James Jay Carafano

James Jay Carafano

One of the most highly anticipated entries into the Christmas movie season was “1917,” an epic war film with an all-star cast and a riveting storyline. OK, weird to release a tale of death and destruction while the world has herald the arrival of the Prince of Peace — but hey, that’s the movie business.

Still, while we are on the topic of the Great War, this is a good time to remember some earlier, memorable World War I films. Here is a list of favorites.

6. “The Fighting 69th (1940)

Until the outbreak of World War II, the First World War was the main inspiration behind Hollywood military films. Classics like “Dawn Patrol” and “Wings” spring to mind. But for stirring battle films, nothing beats this movie. Based on the real-life exploits of New York City’s 69th Infantry Regiment, the movie traces the fictional personal journey of a young doughboy, Jerry Plunkett, and as he goes from showy bravado to cowardice to redemption.

5. “Sergeant York” (1941)

The next year Hollywood was back in the trenches telling the story of one of America’s most famous military heroes, Alvin York, whose real-life bravery was more incredible than any movie plot. As the world plunged into a second global conflict, American isolationists condemned the film as warmongering and excessively patriotic. In a way, they were right; the film reminds us that if good Americans didn’t stand up when evil was on the march, eventually our liberty would be on the bad guy’s menu. The movie helped move the greatest generation. This film still inspires.

4. “The African Queen” (1951)

Oh, yes, this is a World War I movie. So here is the deal: Take two of Hollywood’s greatest actors; pair them with one of the world’s most legendary directors; toss in a desperate, implausible plot on a remote river in darkest Africa — and then add a war story. Seriously, this one is so better than the umpteenth remake of “Star Wars.”

3. “Paths of Glory” (1957)

This film reminds us that war is not a fight between unalloyed good and pure evil. It is the worst of what men and women inflict on one another, littered with misjudgment, greed, ambition, cowardice and tragedy on all sides. In this movie, set in the darkest days of the war, a French regiment is ordered over the top in a futile attack that brings out the worst in those who send soldiers into harm’s way. It is deservedly regarded as a film classic.

2. “Oh What a Lovely War” (1969)

Yes, some studio suit had the audacity to make a musical comedy about a war that killed 40 million people. It’s worth watching for the sheer audacity of it all. Only the people who made “Cats” (2019) will appreciate the sentiment — “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

1. “Gallipoli” (1981)

This small film tells a big story about the failed British-Australian invasion of Turkey during the war. If you love “1917,” you will definitely want to check this one out.

All World War I films worth watching leave you with the feeling that war is a terrible thing. The only thing worse than war is to fight one incompetently. To preserve peace, prepare for war. To prevail in war, prepare for war. One key lesson of World War I is the necessity to make sure our military is ready for what is next.

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James Jay Carafano, the vice president of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute, is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges. This piece originally appeared in The National Interest.

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