Tag Archives: Lawrence of Arabia

The Best World War I Movies

Writing about the 2001 tv movie “The Lost Battalion” forced me to think of other movies focused on “the Great War,” which was supposed to be the war to end wars and to make the world safe for democracy. In my view it was a particularly senseless war, entered into with great enthusiasm by Europeans. In the US, Woodrow Wilson was re-elected president on a platform of keeping out the stalemate. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think it would have been good if Germany had won. The fresh cannon fodder and supplies from the US won the war, but the peace treaties guaranteed future trouble. One instance is the creation of Iraq out of what had been three provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The most obvious one is that Germany launched another war in 1939 and conquered much more of Europe (and Africa) than it had during the First World War. My hindsight is that the Germany that had not been united for long should have been broken up (and a Kurdistan created, and…)

Movies and popular memory — insofar as the two can be separated — are dominated by romantic air duels in single-engine planes (Snoopy and the Red Baron even more than the actual WWI flyers) and the misery of trench warfare. The latter included going “over the top” across barbed wire under heavy fire from machine guns.

By the time the US was mobilized by revelation of the Zimmerman Telegram and the sinking of the (British) Lusitania, the European generals had learned a thing or two about machine guns, but the American ones came still mentally fighting the Civil War with massed infantry charges. The callousness about the lives of ordinary soldiers is the major leitmotif of movies about the WWI ground war. What many consider the best WWI film, Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957) and Joseph Losey’s “King and Country” (1964) show a bit of the trench misery, but are mostly court martial trials (for, respectively, refusal to continue an impossible attack and desertion). The stars are the defense lawyers, Kirk Douglas and Dirk Bogarde, respectively. Both movies show the cynicism and lack of interest in the human costs of command decisions. “The Immortal Battalion” has some of this, too, though the operation was a success (and a third of the soldiers were able to walk out after having held a position that was indefensible by any rational calculus). Carnage there was, a lot of it.

Five Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to leaders of the “lost battalion” (which was right where it was ordered to be, not wandering through the Argonne Forest lost). The most celebrated of WWI American war heroes was Sgt. Alvin York. Gary Cooper won his first Oscar portraying Sgt. York in Howard Hawks’s 1941 biopic of an Appalachian sharpshooting pacifist applying his technique for turkey shoots to capturing a German position (and 132 prisoners). Walter Brennan escalates the hokey hillbilly cliché-mongering, but Cooper makes it mostly work.

Hawks had earlier directed the romance/melodrama “Today We Live” (1933) based on a story by William Faulkner and also starring Gary Cooper, here vying for Joan Crawford with Robert Young. It is very gallant with war offering the loser a gallant exit.

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The great WWI submarine movie, “Hell Below” also dates from 1933 (the year Hitler became chancellor of Germany) with Robert Montgomery playing an insubordinate officer of the crusty Walter Huston. Lt. Thomas Knowlton (Montgomery) is in love with his commander’s married daughter (Madge Evans) who must stand by her man when he is badly wounded. If you don’t know the rest, extrapolate from “Today We Live.” Maybe there is a Hollywood WWI leitmotif of death with honor for those who lose in love… BTW, there’s another court martial within “Hell Below.”

And a fickle Jean Harlow was the apex of yet another triangle (well, the flyers were brothers, not just brothers in arms) in Howard Hughes’s “Hell’s Angels” (1930) which is mostly notable for its aerial photography.

William A. Wellman directed “Wings” to the first best-picture Oscar in 1927. It also involves a love triangle (stateside) played by Richard Arlen and for a woman Former “It Girl” Clara Bow, quite demure herein as Mary, is in love with Jack (Buddy Rogers). Jack is in love with cars and does not notice Mary. David (Richard Arlen) does notice and lust after her, but he and Jack become buddies in the Army Air Corps. Mary follows Jack to France (in the Women’s Motor Corp) and there is quite a melodramatic ending.

A comedy version (extending back to earlier armed combat) with rivals bonding (in the US Marines) was Raoul Walsh’s 1926 screen version of Maxwell Anderson’s play “What Price Glory?” with the points of the triangle played by Victor McLaglen, Dolores del Rio, and Edmund Lowe. John Ford remade it in 1952 with James Cagney, Corinne Calvet, and Dan Dailey as the triangle members.

I guess the two 1931 movies about the spy Mata Hari going gallantly to her death, “Mata Hari” with Greta Garbo and “Dishonored” with Marlene Dietrich have to be included. The European-born movie stars show as much sang-froid facing a firing squad as Robert Young and Robert Montgomery did piloting boats on kamikaze missions. Garbo had a better supporting cast (Ramon Novarro, Lionel Barrymore) but Dietrich had Josef von Sternberg at the helm. Also Dietrich was the better dancer.

And the 1947 French triangle in “Le diable au corps” (The Devil in the Flesh) with Gérard Philipe. Jeez! I almost forgot Georges Franju’s adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s Thomas l’imposteur (Thomas, the Impostor, 1965). Maddeningly unavailable on DVD, I still retain images from it after decades. A later (1989) and very good French film, directed by Bertrand Tavernier was “La vie  et rien d’autre”/“Life and Nothing But,” starring Philippe Noiret sorting through and trying to identify corpses form the Battle of Verdun. It also out of print.

I am a major admirer of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. The 1997 movie condensation by Allan Scott (as “Regeneration”) is not bad, just the books are so great. Jonny Lee Miller was quite dashing looking as the fictional working-class lieutenant among the soldier-poets and shellshock-treatment pioneer William Pitt-Rivers (Jonathan Pryce).

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My favorite WWI movie is David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) with a megalomaniac British misfit, T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) organizing Arabs, being sodomized by a Turkish officer (José Ferrer), and disillusioned when the politicians (Claude Rains et al.) break the promises by which he led Arabs (Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, et al.) against the tottering Ottoman Empire. There is action, there is carnage, there is self-disgust and disgust at the conduct of those on Lawrence’s side (Arab and British). The movie also shows press manipulation and celebrity creation (Arthur Kennedy playing Lowell Thomas, making Lawrence a legend). (WWI looms in Lean’s 1965 “Dr. Zhivago,” also starring Omar Sharif, but I don’t consider it a “WWI movie.”)

I’ve been to Gallipoli and seen the narrow beach and high bluff Australian and New Zealand soldiers were thrown onto. I thought that Peter Weir’s 1981 movie “Gallipoli” was good, but it made Mel Gibson a star, which blocks positive memories of the movie, so is not on my list!

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Based on the international best-selling anti-war novel by Erich Maria Remarque, “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930, directed by Lewis Milestone) is remarkable for telling the story of disillusionment of a gung-ho recruit (Lewis Ayres) to the German army. Trench warfare was hell for the Germans as well as  for their opponents (the Americans were not technically “Allies” and eventually declared an end of hostilities after the Versailles Treaty was not ratified by the US Senate).

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Georg Wilhelm Pabst directed “Westfront 1918” the same year, showing not only the terror of trench warfare, but how bad things are back at home, when the soldier Karl, played by Gustav Diessl, goes back on leave. The small-town German boys do their part without ideology or enthusiasm. It has a near-documentary feel with pioneering sound engineering. And a harrowing tank attack. In Germany the movie was then ferociously criticized from the right for “defeatism” and from the left for failing to provide any indication of how the soldiers came to be in their hopeless position.

The most antiwar of WWI movies was Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun” (1971) with a harrowing performance from Timothy Bottoms as a soldier who has lost his arms, legs, eyes, ears, mouth and nose, but not consciousness. Among his hallucinations (unfortunately) is Donald Sutherland as Christ. “Gods and Monsters” (1998) was certainly haunted by WWI traumatic memories, and links to “Johnny” (and other movies discussed above) in seeking death without committing suicide. Frank Borzage’s “Three Comrades” (1938, best remembered for supplying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s only screen credit) is mostly postwar. It interestingly involves Germans, including one played by Robert Young. As usual the comrades-in arms (Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone are the other two) are in love with the same woman (this time, a dying Margaret Sullavan).

Another portrayal of the detachment from reality of generals (on both sides) is “Joyeux Noel” in which those languishing in the trenches have a very unsanctioned-from-above Christmas truce. Though conflating several instances, this movie is, like “The Immortal Battalion” and “Sgt. York” based on what actually happened.

Jean Renoir’s classic “Le grande illusion” (Grand Illusion is a prison escape movie, the prisoners being French officers (Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay), the POW commandant an honorable Prussia Erich von Stroheim.

The classic airborne gallants movie, “The Dawn Patrol” (1930), starring Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., was directed by Howard Hawks. Though there are several dawn expeditions from which only about half the planes return, Hawks’ movie ends with a dusk suicide mission for one. The movie was remade in 1938  as an Errol Flynn vehicle, directed by Edmund Goulding. Flynn played the Barthelmess part of jaunty, insubordinate flyer promoted to making decisions about sending others out to be shot down.

