WWI Centenary: 6 films that capture the tragedy of the first world war, 100 years on

WWI Centenary: 6 films that capture the tragedy of the first world war, 100 years on

World War 1 ended a century ago, but the many of the compelling stories from that era have been immortalised in film

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A superhero movie might not be where you expect to find WWI tragedy, but it is there regardless.
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

In honour of today’s centenary anniversary marking the end of the first world war, here are xx movies set during that difficult time, that remind us of the tragedy of war, but also the indomitable spirit displayed by so many.

Wonder Woman (2017)

Superhero films probably aren’t the first thing you think of when choosing a war film, but this DC movie, which made waves for so many reasons, offers a surprisingly bold and effecting depiction of war and its consequences. Where Wonder Woman is especially effective is the way in which the near-invincible Diana is utterly bewildered by the seeming ease with which people will kill each other, and “man’s inhumanity to man”. She may be naive when it comes to the purpose of war, but her attitude highlights the futility and tragedy of the “Great” War.


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War Horse (2011)

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel of the same name, Steven Spielberg’s first film set during this era follows a horse named Joey. Joey is raised by a British boy called Albert before being sold to the British Army. Like so many young men during this conflict, the young horse is exposed to unimagined horrors: machine gun fire, poison gas, exhaustion. But despite the devastation, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.


My Boy Jack (2007)

While he was still playing Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe starred in this movie based on the story of author and poet Rudyard Kipling and his son. He plays Jack, the only son of the famous writer; he is rejected when he applies for the army due to poor eyesight, but his famous father pulls some strings. Like so many of his teenaged peers, Jack was desperate to serve his country and fight the Germans, and Kipling supported him. But Jack is killed in battle, and Kipling must forever bear that burden.


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Testament of Youth (2014)

In 1914, Vera Brittain becomes a student at the University of Oxford, much to her father’s consternation, but with her brother Edward’s support. When the war breaks out, Vera helps to convince her father to let Edward enlist. Soon realising that war is not as “glorious” as everyone believed, she enrols as a nurse, and discovers first-hand how utterly awful the situation is. The role of women in the first world war is less known or celebrated than their contributions to the second world war, but this film, based on Brittain’s memoirs, is told from a woman’s perspective, and emphasises the horrors inflicted on a generation of young people.


A Very Long Engagement (2004)

Soldiers on all sides of the first world war suffered untold awfulness, and some deliberately harmed themselves to get a hospital pass. But if their injuries were suspected to be intentional, they would be sentenced to death. When five French soldiers are accused of doing this, they are sent into No Man’s Land, the unoccupied area between friendly and enemy territory, to certain death. What follows (in visually stunning form) is told through the eyes of one of the men’s fiancées, who is sure her beloved is alive. While it still reminds viewers of the atrocities of war, there is an optimistic air thanks to the beauty of the cinematography.


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Journey’s End (2017)

Last year saw the fifth film adaptation of the 1928 play of the same name. Most of the “action” takes place in the trenches, which intensifies the tension: the men are effectively trapped, so each emotion is escalated to almost unbearable extremes. But this discomfort is surely preferable to entering No Man’s Land for what is almost certainly a futile exercise. Journey’s End is another brilliant study in the lack of understanding of the consequences of war.

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

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