The Best World War I Movies – 20 Best War Films

Battle films, dramas, spy stories and stories about veterans – in each of these conventions directors tell the story of World War I, one of the greatest armed conflicts in history.

The history of the war movies dates back to the First World War, as it was then that productions that are now considered pioneering works of the genre began to be made. These were stories with propaganda overtones, intended to boost the morale of the fighting soldiers. Later war films of the interwar period depicted the great conflict with more reflection.

This is because they featured explicitly pacifist accents, emphasizing the evil of any form of killing, the destructive impact of World War I on the human psyche or the degradation of basic values. Thus, in addition to films glorifying valor and showing the course of specific battles, a second sub-genre was created, emphasizing the dramatic face of war. In the case of this type of war film, its makers often drew on literature, especially the prose of Ernst Johannsen or Erich Maria Remarque.

After World War II cinema made films about the recent conflict (See The Best World War II Movies), but also continued to return to the time of the 1914 – 1918 conflict, and films about this period of history are still being made today. An important reference point in this regard is the literature of Ernest Hemingway, not only a great writer, but also a soldier who was severely wounded on the Italian front during the First World War and whose entire writing was shaped by these tragic experiences.

The best World War I Movies

1. “The Big Parade”, 1925

The best World War I movies - The big parade

King Vidor’s “The Big Parade” is one of the pioneering World War I movies, based on the novel by Lawrence Stallings. The silent work depicts the inner transformation of the main character, who finds himself on the European front as a young, spoiled boy from a wealthy home. The dramatic experience completely changes the man both physically and mentally. The leading role in the film was played by John Gilbert.

2. “Wings”, 1927

the best World War I films - Wings

“Wings” is an American war movie starring a plethora of silent film stars Gary Cooper, Clara Bow and Charles “Buddy” Rogers. Jack and David are pilots who enlist in the army during World War I and take part in an air battle against the Germans. Waiting for the brave pilots are two beautiful women in love with them. The film is notable for its superbly edited battle scenes, which were very impressive for the time. “Wings” won two Oscars.

3. ”Westfront 1918”, 1930

the best WWI movies - Westfront 1918

“Westfront 1918” presents the cruelty of war and its destructive impact on human life. The picture is based on the novel by Ernst Johannsen. A squad of German soldiers waiting in the trenches for an attack by the French gets a pass and is allowed to visit the nearest village. One of the men falls in love with a French woman named Jacqueline. Another visits his family. However, the young soldiers must return to the front to face the devastating tanks. Starring Fritz Kampers and Gustav Diessl.

4. “Hell’s Angels”, 1930

the best WWI films - Hell's Angels

“Hell’s Angels” is a World War I movie. The work presents the story of two brother pilots from Great Britain, who fight for the favor of one woman, Jean (played by the famous Jean Harlow). During one of the air skirmishes, the soldiers are shot down and taken prisoner. The enemy promises them a safe return home, but at a very high price. The pilots must face a trial of honor. Starring Ben Lyon and James Hall.

5. “Mata Hari”, 1930

20 best World War I movies - Mata Hari

Mata Hari” is a film version of the famous story of a Dutch dancer who made a career in France during World War I. The woman conquered the stages with exotic dancing, and was also famous for her promiscuity (she was the luxurious mistress of many influential men). At the same time, she engaged in espionage activities on behalf of Germany. In 1917 she was arrested and executed. In Fitzmaurice’s movie, Mata Hari was played by Greta Garbo, and the role is considered one of the best in her filmography.

6. “The Grand Illusion” (“La Grande Illusion, 1937)

20 best World War I films - The Grand Illusion

The Grand Illusion” is a famous pacifist movie by Jean Renoir. The protagonists of the picture are two French aviators who are taken prisoner by the Germans during the First World War. Together they plan an escape. Renoir’s film exposes the underlying war ideology’s absurd beliefs in hostility between different nations. The work shows that class divisions are sometimes much stronger than national differences. The film starred two great stars of European cinema, Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim. “The Grand Illusion” is a work that was banned in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

7. “Sergeant York”, 1941

Top World War I movies - Sergeant York

Howard Hawks’ “Sergeant York” is a movie based on the true story of an American farmer, Alvin York, who was sent to the front despite his anti-war views. During combat, however, the man changes his pacifist attitude and becomes a respected commander who manages to take more than a hundred German prisoners. The role of the courageous sergeant was played by Gary Cooper, who won an Oscar for his performance. In addition, the film won an American Academy Award for editing.

8. “A Farewell to Arms”, 1957

Top World War I films - A Farewell to Arms

“A Farewell to Arms”, based on the acclaimed novel by Ernest Hemingway, is a poignant film set during World War I. Young Lieutenant Frederick Henry, an American serving in the Italian army, is wounded and ends up in a hospital in Milan. There he meets a nurse, Catherine Barkley, with whom he falls in love. The two plan a future together. Starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones.

9. “Paths of Glory”, 1957

top WWI movies - Paths of Glory

“Paths of Glory” is a war drama by Stanley Kubrick. The movie is set in the circles of the French army. Encouraged by the prospect of promotion, General Mireau, sends Colonel Dax and his squad to certain death. The soldiers are to attack perfectly fortified German positions. However, Dax (played by Kirk Douglas), seeing the deteriorating situation, orders a retreat from the battlefield. Kubrick’s work is a film with an unambiguously anti-war message. Interestingly, the screening of Paths of Glory was banned in France for a long period.

