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The 15 best World War I movies of all time

From ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ to ‘Gallipoli’: Great War films ranked by historical accuracy

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen
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World War I has inspired not just some of the greatest war films, but a few of the greatest films ever made. Maybe because they’ve wrestled with complex themes of sacrifice, trauma, justice, social hierarchy, nationhood and the nature of comradeship, and eschewed simpler heroics, films like Paths of Glory, All Quiet on the Western Front and La Grande Illusion have only grown in stature over the years.

And the war’s enduring place in the public consciousness has seen a new wave of Great War films, with 1917, They Shall Not Grow Old and Journey’s End, and Germany producing its biggest contribution to the canon with Netflix’s new take on All Quiet on the Western Front.

To rank these films is a tricky task, so we enlisted the help of military historian, author and podcaster Paul Reed to cast an expert eye over them. A long-time interviewer of Great War veterans himself and the host of The Old Front Line podcast, he brings a unique perspective on their historical strengths – and weaknesses.

💥 The 50 best World War II movies
🔥 The 100 best movies of all-time

Best World War I movies

  • Film

Not just a violent crucible but also a petri dish for technological, medical and social leaps, the First World War is still indirectly fuelling innovation a century later. Peter Jackson’s sui generis documentary joins 1917 in reinventing the grammar of war films, painstakingly colourising reams of archive footage and adding the sounds of the war – including the actual voices of veterans – to create a truly haunting immediacy. Hearing some of the soldiers recalling their sadness when the Armistice finally came is a useful reminder that the experience of war was far from homogeneous.

The expert view: ‘It’s an incredible film in the way it brings the archives to life and it’s so powerful for featuring the recordings of the veterans. It shocked me to the core to hear the voices of men who’d been dead for 30 years that I’d once interviewed. Anyone with even a passing interest in the war should see it.’

  • Film

Frequently revived as a stage play, RC Sherriff’s claustrophobic and nail-gnawingly tense snapshot of a British dugout on the eve of the German Spring Offensive of 1918 isn’t immediately cinematic. But ‘The Duchess’ director Saul Dibbs’s adaptation – unlike the 1930 James Whale version – uses nimble camerawork and imaginative framing to expand the canvas and deliver a powerful human drama of doomed men in the subterranean world of the trenches. Strung out over a thin khaki line, the British Army is about to be battered – and this small but richly drawn platoon is at the sharpest end of it. 

The expert view: ‘It depicts what, to me, is that essential moment on the eve of battle: a great storm is coming, and the men all sense it. It also shows how the officers in an infantry company lived and worked and fought and existed with each other, written by a veteran, which gives it that extra level of credibility. Adding Sheriff’s postscript showing how the losses affected those left at home – which is always missing in the play – is a nice touch.’ 

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  • Film
  • Drama

Peter Weir’s view of the debacle at Gallipoli follows young Anzac soldier Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) and his fellow Aussie Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) from the farmlands of Western Australia to training in Egypt and from there to the scrubby, bloody crags of Turkey and the costly battles of Lone Pine and the Nek. It’s a story of mateship and camaraderie, as well as a defining cinematic expression of Australian nationhood, and Weir freights it all with humanity without sparing us an iota of the hellishness. The final shot is an all-timer, too.

The expert view: This film had a massive effect on me when I first saw it. It’s got a lot of historical issues – the British role at the Nek is wrong and understandably, there’s a lot of Aussie stereotypes of Poms – but it’s an incredibly good depiction of trench warfare at Gallipoli. You see Anzacs shaking hands with a dead Turk and you can read about that happening in many accounts.’

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

The most recent World War I film breaks new ground by offering a widescreen German perspective with incredible detail and accuracy – something rarely seen since GW Pabst’s Westfront 1918. Unlike the 1930 Hollywood adaptation of war veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, this one boasts a German (and Austrian) cast. The battle scenes are huge, the violence is unsparing and newcomer Felix Kammerer perfectly embodies conscript Paul Bäumer’s descent from bright-eyed youth to hollowed-out veteran.

The expert view: ‘It’s on a completely different level of detail and believability, right down to the soldiers’ bloodshot eyes caused by the concussion of explosions. It really captures the experience of trench warfare in the latter part of the war.’

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  • Film
  • Drama

A war film made with all the latest technical wizardry and some help from legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, 1917 is a story of courage and duty set in a very specific historical moment: the sudden retreat of the German army to the Hindenburg line in the penultimate year of the war. It creates a vast liminal space for the film to explore with its one-shot device (actually, a few shots stitched invisibly together), a haunted landscape straight out of an eerie horror film. Two Tommy runners must navigate it to save a battalion from slaughter. Sam Mendes’s grandfather served in the trenches as a runner, making this a very personal tribute from the filmmaker.

The expert view: ‘The veterans I interviewed would talk about the randomness of death – how someone could be left unscathed be a burst of machine gun fire that would kill the guy on his left and right – and that comes across strongly in 1917It shows an open landscape with shallow chalk trenches. People say: “No, no, the war wasn’t like that,” but thats exactly what it was.’

  • Film
  • Drama

The finest French perspective of the Great War is this adaptation of former soldier Roland Dorgelès’s novel about infantrymen on the front line in Champagne. Once hard to find, it’s been recently restored – and deservedly so. A Gallic All Quiet on the Western Front, only with a harder edge, it charts a dwindling regiment’s travails, and especially those of young law student Demachy. Director Raymond Bernard got Pathé’s new sound department to recreate the noise of battle, filming took place on the old battlefields themselves (which had to be scoured for unexploded shells first) and the cast comprised entirely of veterans. As one of them, Charles Vanel, later noted: ‘We didn’t have to act, we just had to remember.’

The expert view: ‘It’s important that many of these films portray the war between the French and Germans, because on most of the front and for most of the war, it was between France and Germany. Wooden Crosses really captures the disillusionment of the interwar years.’

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  • Film

Cleverly transplanting RC Sherriff’s ‘Journey’s End’ from the trenches to the skies above in ‘Bloody April’ 1917, and ramping up the cynicism by several degrees, Aces High is a simultaneously thrilling and fatalistic depiction of air combat in the war. Malcolm McDowell stars as a hard-boozing Royal Flying Corps ace who is hero-worshipped by the young pilot whose sister he’s dating and is slowly crushed by the burden of trying to keep him safe. Or as safe as it’s possible to be in a highly flammable wooden biplane with no parachute. 

The expert view: ‘It reflects the experience of pilots in the First World War: the fear and pressure of flying aircraft they couldn’t escape from. There were no parachutes. I interviewed two men who’d been pilots in the war and one carried a pistol and one carried cyanide, because they’d seen men go down in flames or jump out at 10,000 feet.’

  • Film
  • Drama

Famously hated by the Nazis, who released mice into cinemas that screened it, Lewis Milestone’s Best Picture winner remains an extraordinary film about loss of innocence under fire. Its German soldiers are played by American actors, including Lew Ayres as Paul Bäumer, and there’s a strange early dissonance in trying to tally the accents with the uniforms. But the unsparing depiction of combat in all its brutality is still confronting. A soldier’s severed hands clinging to barbed wire is just one moment that sears itself into your mind.

The expert view: ’Its depiction of the war, only a dozen years after it ended, is extraordinary. The conventional view of it – of smiling Tommies and German soldiers going to the trenches to find glory – was being challenged at the time, and this film was a big part of that. The attacks and counterattacks and the depiction of trench warfare are very accurate. A lot of the cast had fought in the war.’

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King and Country (1964)
Photograph: BHE Films

9. King and Country (1964)

A bit like the episode of Blackadder Goes Forth where Captain Blackadder is put on trial for eating General Melchett’s favourite carrier pigeon, only absolutely not a comedy, this brooding, angry ’60s war film is a late British New Wave take on hierarchy, control and shellshock in the trenches. It also lays bare an important but lesser-told Great War story in following a private (Tom Courtenay) as he’s put on trial for desertion and faced with a firing squad at Passchendaele. Dirk Bogarde plays the increasingly sympathetic officer assigned to defend him. The result is Britain’s answer to Paths of Glory.

The expert view: ‘For a long time, it wasn’t really well known that British soldiers had been shot in the First World War, and this film opened a door to our understanding of it. It gives an insight into the fate of some actual soldiers. For me, it should be better known.’

  • Film
  • Drama

Part war film, part courtroom drama, Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 masterpiece sees Kirk Douglas playing a French colonel, Drax, who leads his men in a futile attack on a German position known as the Anthill. When the assault fails, his superiors look for scapegoats, leaving Drax to fight their case in a kangaroo court. Probably the definitive antiwar statement about the conflict, its impeccable casting, Kubrick’s direction, German cinematographer Georg Krause’s virtuoso camerawork and its heartbreaking ending make it a must-see. The martial snare drumbeat will play in your head for days.

