The Great War that detonated a creative explosion

The first world war failed to end all wars but it did spawn a vast body of works in literature and film. Richard Lord looks at notable examples on the centenary of the shot that started the conflict

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 June, 2014, 12:18pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 June, 2014, 12:18pm

Ahundred years ago yesterday, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo, triggering the unimaginably bloody conflict that came to be known as the first world war.

At the same time, it also triggered a cultural avalanche: no other conflict has captured literary and cinematic imaginations to quite the same extent. Films and books about the war have continued to be made until the present day, although the late 1920s and early 1930s was a particularly fertile period.

The presentation of war in those works ranges from the wearily cynical to the war-glorifyingly patriotic to the angrily pacifist, often with a distinct focus on the impact of the war on individuals - and their romantic entanglements.

Here are a few of the most renowned depictions of the inaptly named war to end all wars, and why they're worth seeing or reading.


Most realistic

All Quiet on the Western Front (directed by Lewis Milestone, 1930)

Erich Maria Remarque's novel is rendered on the silver screen as a brutally realistic depiction of battle: the war scenes inspired Platoon (1986), while the training scenes informed Full Metal Jacket (1987). Unlike the book, the American film adaptation was told from the opposite side's perspective, finding ordinary soldiers' experiences of war to be universal.

Most controversial production

Hell's Angels (dir. Howard Hughes, James Whale and Edmund Goulding, 1930)

The intensely strange Hughes produced the film as well as partly directed it - and it was a typically chaotic enterprise. Originally conceived as a silent film, it was recast as a talkie after production had already started, gaining its most famous performer, a then unknown Jean Harlow, when her predecessor, silent star Greta Nissen, was fired because of her

Norwegian accent. Hughes' insistence on overseeing the aerial scenes - he even flew some of them, crashing and fracturing his skull in the process - contributed to massive cost overruns, but also had more tragic consequences: the filming claimed the lives of three pilots and a mechanic.

Most anti-German

Hearts of the World

(dir. D.W. Griffith 1918)

The greatest technician of the silent cinema era, Griffith is also one of the most controversial figures in the history of filmmaking. Most of that derives from the shocking racism of his best-known film, The Birth of a Nation, and the vilification is barely less extreme in this film, made at the request of the British government. The Germans are preposterously nasty, forerunners to the numerous personifications of Nazi evil in second world war films.

Best special effects (for the time)

Wings (dir. William A. Wellman, 1927)

Although made in the silent era, this was the first film to feature extended aerial sequences, shot in meticulous detail, featuring 300 pilots and numerous extras, and overseen by military experts with whom Wellman spent most of his time clashing. The plot doesn't amount to much and it roundly glorifies the war, but the dogfight scenes were an astonishing technical triumph long before technological improvements rendered such achievements banal.


Mata Hari (dir. George Fitzmaurice, 1931)

Well, it's raunchy for 1931 anyway and risque enough to be tamed down in re-editing after the strait-laced Hays Code started to be enforced a few years later. Its subject matter was certainly provocative for the 1930s: the life of the legendary exotic dancer and courtesan, eventually executed as a spy. A sometimes syrupy romance set against an espionage backdrop, it was the most commercially successful film starring screen legend Greta Garbo, one of the few silent stars to survive the transition to sound.

Most melodramatic romance

A Farewell to Arms (dir. Frank Borzage, 1932)

Although its plot borrows pretty directly from the Ernest Hemingway novel on which it's based, tonally the two could not be more at odds. Stripped of the author's dry, spare prose and wearily contemptuous tone, the film amps up the romance to the max, tempered by a typically understated performance from Gary Cooper.

Most socially astute

La Grande Illusion (dir. Jean Renoir, 1937)

A perceptive study of human relations, this was the first war film to recognise that class unites people more than nationality, and to show how this was highlighted by the conflict. Its aristocratic leads are representatives of a disappearing social order: they are trapped out of time, and their patriotism and sense of duty is presented as tragic rather than laudable or vicious.

Best army recruitment vehicle

Sergeant York

(dir. Howard Hawks, 1941)

Another one starring Gary Cooper, this fairly gung-ho production used the first world war as a propaganda tool to persuade men to enlist in another. Based on a true story, it depicts a brilliantly talented marksman prone to bad behaviour who falls in love, cleans himself up, undergoes a religious conversion and flirts with pacifism, only to overcome his anti-war leanings and end up a celebrated war hero.

