They called it "the war to end all wars", but, in perhaps the greatest irony of the 20th century, the 1914-18 conflict merely set the stage for a bigger, bloodier encounter. With Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg has done more to remind us of the horrors of the Second World War than almost any other director, but with his latest work, War Horse, he has finally focused his camera on its predecessor. A contender for Oscar success, the film's arrival is a reminder that the First World War may occasionally be overlooked by history, but it has inspired some unforgettable cinema.
Based on the children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, the movie tells the story of Albert, an English country lad, played by the newcomer Jeremy Irvine. After his beloved horse, Joey, is sold to the cavalry, Albert lies about his age to fight in the war, in the desperate hope that it will reunite him with the animal. As well as huge battle sequences that vividly portray the ugliness of war, the film is bathed in a warm glow that gives the story a hopeful, if at times rather sentimental, feel.
Exposing the ghastly reality of armed conflict has long been a preoccupation among filmmakers, but rarely has it been done quite as successfully as in 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front. The classic tale of a once-idealistic German soldier's growing disillusionment in the trenches of the Great War prompted Variety magazine to claim: "The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word 'war' is taken out of the dictionaries."
Unlike Second World War movies, which often detail ambitious and heroic military endeavours (not just on land, but also in the air and sea), on screen depictions of the First World War tend to focus on individual hardship and the inhumanity of trench warfare. Stanley Kubrick's 1957 classic Paths of Glory sees three French soldiers accused of cowardice after they fail to carry out an impossible attack. If found guilty, the men would face a firing squad. The Hollywood film, which reflected Kubrick's fervent anti-war stance, was banned in France because of its unflattering portrayal of the country's army, as well as in Franco's Spain, because of its antimilitary message.
Away from the misery of the trenches, the First World War serves as the backdrop for two classic epics, both directed by David Lean: Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. The first, more of a romantic drama than a war film, offers a rare glimpse of fighting on the Eastern Front where the title character (Omar Sharif) serves as a battlefield medic. The second is based on the real-life campaign of guerrilla warfare waged by the British officer TE Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) and his band of Arab soldiers against the Turks. The tale of adventure is far removed from the bleakness of most First World War films, although it doesn't ignore Lawrence's personal torment, as his loyalties are split between his home country and his new comrades.
The fighting in Turkey is the subject of another Great War classic: Peter Weir's Gallipoli. Starring a fresh-faced Mel Gibson, the drama shows the struggles and, once again, growing disillusionment of two young Australians sent to fight in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. A joint British and French attempt at taking control of the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, and securing a sea route to Russia, some 130,000 soldiers are believed to have died in the failed endeavour.
In the past decade, French filmmakers have been the most keen to return to the trenches. A young woman's (Audrey Tautou) painful search for her fiancé who was last seen fighting in the Battle of the Somme, was the subject of 2004's A Very Long Engagement. The following year, Joyeux Noel told the true story of the French, German and Scottish soldiers who called an informal, unauthorised truce on Christmas Eve 1914, greeted each other in no-man's-land and even played football together.
Scheduled to arrive in 2013 is a remake of All Quiet on the Western Front. Billed as a fresh adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel rather than an attempt to revisit the 1930 film, it is expected to be helmed by the director Mimi Leader (Deep Impact), while the Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe has been tipped to play the lead. Following the path trodden by War Horse, the movie's arrival would see the First World War receiving its greatest mainstream attention for years, just before the centenary of its outbreak.