The expert view: ‘It’s loosely based on a real incident on the Champagne front. The Anthill was a real position and men were executed by firing squad in that part of the battlefield. The two events aren’t entirely connected but the film tells a powerful wider truth about the war.’

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  • Film

The Second World War has The Best Years of Our Lives and Vietnam has Coming Home and The Deer Hunter. But several generations before them King Vidor’s big budget The Big Parade established the pathos-filled template for Hollywood’s homecoming war movies. It’s also a relatively rare cinematic reminder that America played a major part in the war, as John Gilbert’s rich kid joins up, fights on the Western front and loses a leg in the process. His emotional return home is practically a blueprint for those Vietnam films to come.

The expert view: ’Theres a degree of criticism in this silent film in the way it asks: “Where are the victors in all this?’ You can see it was filmed in America – it doesn't look like the Argonne landscape – but it features lots of kit, from guns to aircraft, from the end of the war.’

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
  • Film
  • Drama

Peter O’Toole plays TE Lawrence in an epic – no, gigantic – rendering of the Arab uprising against the Ottoman empire that’s soundtracked by Maurice Jarre’s sweeping strings. This enigmatic figure is the fulcrum around which its imperial maneuvering and vast battle scenes revolve, as David Lean orchestrates some of the biggest scenes of conflict this side of Waterloo. The Arab charge at Aqaba, its depiction of guerilla warfare in the desert and the assault on Damascus all authentically replicate real historical events on a realistic scale. The cast – Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness, Claude Rains et al – is an all-timer too. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a sublime use of four hours (plus intermission). 

The expert view: ‘I adore it as a film and it’s very good on its visuals, though some of the history isn’t quite as good. It depicts such a complex part of the war, and Lawrence’s part of it, but doesn’t really do justice to the war in the desert.’ 

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  • Film

Condensing Pat Barker’s expansive trilogy of World War I novels into one film is no easy task. But this moving view of the unseen wounds of the conflict wisely zeroes in on the shellshock therapy pioneered by real-life psychiatrist Dr William Rivers (Jonathan Pryce), the relationship between war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and Jonny Lee Miller’s officer, who has been literally dumbstruck by the strain of combat. They’re all brought together under the roof of Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart Hospital, with flashbacks to the trenches, where they’re all destined to return. Pryce has rarely been better as a doctor slowly inheriting his patients’ trauma. 

The expert view: ‘I never heard veterans use phrases like “PTSD” and “shell shock”, and they’d play it down, but the war never left these men. How the survivors dealt with their experiences, men like Siegfried Sassoon who’d live a long life, is a really important part of our understanding of the war.’

La Grande Illusion (1937)
  • Film
  • Drama

‘Everybody has their reasons,’ Jean Renoir famously said, and as his POW masterpiece lays bare, in war, those reasons are rarely straightforward or clear cut. La Grande Illusion is less a film about the history of World War I and more a lens on how it broke down the arbitrary divides between classes. Jean Gabin, a superstar of French cinema, plays an officer whose background as a Parisian mechanic leaves him superficially overshadowed by aristocratic pilot Pierre Fresnay and Marcel Dalio’s wealthy Jewish lieutenant. Erich von Stroheim is the noble German charged with keeping them locked up. Not just a moving study of connection, it’s also a great prison break movie.

The expert view: ‘This is a curious film for me. It looks at the experience of French POWS in this Colditz-like environment, but it makes it look like a holiday camp. I interviewed British veterans who were taken prisoner and their experience was truly atrocious.’

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Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
Photograph: Accord Productions

15. Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

A musical about the war might seem like, well, an out-there idea but this was a musical war, with songs a daily part of Allied soldiers’ lives out of the front lines and for the civvies back home. BBC producer Charles Chilton and theatre director Joan Littlewood created it as a radio play and stage musical respectively, and director Richard Attenborough preserves its satirical theatricality via renditions of ‘It's a Long Way to Tipperary’ and ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag’ as Field Marshal Haig oversees the war from Brighton Pier and staff officers play leapfrog. The final shot, panning over an ocean of white crosses, is a heartbreaker.

The expert view: 'It’s an important First World War film for showing how important song was for the men who were there. It's an antiwar film: many of the people involved in the original productions of “Oh! What a Lovely War” had lost fathers in the war and felt very strongly about it.’

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