Best action romp

The African Queen (dir. John Huston, 1951)

The muddy trenches of Europe are swapped for the jungly waterways of East Africa in this joyously exuberant adventure story. The story of a rough-and-ready boat captain and an uptight Methodist missionary outwitting the Germans and falling in love, it is charming, witty and brilliantly acted, with immensely likeable performances from leads Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.

Most visually captivating

Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean, 1962)

Set in another of the less commonly depicted theatres of the war, the Arabian Peninsula, this is loosely based on T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. While the greatest strength of Lawrence's book lies in its polymath complexity, however, the greatest strength of the definitive film about him lies in its sheer breathtaking sumptuousness, together with its epic ambitions, its complex and controversial characterisation and the dazzling performances of its huge cast, in particular a luminous, economical, richly ambiguous turn from newcomer Peter O'Toole in the central role.


Most complex

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (1922)

Where several notable first world war novels are autobiography masquerading as fiction, quite a bit of Lawrence's memoir is fiction masquerading as autobiography. A tale of adventure and heroism that is also a political treatise and a deeply personal memoir, its central fascination is the character of Lawrence himself: an intellectual who became a war hero, and a complex, ambiguous defender of the war and of empire.

Most culturally influential

The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek (1923)

So popular was Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za svìtové války in the original Czech that its central character has become a celebrated representative of the nation. A dark farce featuring an apparently simple-minded protagonist, who might in fact be putting the simple-mindedness on, this is a bitter satire of the absurdity of military life. Its setting, ethnically diverse Austria-Hungary, full of divided loyalties and confused allegiances, serves to heighten its depiction of the weirdness and dislocation of war.

Most emotive

Journey's End by R.C. Sherriff (1928)

Actually a stage play, this pulls out all the emotional stops in its suspenseful depiction of life in officers' quarters in the run-up to an engagement. Richly influential in its heartstring-tugging tone, Journey's End captures the banality of life during war as well as the cocktail of dread, boredom and bravado that precedes battle.


Good-Bye to All That by Robert Graves (1929)

A furious broadside against the ruling classes Graves blamed for the war, this autobiography shows a society being stripped of its illusions in the most brutal way imaginable. Written in the author's characteristic unsparingly direct, immediately engaging style, it can be funny as well as shocking in its depiction of the war. A goodbye to a world transformed by the war and by wider societal forces, it is also a literal goodbye from Graves to an England he'd left, an intensely bitter Dear John letter to a nation that leaves no bridges unburned.

Sparest in its prose

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)

Loosely based on his own experiences, this was the book that cemented Hemingway's literary reputation. Shot through with a weary cynicism, it details a doomed romance between an American ambulance driver and a British nurse amid the dizzying chaos and carnage of war. The novel is also one of the more extreme examples of Hemingway's stripped-down writing style, which tends to divide readers sharply.

Most misleading title

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)

The title - Im Westen nichts Neues in the original German - is of course an example of pitch-black irony, and the book beautifully skewers the absurdity in the contrast between the war's long periods of dreary inactivity and its short bursts of intensely horrific activity. It's also a thorough examination of a theme that has sustained the war-movie genre since: the post-combat effects of war on individual soldiers, and the problems of trying to readjust to civilian life.

Most extreme character development

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon (1930)

A lightly fictionalised version of Sassoon's own experiences, this is a searing depiction of the power of war to disillusion. Its central character, George Sherston, starts off as a contradiction, an educated, insecure man who is also fiercely patriotic and pretty much a berserker on the battlefield, but who turns into an outspoken critic of the war, mirroring Sassoon's own transformation into one of the most articulate of anti-war writers.

Most marginalised perspective

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933)

Women's experiences of war are often underrepresented; here Brittain uses the impact of the war on women in England to illuminate the way in which conflict pulls and gnaws at society in all sorts of ways, reshaping every aspect of it. Another personal journey towards pacifism, and the work for which the seminal feminist author is best known, it was intended as a roman à clef, but Brittain found she was too close to her subject matter.

Grandest in narrative sweep

Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker (1991, 1993 and 1995)

These three novels, Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, animate the horror of war from a dizzying variety of perspectives, from a poet to a psychologist to conscientious objectors to a deeply conflicted working-class officer. Throughout, the books tackle Big Questions - class, nationalism, pacifism, authority, mental illness, masculinity - with an impressive lightness of touch and a winning directness of style.

Most romantic

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (1993)

Another book that tends to bitterly divide readers, this is sometimes sniffily dismissed as sentimental, but the punters love it; Britons voted it their 13th favourite book in a BBC survey. A languorous bodice-ripping saga it might be in places, but it also features some horrifyingly visceral descriptions of the war and a fascinating, generation- and era-hopping narrative structure.