World War 1, which claimed the lives of about 8.5-million combatants and 13-million civilians, is one modern world’s darkest periods. As the media, especially in Europe and the UK, attach the poppies to their lapels to commemorate the fallen and the armistice of November 1918, here are three suitably grim but evocative films to remind us of the futility of armed conflict and wanton destruction.
The Arthouse Essential:
War Requiem — YouTube
British experimental master Derek Jarman’s 1988 film creates a poignant visual and aural tapestry that, instead of dialogue, employs composer Benjamin Britten’s choral work and snippets from the poetry of doomed soldier-poet Wilfred Owen.
Jarman uses those works as a guide under which he places a succession of steadily more moving and powerful sequences that quietly convey the futility, violence and loss. The story here isn’t of any particular soldier, but rather of the UK as a whole. Jarman’s subtle handling of what in other hands may have overarched into bombastic patriotism and sentimentalism makes it one of his strongest and most cohesive works.
Tilda Swinton, Laurence Olivier and Nathaniel Parker are some of the actors who, despite having little to say, offer performances that speak to the universality of the terrifying experiences and psychological consequences of war people and national psyches.
The Stone Cold Classic:
All Quiet on the Western Front
Lewis Milestone’s 1930 adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque remains, despite sometimes heavy handed moral monologues, one of the finest war films. Starring Lew Ayres, it’s the story of a the gradual but steady killing off of a group of idealistic German soldiers in the trenches.
Its strong, direct and unflinching anti-war stance is reflected in its pioneering non-linear structure that places the personal and emotional experiences of its characters before the expected depiction of its events and battles.
Its depictions of the adrenalin, fear and tumult of the battlefield are equally groundbreaking; viscerally conveying what it was like to be young, misled men trapped on the front lines of a war that resulted from the follies of geopolitical one-upmanship and vainglorious games played by old men far away from the awful trenches. It’s held together by some of the best acting in the heyday era of the talkies, and its final image remains one of the most poignant and heartbreaking in film history.
The Diamond in the Rough:
Sam Mendes’ technically dazzling one-take account of the journey of two soldiers through the horrors of the trenches won a deserved Oscar for veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins.
A first-person video-game-style film that drags viewers straight out of the comfort of pleasant, picturesque meadows into the belly of the beast, it’s a gripping and compulsive nightmare of a journey that offers the experience of its two protagonists as representative of the greater, widespread terror that enveloped the world.
You can almost smell the mustard gas amid the stench of death as you journey from one awesomely realised set piece to the next and by the end you are, like the soldiers, exhausted, disoriented and exasperated at the futility of it all. Filled with memorable cameos and suitably haggard-faced performances, it’s the kind of film that is best experienced on as big a screen as possible with as loud a sound system as you can get your hands on. But it also has enough moments of contemplative quiet that drive home its central message about how needless all of it really was.
In an age where we’re are told that conflict is less directly confrontational, thanks to the wonders of technology, 1917 provides a timely warning about what going to war actually does to the minds and bodies of those involved. Be it on the ground in the thick of things, in the air high above or even remotely via joystick controllers to launch bombs from drones thousands of miles away, war is hell.