Reel hell of the Western Front

The director wanted to show things as they were – badly-led, no one wanting to fight or knowing what they were fighting for, says Christopher Silvester

On Cinema

While Sam Mendes’s 1917 won the top prizes at the Golden Globes and the Bafta awards, its suicide-mission storyline, albeit with nightmarish over-tones of Orpheus descending into the underworld, does not bear comparison with the greatest First World War movies.

The earliest of these is All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, in which a group of teenage German classmates are inspired to enlist by their rabidly patriotic school-master. One of their number, Paul, played by Lew Ayres in a career-launching role, survives long enough to become disillusioned by what he sees on the battlefield. Its director Lewis Milestone, born Lev Millstein, was a Bessarabian Jew who had been educated in Odessa, Belgium, and Berlin before arriving in the US in 1914.

In the film’s main battle scene, the camera tracks along the German trenches from above as the company resists a French assault and as those eerily whining shells known as whizz-bangs rain down on them. Watch out for the French soldier whose arms are left hanging from the barbed wire after an explosion. The scene in the shell-hole when Paul kills a middle- aged French soldier and then begs the open-eyed, frozen-faced corpse for forgiveness is unforgettable.

The penultimate shot is rightly celebrated: a close-up of Paul’s hand reaching for a butterfly just before a sniper’s shot kills him

The penultimate shot is rightly celebrated: a close-up of Paul’s hand reaching for a butterfly just before a sniper’s shot kills him, resulting in the reflexive clenching and gradual unclenching of his fist. This is followed by a parade of men marching away from us towards a heavenly cemetery: each of the young men turns to look over his shoulder and address the camera before turning back. This shot has neither sound nor music.

Les Croix de Bois (1932) was from the novel of one veteran, Roland Dorgelès, and directed by another, Raymond Bernard. There is no shortage of grime in this depiction of a company of French poilus. We witness their camaraderie amidst the squalor of their billets, fortified by their daily ration of wine, only falling silent respectfully when they glimpse a soldier’s funeral procession with its wooden cross. Their headwear changes from soft calot cap to Adrian combat helmet as the conflict deepens.

Like 1917, the film is essentially a series of incidents: in one tense sequence the poilus hear German sappers burrowing beneath their dugout and are relieved by another company only minutes before the dugout is mined; they capture a village only to suffer a furious counter-attack; their dying sergeant curses his faithless wife back home but then revokes his curse for the sake of his small daughter; and the adjutant dies in no man’s land, with his guts ripped out and listening to the moans of his fellow wounded as they hope to attract the attention of the stretcher-bearers who come out after darkness falls.

The battle scenes give a far more realistic picture of the chaos of heavy bombardment than the choreographed shelling which accompanies the men going over the top towards the end of 1917. There is little politics here, only the behaviour of men living and dying together. (A restored version is available in a dual-format DVD and Blu-Ray edition from Eureka.)

La Grande Guerra (1959) belongs to that extraordinary genre of social satires known as commedia all’Italiana that lasted from the late 1950s to the late ’70s. Director Mario Monicelli said of the lm: “I wanted to show things as they were — as usual, badly conducted and led, and no one wanting to fight, or knowing what they were fighting for.”

Two cowardly shirkers, one bombastic (from Lombardy) and the other sly (from Rome), played by Vittorio Gassman and Alberto Sordi, engage in banter as they seek to avoid exposure to danger. Sent on a mission to deliver a message to an outpost, they find themselves behind enemy lines and borrow Austrian uniforms in order to escape, but are captured and sentenced to death as spies. They are about to save their skins by divulging the location of an Italian pontoon bridge when an Austrian officer mocks them for their cowardice. Instead, Gassman’s character clams up and defiantly faces the ring squad, while Sordi’s character dies complaining, “If I knew it, I would tell! I’m a coward, everyone knows that!”

The cruel joke is that their fellow soldiers think they have somehow dodged the horrors of the battle field, whereas we see their blood-stained corpses on the ground as an entire Italian regiment charges past, oblivious to their fate. (La Grande Guerra is available on region-free DVD with English subtitles from

The epic scale of the battle scenes is remarkable and down to the support of then defence minister Giulio Andreotti. La Grande Guerra won the Golden Lion at Venice in 1960 and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film. It was the first Italian film to challenge the fascist version of the country’s history in which the heroic sacrifice of WWI was writ large.

All three of these films end tragically. Universal’s production chief, the German Jewish mogul Carl Laemmle Jnr, didn’t like the sniper shot at the end of All Quiet on the Western Front. “You know, Lew, I think we should do something to this picture to make it better box office,” he told Milestone. “What it needs is some sort of happy ending.”

Milestone responded drily: “Well, we might have the Germans win the war.”

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover