Cinema's Portrayal of

World War One

Emma Farley

Talking Pictures alias






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The First World War began not long after the birth of cinema, so films such as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin were quite experimental. Because films are as much about the time in which they were made as they are about the time they represent, this film is quite significant as it is not just a war film, but also a big part of Soviet Montage cinema. Eisenstein was an auteur and featured conflict in each of his scenes to create maximum impact, but with any kind of war film, impact is a given. A film, sequence, scene or just a single frame can have a massive impact on audiences and the haunting images of a war film can prey on the viewer’s mind long after the closing shot. 

Battleship Potemkin features no single hero, but a group of people. It tells the true story of a mutiny which took place on board the Potemkin in 1905. Eisenstein used a montage technique to repeat key events, highlighting the shocking slaughter. It was an experimental form of filmmaking with graphic juxtapositions. Film critic Roger Ebert described it as one if the fundamental landmarks of cinema. There are countless powerful sequences, the most famous being on Odessa steps. For a film made in 1925, Battleship Potemkin is extremely well crafted. Films of the era involved static camera shots so it was much harder to film complicated shots. Today a director would simply use a pan, tilt or zoom. In scenes with a lot of action, such as the mutiny and the sequence on Odessa steps, Potemkin features very fast-paced editing in order to incorporate all of the detailed shots. 

Poster for Battleship PotemkinThe main criticism of the film is that it isn’t historically accurate. When films are based on actual events, it is essential that they remain true to what really happened. Critic James Goodwin claimed Eisenstein ‘confused the historical record’ and that ‘the massacre on the Odessa steps was often attributed by critics to Eisenstein’s creation and he did little to correct that impression’. Considering that Potemkin is based on actual events and this sequence is one of the most famous in the history of cinema, one could argue that it is quite sad that it is pure fiction. On the other hand, it is a well put together sequence and will rightly be remembered for years to come. 

During the war, audiences wanted entertainment; something to distract themselves from the constant conflict and chaos. It was only after the war that films with conflict at the centre of the narrative became popular. Film genres are historically and politically dependent so they evolve over time. Unlike other genres whose popularity fluctuates, there is always an appeal for war films. They are a genre of their own but they are so versatile that they can form hybrids with other genres, such as romance, comedy, thriller and drama. A lot of historical romances have war as the main source of conflict, such as Gone with the Wind and Atonement. The contemporaries tend to be thrillers, political, or a mixture of both, such as Charlie Wilson’s War. 

Most war films are dramas because they focus on such a serious issue. Romance is also popular as having relationships central to the film’s narrative helps to personalise the characters, therefore making them easier to relate to. Many of us are lucky enough to never have to go to war, so this aspect of the story makes it feel all the more real to us. Personalisation and realism are key to a successful film. 

Most war films tend to focus on a relationship. If romance isn’t a part of the narrative then there will be a close bond between two soldiers, such as Archy and Frank in Gallipoli. At the start of the film, 18 year-old Archy and twenty-something Frank are competitors on a running track. As the film progresses, they travel across Western Australia to join the army and fight in a war that Australia doesn’t even need to have a part in. Despite being underage, Archy sees joining the Light Horse as an obligation, something he has to do and would be proud to be a part of. Frank, on the other hand, only joins as he has nothing better to do. The two become firm friends and fight alongside each other. It is very rare to feature one character in a scene without the other and when they do it is usually in a two-shot, to emphasise their closeness. 

As film technology developed, so did the genre. New technologies such as sound, colour and special effects allowed the films to be more vivid and over the years, different narratives became acceptable. The evolution of film technology has meant that there are fewer limitations for filmmakers. Content has also changed over the years. Films have become a lot more graphic, making them very hard hitting and also allowing filmmakers to explore different themes. Some subjects are quite controversial and include amnesia, post-war alcoholism and post-traumatic stress, as well as the more common themes of amputation, suicide and sacrificing yourself for another. 

A Very Long Engagement was made in 2003 but was produced in a way that made it look a lot older. This stylised film used filters, which is common of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The war scenes feature a grey filter making it dark and dreary; it is almost as if it was filmed in black and white. The part of the narrative which follows Mathilde and her investigation has a yellow tint, making it appear as if it is an old photograph being played out over two hours and also making her life appear brighter and happier when compared to her fiancé’s. 

War films are generally critically acclaimed box office hits. Since the Academy was formed in 1927, it has given the Best Picture Oscar to 16 war films. Of these films, a quarter of them are about the First World War. These were most common in the 1930s. Since then, WW2 has become the most popular basis for the narrative and Vietnam was a common subject during the time of that war, going to further show the preference to feature recent/current wars. 

The first ever Best Picture Oscar was given to Wings. Other WW1 films, such as The African Queen, All Quiet on the Western Front, Dr Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia also proved popular with the Academy. Contemporary Oscar winning films tend to be war films, or at the very least political. Although the content of war films have varied somewhat over the last 80 years, they are still a hit with the Academy. Charlie Wilson’s War received a nomination for the upcoming 2008 awards and Atonement looks set to sweep the board with its seven nominations. This hugely successful WW2 film adaptation of the novel of the same name has become the most nominated film of the year. 

War documentaries have also become fairly common. Eight of the 15 films competing for Best Documentary of 2007 at the Oscars focus on past or current wars, ranging from WW2 to Iraq. 

For a while it seemed that WW1 had been forgotten by the film world but that has changed with the re-make of Johnny Got His Gun. The 1971 World War One film has been remade starring OC favourite Benjamin McKenzie. A deeply tragic film, it features a young soldier who is badly injured on the last day of the war, losing his arms, legs, eyes, ears, mouth and nose. He lives his life through dreams and memories, unable to distinguish between the two, and eventually finds a way to communicate with his doctors and nurses through tapping his head in Morse code. 

The original was released during the Vietnam War and the remake was filmed at the height of the latest Iraq War. It goes to show that war films are most popular in times of war as they make the current battles seem more real and heighten people’s awareness. 

This is not a straightforward re-make; instead it is based on the 1982 Off-Broadway play. The 1939 novel has become hugely popular, selling 100 million copies and printed in 40 separate editions in different languages. The most recent was published in July 2007, with a forward by Cindy Sheehan, whose soldier son died in Iraq. 

McKenzie said what attracted him to the role of soldier Joe Bonham was ‘the fact that the screenplay is very pro-soldier. While it does a great job presenting the book’s most famous anti-war passages, it gets just as much power, if not more, from the main character’s unflinching resolve to overcome his situation’. 

He also reiterated the significance of releasing the film at this time: ‘Even though the story takes place in World War 1, it is sadly still relevant today. The movie demonstrates so beautifully the fact that you can be both for the soldiers and against the war; that they are not two opposing points of view’. 

Most WW1 films were made in the 1930s as war films tend to be about the most recent war. They remained popular right up until the Second World War broke out. Today, war films are about the contemporaries, such as the Gulf War and the terrorism behind 9/11. They will remain popular as war is always an issue and features conflict which is vital for keeping audiences entertained. Films are also used to put such events in context and preserve history. 

World War One films have become few and far between as of late, but war in general is still playing a big part in our lives so you can expect to see more war films popping up in a cinema near you very soon, including an adaptation of the WW1 novel Birdsong.
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