Okay, technically not no movies. After all, there’s All Quiet on the Western Front, that staple of high school world history classes. Joyeux Noel. A few others. But while anyone with a basic knowledge of film can name literally dozens of World War II movies, and quite a few about Vietnam, the Civil War, and the various Persian Gulf conflicts, it’s considerably harder to name any about World War I. Or Korea, I suppose, though we were still fighting World War II in the movies during Korea. But even during the space between the wars, there weren’t a heck of a lot of films about World War I, were there?
My best friend says of World War I that it’s the great example of why you should never fight a war you can’t explain to a seven-year-old. However, you can’t really say that it’s the ambiguity of the war that led to the general lack of interest in films about it. After all, there are plenty of movies about more recent and possibly more ambiguous conflicts. It isn’t all The Green Berets, either.
I don’t think it’s even that we weren’t equipped to feel ambiguous about the war at the time. We (not, of course, that I was alive then) knew we were ambiguous about that war. Woodrow Wilson won his second term by reminding everyone he’d kept us out of the war, though that didn’t last. The uncertainty of getting into the war in the first place was what led to the isolationism that kept us out of the second one for so long, at least in part. The few World War I movies that were made even then were mostly about being uncertain about going to war.
I do, however, think film has gotten better equipped to deal with moral ambiguity as a medium. Even though I love silent film, I have to say this is one of the things that was really helped by the coming of sound. It’s hard to tell a story about the moral uncertainty of war when you’re stuck with title cards to tell it. That ends up being enough reading to make you wonder why you’re bothering with a movie at all. (And I’m also speaking as someone who even generally prefers subtitles on animation for foreign films.) You can probably get it across, but it’s harder. And after all, for a fair chunk of the time between the wars, there was still no sound in film.
Then again, it’s been a long time since 1927. What’s our excuse now?
It’s been an even longer time since 1919, and World War II is easier to make movies about. You don’t need to figure out how to convey the complications of moral ambiguity when you’re talking about World War II. You’ve got Nazis. Oh, there are some stories that are more complicated than that, but there are still Nazis in the background, giving us someone to hate—and a reason for the war to happen. You don’t have to explain.
World War II is still in living memory. There are still people telling the stories. World War I, for all intents and purposes, is dead. No one is left to remember. Now, of course, a whole lot of European history of the last century has been shaped by what happened during and after World War I, and they’re even still digging up ammunition that is considerably more lively than the soldiers buried in those fields. I wouldn’t exactly advise farming in certain fields of France even now. But even those whose fathers served in the war are, mostly, dead now.
There are a lot of stories to be told about World War I, some good and some bad. Some of them have even been made into movies and made-for-TV movies. (Paul Gross seems to have a bit of a cottage industry going up in Canada.) I think we might have a better understanding of the shape the world is in now if we told a few more of them, though.