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3 American War Film Epics In The 1920s

These three American war film epics in the 1920s, all anti-war movies, have their flaws but are worth at least one viewing by movie buffs.

The two decades beginning with the final days of World War I saw a large number of classic movies centered around “the war to end all wars,” ranging from the D. W. Griffith drama, Hearts of the World (1918) to French director Jean Renoir’s cynical La Grande Illusion (1937).

Other memorable films include 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front, the German masterpiece, Westfront 1918, and three silent movies from the 1920s that were made by young directors in the early years of their notable careers. The three were Rex Ingram, King Vidor, and William Wellman.

American War Film Epics

American war film epics are large-scale films that depict major wars in American history. They typically feature large casts, grand sets, and sweeping battle scenes.

Here are three of our picks:

The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Glenn Ford, Ingrid Thulin, Charles Boyer (Actors)

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921 – 155 minutes)

An Argentine cattle baron has two daughters. One is married to a Frenchman and has a dissolute son, Julio (Rudolph Valentino); the other has wed a German and has three arrogant sons.

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After the cattleman dies, his wealth is split between the two families who then move to Paris and Berlin, respectively. When war breaks out, the two families become pitted against each other, and Julio is forced to choose between his wastrel life and his duty to his country.

Director Rex Ingram whose brief, but successful, Hollywood career included The Prisoner of Zenda and Scaramouche, created a movie filled with memorable imagery, from the sweeping pampas to the war’s trenches to the appearance of the four biblical horsemen in the background.

His attention to detail included having Julio and his married Parisian mistress (Alice Terry) speak their lines in French to make them more authentic to lip-readers.

The film was based on the popular book by Vince Blasco Ibanez and brought in a very impressive four million dollars. It was also the movie, with its tango dance scene, that made Valentino an overnight star and heartthrob.

The Big Parade (1925)
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • John Gilbert, Renée Adorée, Hobart Bosworth (Actors)

The Big Parade (1925 – 130 minutes)

A young member of New York’s idle rich (John Gilbert), joins the army on a dare and, after his arrival in France, fights off initial boredom by engaging in horseplay and pranks.

Later, he meets and woos a French country girl, Melisande (Renee Adoree), but his idyllic existence comes to an end when his unit is sent to the front and he discovers the real meaning of war with all its horror and disillusionment.

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Director King Vidor wanted to create a realistic war movie that would be a hit with audiences. He succeeded, with the movie becoming the largest grossing silent movie ever, making 22 million dollars worldwide.

Helping its popularity were several memorable war scenes including the march to the front which utilized 3000 extras, 200 army trucks, and 100 airplanes; the perfectly choreographed infantry advance through the Belleau Wood; and the fighting in the trenches.

The Big Parade has its flaws. It covers three distinct genres — comedy, romance, and war drama — and the transition from one to another is not always smooth. Also, some scenes are heavy-handed, one example being the dramatic departure sequence when Gilbert leaves Adoree for the front.

At first, it is so overplayed that it borders on comics before becoming quite poignant. However, these are small quibbles compared to the full movie.

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Wings (1927 – 140 minutes)

Two young men (Buddy Rogers, and Richard Arlen) become bitter rivals in pursuit of the same young woman (Clara Bow). However, after the U.S. enters World War I, the two join the aviation corps and become not only combat pilots but also best buddies.

They are later joined in France by Bow who has become an ambulance driver. Tragedy occurs when one of the men becomes an ironic casualty of war.

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The first movie, and only the silent one, to be named Best Picture, Wings would today, in some respects, be considered an average movie due to its corny romance plot and mawkish and overblown concluding scenes.

Fortunately, superb combat sequences and special effects are enough to overcome these defects and give the movie the classic status that it deserves.

The thirty-year-old director, William Wellman, was able to draw upon his wartime flying experiences in the Lafayette Escadrille to create aerial combat scenes that have only been equaled by 1986’s Top Gun.

German dirigibles exploding in midair, flaming biplanes spinning to the ground, and the combined air and ground battles are as credible looking today as they were eighty years ago.

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