French in the Trench: The Best WWI Flicks

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A war whose sequel ultimately eclipsed it in human memory, much like “Wrath of Khan” would “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” World War I ushered in much of what is considered modern warfare. The advent of machine guns, tanks, chemical warfare and a ton of other horrible crap that scarred an entire generation of men lacked, however, the stamp of the spectacular, enduring villain found in the next installment. Perhaps this is why classic WWI films are not as readily identifiable to the average film viewer as are the myriad noteworthy WWII films Hollywood has regularly put out pretty much since that conflict ended. Luckily you have us to point you in the right direction.

5 “A Very Long Engagement” (2004)

And back to France we go. This time, we’re in the hands of the gifted director of “Amelie,” Jean-Pierre Jeunet who brings that film’s leading lady Audrey Tatou and his ever-present visual style to this very dark tale of a woman searching for her fiancé, thought to be lost in the Battle of the Somme.

4 “Wings” (1927)

We take to the air in the first Best Picture winner ever, William Welles’ silent gem starring Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers. A comedic/romantic story, which is balanced out with mortal drama and spectacular, gritty aerial dogfights, “Wings” is definitely the most pleasant film (thanks in no small part to the eternal charm of “It Girl,” Bow) on this deeply unpleasant conflict.

3 “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930)

This powerful, mournful early sound masterpiece from director Lewis Milestone is interesting in that, like the novel it’s based on, it takes a look at the German side of World War I as we follow a cast of All-American young actors led by Lew Ayres portraying Fatherland youths going to war for Kaiser and country. The fact that none of the cast even attempt any sort of accent gives one the experience of watching a typical Midwestern town being swept up in homespun patriotism, and that’s exactly why it works.

2 “Paths of Glory” (1957)

Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant photography and distinctive direction coat this heartbreaking true story of French infantrymen court martialed for the carelessness of their callous, aristocratic superior officers. Kirk Douglas stars as the fiery military lawyer representing the doomed men in this dark game of chess. The overall fatalism and absurdity of war hang thick in this stark, bracing classic, and its frightening trench scenes rival its topnotch courtroom drama.

1 “Grand Illusion” (1937)

When Orson Welles counts your picture as one of his favorites, you did something right. Jean Renoir’s masterpiece about French POWs plotting an escape is one of the most well regarded films in history. The film deftly uses the First World War to illustrate the reverberations that would lead to the Second World War, which was brewing as the film was made. It also provides an excellent dissection of class and nationality among different stripes of Europeans.

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