It is no surprise that cinema has been around for a long, long time. However, many may find it surprising that the history of films set during the World War Two era dates back to the conflict itself!
Directors like John Huston and William Wyler were there – braving through the WW2 battlefields – capturing the war as it unfolded.
Throw a stone, and you’re bound hit a movie set in the World War Two era.
On the other hand, World War One has largely been absent from mainstream cinema. Nevertheless, we have started seeing a change in this trend since 2010. Films like All Quiet on the Western Front (2022), War Horse (2011), 1917 (2019), and Wonder Woman (2017), among many others, have started to fill the void in the portrayal of WW1 on the big screen.
But the question is: what took so long?
Let’s find out!
The World War Two Effect
As World War Two came to an end, the presence of World War One on the big screen declined significantly. By the 1950s, WW2 movies were everywhere. The new set of WW2 films dwarfed the entire collection of movies set during what was once known as The Great War. Still, the mid-twentieth century was not exactly devoid of WW1.
For example, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory effectively portrayed how the war is simply the rich sending the little man out to die. By the 1960s, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) took notice of World War One.
However, it was only among a handful that projected light on The Great War. In the mid-1940s, titles like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) were bagging awards and audiences for depicting WW2 or its immediate aftermath.
By the time Lawrence of Arabia (1962) rolled out, WW1 had fallen out of the mainstream.
America in WW1
American cinema has shown ambivalence towards the portrayal of WW1. One of the reasons for this could be attributed to the fact that the US wasn’t really a big player in The Great War. The war began in 1914, but it was not until late 1917 when American soldiers landed on European soil and the Summer of 1918 before they saw any real combat!
The War came to an end in November 1918, less than 17 months after America declared war on Germany and only 5 months after America got actively involved. America lost as many as 50,000 soldiers in the conflict, so it would be wrong to say that the country did not lose much. Still, it was more of a war for its European counterparts than for America itself. That is exactly the reason why movies like 1917 and War Horse are set on the European soil it was mainly fought over.
Paul D. Miller of the Atlantic Council illustrated, “how can we celebrate the end of the Great War when the war’s end was little more than a segue from one big problem to a thousand smaller ones?” The bleak reality of WW1 makes it a perfect fit for movies that reflect on the dark side of humanity.
On the contrary, WW2 featured definitive villains – Nazis. Additionally, Pearl Harbor gave Americans another reason to invest in the global conflict. All in all, WW2 had a greater pull on Americans than WW1 did.
In the second half of the 20th century, cinema barely produced any hit WW1 movies that inspired the new generation of directors. There was little depiction, few and far between. Meanwhile, the WW2 genre was reaching new heights. Titles like Saving Private Ryan only made the portrayal of WW2 more and more popular.
It truly seemed like a dead-end for WW1 in modern cinema.
Of course, with the beginning of 2010s, WW1 films got a long overdue resurgence. War Horse (2011) and They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) got the WW1 genre back on track. Additionally, Wonder Woman (2017) and The King’s Man brought life back to the long-forgotten cinema.
There is only one way to keep your audience engaged: keep coming up with something new. Beat the norm. World War Two has become so ubiquitous in American Cinema that it would not be surprising to see a shift toward World War One again.
With that being said, it is safe to say that World War One is having a pop culture resurgence. And we’re here for it!