Military History World War I in Film
Frank J. Wetta
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0170


World War I (1914–1918) was to motion pictures as the American Civil War (1861–1865) was to still photography. The Great War brought together many technological innovations foreshadowed in the American war. The moving picture was one such innovation. As Paul Virilio observed, in War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (Virilio 1989, cited under Critical Overviews and Reference Works), the synchronized frame-by-frame advance of film through a projector imitated the advance of the cartridge belt through a machine gun. Framing a scene or editing during postproduction became an integral part of strategy and tactics: the projector became a weapon and the movie theater a battlefield. Governments realized quickly how valuable the cinema could be in explaining the meaning and experience of the war to both soldiers and civilians by encouraging enlistments, defining the nation’s goals, and vilifying the enemy. Filmmaking became part of war-making through documentary films, newsreels, and film narratives produced by governments or by private film companies. During and after the war, documentary and narrative (fictional) films served to reflect and shape the collective memory of the war through the range of the war-film genre—combat films, propaganda films, antiwar films, gender-focused home-front films, war-based musicals, war comedies, and films focusing on the life of the war veteran. How do we assess these films as historical “documents”? Some film scholars look at historical accuracy to assess verisimilitude. Others look at the war film primarily as a metaphor, as more representative of the zeitgeist of the period in which they are made than the war in fact. How do films influence national self-identity and individual, collective, and contested memory? For example: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) reflects the antiwar spirit of the post-WWI era. Le Grande Illusion (1937) reveals the political climate of 1930s France. Sergeant York (1941) anticipates American participation in WWII. Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) says more about the anti-establishment movement of the Vietnam era than about the First World War. The Lighthorsemen (1987) is about defining Australian national identity. WWI films can also be assessed by viewing them in the context of two schools of historical interpretation: the orthodox view, reflected in Paul Fussell’s book The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), sees WWI as meaningless horror and stupidity; the revisionist view, as in Brian Bond’s lectures in The Unquiet Western Front (2002), challenges the Great War “myth” in an attempt to rescue the narrative from the mud and the muck.

Critical Overviews and Reference Works

Broad surveys of WWI films (Edwards 2016, Smither 2015, Sorlin 2010, and Paris 2000) reveal their multidimensional and multinational aspects. Other surveys look at propaganda (Anderson 2006) or reflect the prevailing antiwar image of the conflict (Kelly 1997). Niemi 2013 compares films to the actual events they claim to depict. Stewart 2008 offers an indispensable tool for beginning any study of the air war and its depiction in government-made documentary film. For an understanding of how WWI films are understood in the context of the technological/industrial revolution, see Virilio 1989 and Williams 2015.

  • Anderson, Robin. A Century of Media, a Century of War. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.

    Chapter 1 (pp. 3–17) analyzes American and British cinema and the birth of war propaganda during WWI. Emphasizes the pernicious legacy of war propaganda in film.

  • Edwards, Paul M. World War I on Film: English Language Releases through 2014. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016.

    Includes an introductory guide with criteria to judge WWI films and two comprehensive filmographies: the first is an annotated list by title, the second by date of release.

  • Kelly, Andrew. Cinema and the Great War. New York: Routledge, 1997.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203992166

    Discusses films of the antiwar canon such as J’Accuse (1919) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Includes less well-known productions as well, such as the Danish pacifist film Lay Down Your Arms (1914), Things to Come (1936), Les Croix de Bois (1932), The Man I Killed (1932), and Golddiggers of 1933 (1933). Expands on the scholarly consensus that the war was futile, unnecessary, and tragic.

  • Niemi, Robert. Inspired by Events: An Illustrated Guide to More Than 500 History-Based Films. 2d ed. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLEO, 2013.

    Discusses twenty-two WWI British, American, and Australian feature films and documentaries based on true stories. Organized by date of release: Filming the Front Lines (1916–1919), Films in the Time between the World Wars (1930–1941), and World War I Films Made after World War II (1957–2010).

  • Paris, Michael, ed. The First World War and Popular Cinema: 1914 to the Present. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

    Indispensable for its twelve essays on British, Australian, Canadian, French, American, Italian, Russian/Soviet, Polish, German, and Austrian WWI wartime and postwar feature films and documentaries and the development of national cinema and identities.

  • Smither, Roger. “Film/Cinema.” In 1914–1918 Online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War. Edited by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, et al. Berlin: Freie Universität Berlin, 2015.

    Wide-ranging, authoritative survey of WWI films. Includes the theater-going public and WWI; the appeal of “official” films; censorship; authenticity versus reenactments; newsreels; the advent of full-length documentaries; patriotism, pacifism, and escapism as themes; animation; the new Hollywood star system; governments and the importance of mass audiences; and “shared memory.”

  • Sorlin, Pierre. “Film and the War.” In A Companion to World War I. Edited by John Horne, 353–367. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444323634.ch24

    A short, insightful survey of American, German, Austrian, French, and British WWI films and newsreels. Brief mention of Italian and Russian films. Discusses film companies, wartime theater-going, war propaganda, and the legacy of WWI on filmmaking. Includes a selected bibliography of sources in English, French, and German and a selected filmography (1916 to 2005).

  • Stewart, Paul W. War Wings: Films of the First Air War: A Guide to the World War I Aviation Documentary Motion Pictures Held by the U.S. National Archives. Singapore: PMS, 2008.

    Comprehensive guide to the US government collection of WWI aviation films. Divided into three parts: combat photography, “A-list” films (the principle feature of the book), and “B-list” films (those including brief aviation scenes). Entries include synopsis, length, number of reels, and frame-by-frame description. Does not include critical analysis.

  • Virilio, Paul. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. Translated by Patrick Camiller. New York: Verso, 1989.

    A French cultural theorist’s “quirky,” postmodernist musings on military perceptions and cinema techniques: “War is cinema and cinema is war.” References La Grande Illusion (1937), J’Accuse (1919), D. W. Griffith’s visit to the western front in preparation for making Hearts of the World (1918), and Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels (1930).

  • Williams, David. Media, Memory, and the First World War. McGill-Queens University, 2009.

    A comparative overview that connects the advent of war films to war literature with the transition of a verbal to a visual culture, including television and digital formats.

  • Williams, David. “Film and the Mechanization of Time in the Myth of the Great War Canon.” ESC: English Studies in Canada 41 (2015): 165–190.

    DOI: 10.1353/esc.2015.0013

    An analysis of the myth of the Great War debate in reference to the mode of communication and film and the “industrial process” in The Battle of the Somme (1916), and the language and structure of the antiwar novella Generals Die in Bed (1930) and Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

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