I have not seen the 1965 German adaptation of Joseph Roth’s esteemed novel The Radetsky March or the 1933 RAF drama “The Eagle and the Hawk” (with Fredric March and Cary Grant) or the 1966 RAF “The Blue Max” with George Peppard and James Mason. More embarrassingly I have not seen more than a clip of  King Vidor’s (1925, silent) “The Big Parade” with John Gilbert.

I have seen both screen adaptations of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, but the hospitalized American lieutenant does not flashback to what got him wounded. And I’ve seen the Vivien Leigh/Robert Taylor tearjerker “Waterloo Bridge,” which also is set away from the fighting, so not a “WWI movie.” Ditto for “Cavalcade.” (which I also found exceedingly boring). And the lovin’-the-same woman “Legends of the Fall.”

An actual list? You want a list? OK. But it will be of my favorites, even if headed by what is also the best. (I know that some would accord this to “Grand Illusion” and would press for including “Paths of Glory.”) And four could be challenged as being included among “war movies.”

Lawrence of Arabia

Westfront, 1918

Thomas l’imposteur

Hell Below

Dawn Patrol (the 1930 one)

Joyeux Noel

Le grande illusion

King and Country

Dishonored

Wings

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

I have also posted a list of the best WWII movies and a survey of Korean War movies.

And I wrote about three WWI-set comedies made 50-60 years after the war here.

The best movies ever

Having disagreed with the Sight and Sound poll of film directors that Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” is the greatest film ever made, I wanted to revive my own list of the ten best (also see the  longer list of my favorites here). Here it is:

I tend to interpret “great” in the sense of sweeping and epic; even the most narrowly focused film on the list(#4) involves an epic struggle against evil).

Romance is central in four (3,6,7, 10a), but one of the lovers is dead by the end of three. The films were made between 1927 and 1985. Two of the three American-financed films were made partly on location away from Hollywood by British-born directors, as were the two films directed by American-born directors. I did not attempt geographical balance, but of the other seven directors, two are French, two German, one Indian, one Russian, and one Japanese. (Apologies to Italy, the cinema from which I much admire and the source of many of my favorite movies, including four on my list of favorites. And apologies to John Ford, who is certainly in my pantheon of great directors.)

I would not claim that all my favorite films are great, and there are some moments in the films on this list that I’d question, but “great” does not mean 100% good. Though necessarily subjective, my list does not include any of the idiosyncratic picks of my list of favorites. Most are recognized by the film-lovers who have seen them as great films, though there always a few dissenters (most likely about my American choices!), and my list is not markedly different from one I made around 1986. (Since posting this, I’ve been smitten by Kobayashi’s Human Condition trilogy.)

(10b) David Lean’s (1962) Lawrence of Arabia probably belongs on my list of favorites, but is definitely great in the sense of a wide canvas (of people and events, it was also shot in wide-screen format). It has some stupendous parts, starting with a dot in the distant sand growing into Omar Sharif riding into film stardom, one of the most memorable musical motifs of any film, great performances from Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, and Alec Guiness, et al. The parts do not entirely cohere, nor does its title character (not that it did in reality either…). Besides being a great film, it is of particular current relevance in showing the European powers’ connivance in establishing the House of Saud as rulers of Arabia and the general lack of understanding of the lifeways and conceptions of the Middle East on the part of western policy-makers. Al-Quaeda’s worldview and mission to destroy the modern world grows directly from the “fundamentalist” wahabbism the Saudi lineage has sponsored and proselytized from Mecca to the ends of the Islamic world. Continued cynical support from western regimes (and two Bush presidents) has maintained what are portrayed in the movie as the “freedom fighter” Arabs in power, and, if I recall, 18 of the 19 9/11 hijackers originated in Saudi Arabia.

(10a) Satrayjit Ray’s (1954-59) Apu trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, The World of Apu) shows a Bengali boy growing up, the triumphs and tragedy of “ordinary” people. The world is filled with what seems picturesque to me, but shows the truth of John Ford’s claim that the most interesting thing to photograph is the human face. Some find the camera placement too static, but the framing is never less than perfect. Ray prefigured the French New Wave in using natural light (if not in jump-cutting!). This trilogy has moments of exhilaration and of despair that would make it sound manic depressive if I tried to recount what happens.

(9) This slot was occupied by Leni Riefenstah’s documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, “Olympia.” Having re-viewed and reviewed it (Part One and Part Two), I still think it is a great film and that it is not a part of the particularly Nazi cult of “Aryan” features, because its biggest star is the African American track gold medalist Jesse Owens and it also fetishizes some Japanese athletes (yeah, I know Japan was an ally, but it is bodies and athletic skills Riefenstahl shows and seems to worship, not Hitler or “Aryans” like herself. “Body fascism,” if there is such a thing, perhaps…). I’m tempted to substitute my favorite sports documentary “Hoop Dreams,” but am instead replacing it with the greatest of Olympic documentaries, Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (showing parts of the 1964 Olympics). The special drama of Jesse Owens winning races against the “master race” on its home turf (in Berlin 1936 with chancellor Hitler in attendance) is more than “sports history.” Ichikawa includes some images as striking as Riefenstahl’s and many human dramas (“Olympiad” has some longeurs; “Tokyo Olympiad” none IMO.)

Insofar as there is a star of the show, it is the Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila winning his second gold medal (at the age of 35 and only a month after an appendectomy). If there is a theme I could induct from the five Ichikawa movies I’ve seen, it would be perseverance.

(8) Tabu (1931), cowritten and codirected by the great master of German expressionist cinema F. W. Murnau (Last Laugh, Nosferatu, Sunrise) and the great early master of documentaries Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North, Louisiana Story) is an amazing, beautifully photographed film about forbidden love (involving a Polynesian sacred virgin and a fisherman) that was filmed in Bora Bora with nonactors who had probably never seen a movie. It has its kitschy moments, but the dancing is superlative, as is the photography of Floyd Crosby, particularly in the final sailing away scene. Flaherty quit and sold his share, so ultimately this is a Murnau film (and Murnau was dead before it was released) and it seems to me that the boat sailing away at the end is headed for Valhalla (with Matahi a stand-in for Murnau). Remembering it makes me shiver!

(7) I am a major Alfred Hitchcock fan. “Notorious” is my favorite, but I also adore (in chronological order) “The Lady Vanishes”, “39 Steps”, “Shadow of a Doubt”, “Spellbound”, “Strangers on a Train”, and Vertigo (1958). Alfred Hitchcock became very widely recognized as a tv personality, but until being loudly championed by François Truffaut and other Cahiers critics, was considered a genre (thriller) journeyman rather than as the creator of cinematic masterpieces. “Vertigo” in particular was poorly received by American audiences and critics on its release, though it is obvious now to many that it is a great portrait of obsession and role-making (far more effective than any of the films made of Pirandello’s plays), a superlative exercise in color photography (credit Robert Burke, as well as Hitchcock’s schema), a model of music (Bernard Hermann’s) enhancing the visual moods, and contains one of the greatest performances of screen icon James Stewart.

(6) Orson Welles’s (1940) “Citizen Kane” often tops best film lists. I don’t question that it is a great film, though it is a rather frosty one except for the obvious enjoyment of playing with the possibilities of the medium of film. I think that part of the tribute to it derives from sympathy for Welles never again having the resources and control he had in making “Kane.” Even cut by others, I prefer “The Magnificent Ambersons.” Despite his legendary difficulties with financing his ambitious visions, I think he managed a genuine masterpiece in which he played the role well-suited to the appearance of the “boy wonder” bloated and seemingly dissipated, Falstaff (aka, “Chimes at Midnight“, 1965,findally on DVD). Welles is a not particularly jovial, bonhomie Falstaff, but excels both in bluster and in heartbreak when Prince Hal is crowned Henry V and spurns him. John Gielgud’s Henry IV is nearly out of this world, near death and intoning the famous “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” speech in the famed Gielgud voice that the audience literally can see. Margaret Rutherford is memorable as Mistress Quickly; Jeanne Moreau is forgettable as Doll Tearsheet, but the film’s greatness depends on the battle scene (shot in the turmoil, like the great battle scenes in Kurosawa tragedies) and on the extraordinary performance of Keith Baxter as Prince Hal. The primary sources of “Falstaff” are the two plays titled “Henry V” and Baxter restores his part’s centrality, upstaging the master upstager. Also, the work of French cinematographer Edmond Richard, who also lensed Welles’s version of Kafka’s “The Trial” is outstanding in “Falstaff” (and was the best aspect of “The Trial”).

(5) Sanshô Dayû (Sansho, the Bailiff, 1954) has the knock-out emotional force and the visual riches that I thought I remembered from when I first saw it decades go. Although less an epitome of Mizoguchi Kenji’s concern with female sacrifices for male family members than the 1952 “The Life of Oharu” (in comparison to which the suffering and grief of “Sanshô” is mitigated), it has affecting performances (my favorite of which is that of Kato Masahiko as the ten-year-old falling from privilege into slavery). Both the famed visual compositions and the famed pans (the two starting and ending the final scene are particularly famous)were the responsibility–and inspiration of Miyagawa Kazuo (who shot “Rashomon” and “Yojimbo” for Kurosawa along with some of the visually dazzling Kagemusha and some of Tokyo Olympiad and other Japanese masterpieces.

(4) Robert Bresson Un Condamné à mort échappé (A Condemned Man Escapes, 1956) is one of the most intensely concentrated movies ever made. I think that I like Bresson’s (1958) “Pickpocket” (which also involves lots of closeups of the title character’s hands) more, but as a small-in-scale entry, the story of a WWII French resistance fighter clawing his way out of his prison cell is the ne plus ultra. Without overt symbolism, Bresson’s film exalts resistance to seemingly omnipotent oppressors.

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(3) Buster Keaton’s (1927) The General is a fixture on greatest film listings. There is very little comedy and, of course, no facial expression from The Great Stone Face, here playing a determined southern engineer whose beloved locomotive is seized by the Union army. As in other (all?) great Keaton movies, Keaton is maniacally determined to prove himself, this time to Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), who believes he has not joined the army out of cowardice (when his job has been judged indispensable and his volunteering was rejected by Confederate authorities). I wouldn’t be the first person to observe that parts of the movie seem like a documentary (though it was filmed in Oregon!), or at least to bring the still photography of Matthew Brady et al. to life. It is brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed, with one of the greatest chase sequences ever. Between 1924 and 1927 Keaton made a series of masterpieces. I’m not sure which is my favorite, probably “Our Hospitality”, which is far funnier than “The General.”

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(2) Kurosawa Akira ‘s Ran (Chaos, 1985). “King Lear” is the traditional climax of Anglophone actor’s mature artistry. Kurosawa’s adaptation, set in feudal Japan, with an aging father splitting his kingdom between three son-in-laws. As with Kurosawa’s adaptation of “Macbeth”(Throne of Blood),  the grandeur of Shakespeare’s language is jettisoned, but the wordless climaxes of each are pure cinema (not to mention pure cataclysm for the protagonists fully realizing their folly). It is long (2:40), bloody, beautiful, and a towering work of genius culminating a series of Kurosawa films that are among the greatest films ever made anywhere. It also has the best helmets of any film on my list, since I chose “Ivan the Terrible” rather than “Alexander Nevsky” for my Eisenstein masterpiece, and a haunting musical score by Takemitsu Tori . (Kurosawa thought that “Ran” would be his last film, and had difficulty getting it financed. He made some minor movies after it—just as actors who triumph as Lear may keep working… with nothing left to prove. Also, I like Kurosawa’s preceding anti-epic Kagemusha more, along with Sanjuro. Nakadai Tatsuya is in all three, and in some other amazing Japanese masterpieces including Okamoto’s Kill!, Kobayashi’s “Harakiri”/”Seppuku” and The Human Condition trilogy.

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(1) Sergei Eisenstein more or less invented cinema as an art form, or at least as an art form of montage. “The Battleship Potemkin” (1925) is the conventional pick for best film lists and certainly his most influential film, but with my predilection for understanding “best” in the epic sense, my choice is the two-part Ivan the Terrible (1944-46) about the first czar. For me, it is the culmination of expressionism (a mostly German idiom) with shadows as ominous as in the darkest night of cinema noir. (The first part exalts power and fervent leadership to an unsettling sense. Ivan’s loneliness and increasing derangement are the central features of part two).

Its musical score by Sergei Prokofiev is almost as great as the one he supplied Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” and the composition of the pointed-beard Ivan at a window as lines of supplicants sing the czarist anthem trudging through the snow is the most indelible composition in cinema history for me (as the montage on the Odessa steps from “Potemkin” is the textbook exemplar). The antagonists in part one are somewhere beyond operatic: Nikloai Cherkassov’s young Grand Duke of Moscow and the scheming Boyar princess Euphrosinia, played by Serafima Berman. The real dialectic (a Hegaeian rather than Marxist one) is between the human and the despot. Part One pleased Stalin as his henchmen (as “Alexander Nevsky”) had; Part Two was almost destroyed, and plans for a third part were cancelled, so that “Ivan the Terrible” is as important in the political history of film-making as it is in the history of representing political conflicts in films.

(The runner-ups: Kobayashi’s Human Condition trilogy, sepecially the harrowing finale, Jean Renoir’s “La grande illusion” (1937) ,and Carl Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) in which Falconetti is Jeanne going up in flames.)

©2005, 2016, Stephen O. Murray