If you’re on the right side of history—and refuse to take your lessons in war from Call of Duty—then you know that the best (if not all) World War I movies are anti-war movies. Considering The Great War took an estimated 40 million lives, most Wold War I films have sought to honor those forced into battle (as well as those who died after finding themselves in the middle of it). We’re talking about films like Johnny Got His Gun (adapted from the Dalton Trumbo novel), which tell the stories of individuals who have lost everything, both in mind and body, from the conflict.
Remember, too: Even though an awards winner like 1917 is breathtaking, oftentimes downright beautiful, to watch on an IMAX screen, life in the trenches was just as gruesome as you see in the Sam Mendes film. The sickness, the overflowing hospital beds, all of it. The true horrors of war can never be fully captured on camera, but the below films serve as a reminder of how troubling and horrifying war can be. Keep that in mind when you go through our list of the best World War I movies of all time.
For some people, 1917—which hit theaters in the winter of 2019/2020—was their last great experience watching a film in a real, live cinema. But if you have to go on a film hiatus, the Sam Mendes film is a remarkable note to go out on. 1917, which follows two British soldiers who receive deathly orders, is as breathtaking as it is devastating.
The Harlem Hellfighters’ Great War
We’re cheating a little bit by including The Harlem Hellfighters’ Great War in here. It’s technically a documentary. But the story is too powerful to leave out. The History Channel documentary tells the story of the 369th Infantry Regiment, which spent more time in combat than any other American unit.
But when the regiment, comprised mostly of Black men, came home? They faced racism and segregation instead of praise. The Harlem Hellfighters’ Great War recounts the group’s incredible story, with visual accompaniments from Max Brooks’s dazzling graphic novel about the regiment. We’ll just leave this here until the inevitable film adaptation comes out.
There’s no such thing as a feel-good World War I movie. But War Horse is inspirational, at the very least. The bond between Albert and his horse, Joey, will give you chills—and it’s painted with Steven Spielberg’s signature beauty and humanity the whole way through.
They Shall Not Grow Old
When Peter Jackson wraps up his illustrious career, They Shall Not Grow Old might go down as his greatest achievement. Using technology from the BBC and Imperial War Museum, Jackson managed to restore archival footage from World War I. The result? A haunting, beautiful, and intimate portrait of the men we sent to war, and often, to their deaths.
Paths of Glory
Sure, Full Metal Jacket holds the crown as Stanley Kubrick’s most important war movie. But don’t leave Paths of Glory out of the conversation. Kubrick’s story of a French general, which he directed 30 years before Full Metal Jacket, shows the pointlessness of war(and was so controversial at the time that it was initially banned in France).
All Quiet on the Western Front
All Quiet on the Western Front isn’t just a classic of war cinema: it’s an all-time great film. Period. The adaptation of the Erich Maria Remarque novel is as gutting as it was nearly 100 years ago, showing (through a group of German soldiers sent to the deadly Western front) the gruesomeness of The Great War.
A Farewell to Arms (1932)
Before Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s ultimate Ernest Hemingway documentary, Hemingway, hits PBS, it couldn’t hurt to do some prepping in advance. If you don’t feel like going back through your high school syllabus, queue up the 1932 adaptation of A Farewell to Arms—if only for the unforgettable performances of Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes.
Johnny Got His Gun
Nothing will beat Dalton Trumbo’s novel of the same name, which many call one of the greatest anti-war stories ever told. Except, maybe, the film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun directed by Trumbo himself. Unfortunately, the story of the battered, beaten Joe Bonham is timeless in any era.
King and Country
There are few movies that show the pains of war in more vivid detail than King and Country. Through the trial of private Arthur Hamp, the film shows the cost of the war on the young men of Britain.
No one particularly expected Wonder Woman to provide a harrowing portrait of life in World War I. But that’s exactly what the all-timer of a war scene in the “No Man’s Land” battle gave us. (Important fact check: the Queen of the Amazons did not show up to fight in The Great War, though it would’ve ended a hell of a lot sooner if she had.)
Lawrence of Arabia
No World War I film would be complete without Lawrence of Arabia. Set partly in World War I-era Ottomon Empire, the film is based on title character, T.E. Lawrence’s book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The film is generally revered as one of the greatest films of all time (within and out of the war film genre) and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards.