New This Week
1917 may well be on its way to becoming the fourth film about World War I to win an Oscar for Best Picture, following Wings (1927/28), All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
Those films and few others about the war have even been nominated for Oscar’s highest honor. The only others have been Seventh Heaven (1927/28), A Farewell to Arms (1932/33), Grand Illusion (1938), and Sergeant York (1941).
1917 has just begun its wide release and will not be available on home video for some time, but the previous nominees and winners are available. In fact, this may be a good time to catch up on previous films about the “war to end all wars.”
My list of the ten best previous films about the war are The Big Parade (1925), Four Sons (1928), Journey’s End (1930), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Westfront 1918 (1931), Broken Lullaby (1932), Pilgrimage (1933), Paths of Glory (1957), Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), and Gallipoli (1981).
King Vidor’s The Big Parade was the first anti-war film from which all others are derived. John Gilbert, in his greatest role, is the privileged son of a well-to-do banker who eschews a military commission to join his buddies as a foot soldier. He goes from being a carefree young soldier in France where he has a fling with a young farmgirl to a hardened veteran in the course of a year, returning home less a leg to find his fiancée has been two-timing him with his brother. Determined to return to France in search of the missing farmgirl, the film’s emotionally powerful ending still earns the tears it elicits.
John Ford’s Four Sons focuses on the German mother (Margaret Mann) who loses three sons to the war and one (James Hall) to America. Ford was heavily influenced by F.W. Murnau’s making of Sunrise on the Fox lot at the same time. The result is a film that looks very much like a Murnau film with Ford’s winning brand of sentimentality affecting the film’s emotional highs. The eventual reunion between mother and surviving son is as moving as anything Ford has ever done.
James Whale’s Journey’s End, from R.C. Sheriff’s 1929 play, focuses on British army officers involved in the trench warfare was a critical and commercial hit with Colin Clive, David Manners, Ian Maclaren, and Anthony Bushell in roles played in Saul Dibb’s 2017 remake by Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, and Tom Sturridge. Unfortunately, Whale’s original is not on DVD or Blu-ray, but Dibbs’ faithful remake is.
Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, examines the horrors of war from the German perspective as seven high school friends enlist in the Kaiser’s Army, and die one by one. Lew Ayres had the principal role with Louis Wolheim and Slim Summerville as hardened veterans and a host of young actors in supporting roles. The Blu-ray features both the silent and early talkie versions.
G.W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918 was filmed in Germany at the same time as All Quiet on the Western Front was filmed in Hollywood and follows a group of German soldiers in much the same fashion as Milestone’s film, but is much less sentimental. For example, when the film’s protagonist (Gustav Diessl) returns home on leave he does not receive the rapturous welcome Lew Ayres does, but instead finds his wife in bed with the town butcher. He returns to the front regretfully unreconciled with her.
Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby was based on a 1930 French play and its 1931 American adaptation, The Man I Killed. Phillips Holmes starred as the French soldier who kills a German soldier on the battlefield, discovering that he, like Holmes, was a musician who studied at the same school in Berlin before the war. Visiting the German soldier’s grave, he is mistaken for a friend of her son by the young man’s mother and taken into her home where he is welcomed by her husband (Lionel Barrymore) and would-be daughter-in-law (Nancy Carroll). This poetic ode to sympathy was beautifully remade by Francois Ozon as Frantz in 2016.
John Ford’s Pilgrimage is Ford’s second tribute to Murnau’s style of German expressionism starring stage legend Henrietta Crosman in a magnificent performance as a possessive mother who pushes her son (Norman Foster) into serving in the war to keep him from marrying a girl she considers unsuitable. It is only after she is given a trip as one of the first Gold Star mothers to visit her son’s grave in France that she realizes the folly of her ways and moves to forge a relationship with the girl (Marian Nixon) and her illegitimate grandson (Jay Ward). Less sentimental than most Ford films, the ending more than makes up for that.
Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory was based on Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel based on a 1915 incident in which the commanding officer (Kirk Douglas) of a group of French soldiers who attempts to defend them in their court-martial for refusing to carry out a suicidal mission. Adolphe Menjou and George Macready head the despicable general command with Ralph Meeker as the most prominent of the accused soldiers. Heavily criticized by the French military, the film was not shown in France until 1975.
Richard Attenborough’s Oh! What a Lovely War was the actor’s first, and some would say best, film as a director. Based on the London and Broadway stage success, the musical is comprised of parodies of songs that were popular during the war as it follows the effects of the war on a family named Smith. Maggie Smith, Dirk Bogarde, Phyllis Clavert, John Gielgud, Jack Hawkins, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, and John Mills are among the many familiar faces.
Peter Weir’s Gallipoli focuses on Mel Gibson and Mark Lee as Australian enlistees who slowly lose their innocence about the war, leading to the futile battle of Gallipoli in the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey). It made a star of Gibson and should have made one of Lee as well.
Another film that may well take home an Oscar or two is Todd Phillips’ Joker, now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
One of the most audacious movies ever made, this is much more than another film about a comic book character. Using the background of the character from Batman, it is an exploration of the mental illness that drives the bullied character into committing his heinous crimes. Joaquin Phoenix, in his best performance bar none, evokes more sympathy than horror as he looks for acceptance in a world that doesn’t countenance non-conformity.
The film also succeeds as an ode to the many films it emulates, most notably A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, and, in its last few moments, Psycho.
This week’s new releases include Blu-ray releases of Room at the Top and The Whisperers.