doomed attempts to escape from the trenches, popularising the ‘lions led by donkeys’ interpretation of World War One. Despite initial concerns that the comedy might trivialise the war, it won a British Academy Television Award for Best Comedy Series in 1989. In particular, the final scene, which sees the soldiers carry out a lethal charge of enemy lines, was voted the ninth most memorable television moment of all time.
War Horse (2011)
Steven Spielberg’s War Horse was adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel and the 2007 stage adaptation of the same name. Set both before and during World War One, the film follows British teenager Albert as he enlists and fights in the war, and his horse, Joey, who is bought by the British army for the war effort. The film received wide critical acclaim and was nominated for six Oscars.
37 Days (2014)
A three-part miniseries, 37 Days follows the 37 days that led up to World War One, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914 to the United Kingdom declaring war on Germany on 4 August 1914. The writer and producer made a 175-page book that detailed ‘every conference, every telephone call, private letter and telegram swirling around Europe’ before they started writing the script. The series aimed to challenge assumptions about the war’s inevitability, such as the assassination making the war inevitable.
Set over the course of one day in April 1917, 1917 follows the Devonshire Regiment’s forthcoming attack on the German front line as the latter appear to be retreating. However, aerial reconnaissance reveals that the Germans are simply trying to lure the regiment into a massacre, and with telephone lines cut, the only way to convey word of the attack is to send two runners across the battlefield – including through no man’s land – to a neighbouring regiment. The film follows the messengers in real time and is shot and edited to look as if it were done in one take.
All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)
Based upon the 1929 novel, this German adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front is set during the closing years of World War One and follows the life of a German soldier who joins the German army who finds himself increasingly shattered by war. This modern adaptation of the novel has been widely acclaimed for retaining its faithfulness to the film’s anti-war message.