10. “The Good Soldier Svejk” (“Dobry vojak Svejk”), 1956

top WWI films - The Good Soldier Svejk

“The Good Soldier Svejk” is a screen adaptation of Jaroslav Hasek’s prose. The Czechoslovak film, in a comedy convention, depicts the fate of Josef Szwejk, who, although declared insane, is forcibly conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army after the outbreak of WWI. The character’s naive behavior exposes the absurdities of military life and war. The title role was played by Rudolf Hrusinsky. The movie won a nomination for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

The Greatest World War I Films

11. “The Great War” (”La grande guerra”, 1959)

Best WW1 movies - The Great War

“The Great War” is an Italian war movie maintained in a comedy convention. During World War I, two men are sent to the front despite their strenuous efforts. The film stars Alberto Sordi and Vittorio Gassman in the lead roles. Mario Monicelli’s film won the Golden Lions in Venice, among other awards.

12. “King & Country”, 1964

Best classic war movies - King and Country

“King & Country” is a British war drama depicting the moving story of a young soldier accused of desertion. Private Arthur James Hamp (Tom Courtenay), after a traumatic experience at the front (he is the only one of his unit to remain alive), decides to return home on foot. However, he is quickly captured and put on trial. Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde) becomes his defense attorney. The actor playing the main role was awarded for his performance at the Venice IFF.

13. “Many Wars Ago” (”Uomini contro”, 1970)

best war films of all time - Many Wars Ago

“Many Wars Ago” is an Italian-Yugoslav film telling the story of World War I. The main character of the picture is Lieutenant Sassu (Mark Frechette), who enthusiastically goes to the front to defend his beloved homeland. He ends up in the troops commanded by General Leone (Alain Cuny). However, the omnipresent death and absurd orders increasingly break down the brave young man, who begins to look at the war in a completely different way.

14. ”Johnny Got His Gun”, 1971

Best war dramas - Johnny Got His Gun

“Johnny Got His Gun” is a movie about the drama of an American soldier who volunteered to fight in World War I. As a result of a bomb explosion, the hero loses all his limbs, face and senses. Nevertheless, he remains alive, and his brain works and receives stimuli from the environment. The lead role was played by Timothy Bottoms. The film won a nomination for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and was also awarded in two categories.

15. “Gallipoli” (1981)

Best war dramas of all time - Gallipoli

“Gallipoli” is an Australian war movie directed by Peter Weir. It tells the story of two sports rivals whose war experiences turn them into close friends. When Australia enters World War I, Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) and Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) are sent to Turkey, where they take part in the Battle of Gallipoli. Peter Weir’s film shows the formation of Australian national consciousness. “Gallipoli” was nominated for Golden Globes and Golden Lions.

16. “Life and Nothing But” (“La Vie et rien d’autre”, 1989)

20 First World War Films - Life and Nothing But

“Life and Nothing But” is a French war film by Bertrand Tavernier. The picture is set in 1920. Major Delaplane (Philippe Noiret), on the basis of descriptions and personal belongings provided by the families of the missing, identifies the bodies of soldiers who died in WWI. One day he is approached by two women looking for their husbands: aristocrat Irene (Sabine Azema) and a poor country girl named Alice (Pascale Vignal). The movie shows the drama of people experienced by the war, who cannot cope with the traumatic memories of the past. Tavernier’s picture was awarded with two Césars, a Donatello award and a Phoenix, among others.

17. “A Very Long Engagement” (“Un Long dimanche de fiancailles”, 2004)

First World War Movies - A Very Long Engagement

“A Very Long Engagement” is a wartime melodrama telling the story of a girl searching for her fiancé. Mathilde, a young Frenchwoman, cannot believe the death of her beloved Manech. So she decides to find him at all costs. To do this, she sets out on a journey across the war-ravaged country, meeting people marked by the stigma of the trauma she suffered. The leading role was played by Audrey Tatou. The film won many prestigious awards, including five Césars.

18. “Flyboys”, 2006

the greatest WW1 movies - Flyboys

“Flyboys” is a war movie about American pilots fighting in World War I. Young volunteers from the USA, after receiving training, join the ranks of the French air force – the Lafayette Squadron. The film starred James Franco, Todd Boyce and Ruth Bradley, among others.

19. “War Horse”, 2011

the 20 best WW1 movies ever made - War Horse

“War Horse” is Steven Spielberg’s extraordinary tale of World War I, constructed, as it were, from the perspective of a war horse that took part in the fighting. Joe, as he is referred to, is Albert’s beloved horse. When the war breaks out the animal is purchased by the British army and is sent to the front. Joe excels in bravery, however, all the time he misses his master. The film starred Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan and Emily Watson, among others.

20. “All Quiet on the Western Front”, (“Im Westen nichts Neues”, 2022)

the greatest World War1 films - All quiet on the western front

“All Quiet on the Western Front” is a famous war movie based on the famous novel by Erich Maria Remarque. During World War I, a group of German high school students are conscripted and sent to the front. In the trenches they have to face the cruelty of combat and mass death. The 2022 German-language picture, directed by Edward Berger, was awarded four Oscars, including Best International Film. The adaptation of Remarque’s prose should certainly be appreciated for James Friend’s stunning cinematography and Volker Bertelmann’s heavy, overwhelming music. Both of these levels, along with the story layer of the work, contribute to the chief pacifist overtones of the picture. However, as to the adaptive fidelity and, above all, as to the ideological dimension of this film, one can have considerable doubts. For it should not be forgotten that we are dealing here with a German narrative on the Great War, which Radoslaw Gora, reviewing the film in the monthly magazine “Kino” summarized as follows: “Under the guise of the horrors of war we are sold the moral superiority of the Germans over the French.”….

It’s also worth noting that until Berger’s screen adaptation, the most famous adaptation of the novel was Lewis Mileston’s 1930 picture, which won two Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.

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