Cast & Crew
Pedro De Cordoba
Louis De Rochemont
The film traces the origins and development of World War I using footage culled from archives, official sources and newsreels around the world. Chapter One begins at the turn of the twentieth century with a look at the world powers, including Prince Otto von Bismarck in Berlin calling on the German people to love blood and iron, the Prince of Wales at Windsor Castle and King George V, Czar Nicholas II, Teddy Roosevelt and the Austrian King Franz Joseph. The second chapter focuses on the 1912 Balkan War, the German development of a powerful war machine and Woodrow Wilson's inauguration as President of the United States. In Chapter Three, Austrian Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated by a Serbian national, resulting in Austria's declaration of war against Serbia. This further results in Russian troops mobilizing against Austria, prompting Germany to wage war on Russia and France and to invade Belgium as a route to France. England then joins the fight against the Central Powers. The fourth chapter focuses on the battles at sea, with British, French and Italian forces repelling the German fleet. Turkey joins the war in 1915 on the side of the Central Powers, and a battle is waged against Turkish forces in the Dardanelles. In Aug 1914 the British naval forces assault German forces in Heligoland Bight in the North Sea and cripple several German cruisers. In the northern Adriatic, Italian forces sink the Austrian flagship St. Stephen . Chapter Five moves its focus to the aerial battles and features the "aces of all the nations," including French pilot Georges-Marie Guynemer, credited with bringing down fifty-three enemy planes; German pilot Manfred von Richthofen, also known as the "Red Baron"; Canadian aviator William Avery Bishop of the Royal Flying Corps; Belgian pilot Nungesser, credited with forty-three air victories; and Italian aviator Gabriele D'Annunzio. Footage also includes the German zeppelin air raids at night on London and the destruction of a zeppelin. The sixth chapter highlights the German decision to wage all-out warfare using submarines, known as U-boats, on any ship, military or civilian, that attempts a voyage to England. Headlines announce the sinking of the passenger liners, which draws the United States into the war. In Chapter Seven, President Wilson invokes the draft in the United States, and in June 1917, two million American men are transported to Europe, where they are welcomed by Britain and France. Chapter Eight follows the collapse of Russian aristocracy and the subsequent revolution, in which Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Ilich Lenin lead the country to Bolshevism. That winter, Russia is swept by famine. During Christmas of 1917, Jerusalem falls to the forces led by British General Edmund Allenby. Chapter Nine shows the joining of forces of the United Allied Armies, headed by Generalissimo Ferdinand Foch, as they prepare for a massive campaign against German forces, who, having destroyed Russia, are now focusing the full force of their campaign against Great Britain. Chapter Ten presents the offensive known as "The Big Drive," in which Allied troops wage battles on all fronts against German forces. Finally, in Chapter Eleven, an armistice is declared on 11 November 1918, and a montage showing the present day world in turmoil ends the film.
The plot summary and credits were taken from a screen continuity in the copyright descriptions. According to the continuity, the following introductory remarks appear in the opening credits: "An authentic motion picture record reaching back to the turn of the Twentieth Century, collected from official sources and the archives of the great nations, and presented by Fox Film Corporation in association with Simon & Schuster." The copyright notice on the film states the following: "British Official War Film, Property of Imperial War Museum, Crown Copyright." The credits contain the following dedication: "Dedicated to the soldiers and sailors, known and unknown, who fought in the Great War, and to the cameramen, known and unknown, whose work made this record possible." The Spanish-language version of this film was copyrighted (Fox Film Corp.; November 23, 1934; LP5276) under the title La primer guerra mundial. The screen continuity for that version contains the same credits as for the English version, with Pedro de Cordoba replaced by Luiz P. Nebot, and John Rochetti's credit missing.
Variety noted in its review of the U.S. release, which coincided with the anniversary of the armistice, "It's been a clean-up already for some weeks abroad." The Motion Picture Herald review states that producer Truman Talley, who had been a newsreel editor and then the production chief of the Fox Movietone newsreel, had been gathering material for this film for "something like ten years." Before Talley completed work on the film, Laurence Stallings, an ex-Marine officer who had become a well-known dramatist, edited and wrote captions and an introduction for a photographic history of the war, also entitled The First World War, which was published in 1933 by Simon & Schuster. Talley brought Stallings, who had co-authored the successful play What Price Glory? (New York, 1924) and wrote the film The Big Parade (M-G-M, 1925), into the project, and Stallings contributed the narration. New York Times called Stallings' commentary "brilliant" and stated, "the Stallings comments drip on this monstrous kaleidoscope of human imbecility with the subtle, dark and murderous bite of acid." The Fox trade advertising billing sheet for the films re-issue on October 27, 1939 gives as the film's subtitle, "Secret Films from the Nation's Archives." Motion Picture Herald noted that much of the footage had never been shown publicly.
Reviewers noted that a number of similar films using newsreel footage about the war had been released previous to The First World War, but they rated this film as the most important. New York Times remarked, "The film lacks the nice taste for horror which marked its predecessors. It avoids the fallacy of placing blame." Calling the film a "stunning photographic anthology," New York Times ended their review with the hope that the "memorable and infinitely important document...should be distributed in every civilized country. If any motion picture is assured of enduring life, this is the one." Variety called the film "a great argument for peace" and noted, "There are many long minutes when [Pedro] de Cordoba is silenced. No explanatory lecture is necessary. The pictures speak for themselves." Motion Picture Herald called the film "the outstanding important war-screen documentary" and stated that no other such film had been "so comprehensive or so well prepared and correlated." A modern source states that nothing comparable to The First World War in terms of its subject or use of archival footage on the war has been made since.