First World War Centenary
The First World War, or The Great War, remains one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, with more than nine million combatants killed between 28 July 1914 and 11 November 1918. Triggered by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austro-Hungary, the war was the culmination of reemerging imperialism within much of Europe and forced allegiances to be made between leading world powers. With the United Kingdom, France and the Russian Empire on one side, Germany and Austro-Hungary on the other, fighting broke out on a number of different fronts across the globe, before degenerating into an agonising trench-bound stalemate along the Western and Eastern fronts.
Once these battle lines were established, little gain was made until 1917, while hundreds of thousands of young lives were wasted in a combat scenario nobody knew how to navigate. Military tactics had failed to keep up with technological advances, so repeated efforts to advance large numbers of infantry across exposed open ground were countered by machine guns, artillery and barbed wire, leading to massive loss of life on both sides. Needless to say, the promising young men from some of the world's most artistically fertile nations had plenty of time to contemplate their fates and articulate the anguish, suffering, brutality and death they were witnessing around them. Even before the conflict was over, the still relatively new artform of cinema was attempting to capture the harsh reality of the war.
D.W. Griffith, director of The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), was arguably the most successful American filmmaker working during the Great War. Griffith was commissioned by the British Government to shoot on actual battlefields in France, and used the footage in three subsequent features, with the aim of swaying neutral American attitudes towards the conflict. Filmmakers have revisited The Great War ever since, whether for propaganda purposes, to instil patriotism in audiences during subsequent conflicts; to tell epic stories of heroism and human triumph over great adversity; or more frequently to expose the horrors and futility of war, mourn the loss of millions of young lives and attempt to dissuade the powers that be from fighting in the future.
Many of the world's greatest filmmakers have been attracted to stories set during the First World War, resulting in hundreds of films on the subject, and a number of enduring cinematic classics. Jean Renoir's masterful escape drama The Grand Illusion (1937) remains one of the most acclaimed POW (prisoner of war) thrillers and poignant anti-war films ever made. David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which follows the exploits of a rogue British officer in a lesser-known chapter of the conflict,
is often heralded as the greatest "epic" ever committed to film.
After the Second World War, the focus of many filmmakers understandably shifted to that conflict, with its more clearly defined heroes and villains, and greater scope for upbeat stories of daring missions and thrilling victories. However, the unique poetic tragedy of the First World War remains strong, inspiring filmmakers and engaging audiences 100 years after it began.
A series of restoration efforts around the world have been going on in the last couple of years to commemorate the First World War. The Hong Kong Film Archive has chosen a total of six restored films in this programme, which directly or indirectly reflect the tensions and sufferings of 100 years back.
The contents of the programme do not represent the views of the presenter.
The presenter reserves the right to change the programme should unavoidable circumstances make it necessary.