It was an Academy Award nominee as Best Foreign Film. In 1999 the critics of Ciak magazine chose it as one of the 100 most important films in history. It won huge success outside Italy, especially in France.
Oreste Jacovacci from Rome and Giovanni Busacca from Milan meet each other during the call to arms at the start of World War I. Although completely different in character, they are united in their lack of idealism and their desire to avoid any danger and get out of the war unscathed. They and a varied group of civilians and fellow soldiers (including the prostitute Costantina, played by Silvana Mangano) go through many ups and downs during their training, battles and rare moments of leave. They are considered "inefficient" due to their limited military valour and so are made message-runners to the staff, a very dangerous job. Having succeeded in their mission, a sudden change in a which-side-hold-which-trench situation leaves them in enemy territory, where they are captured by the Austrians wearing Austrian uniforms they had found in a barn.
They are accused of espionage and condemned to be shot by firing squad. Overcome with fear, they let slip that they are in possession of information crucial to the success of the battle and that they have decided to change sides to save their lives. The Austrian officials' arrogance and a contemptuous joke against the Italians ("...courage?! Liver they say... That those in the know only eat liver with onions, and we'll soon eat that! [referring to the occupation of Venice where the dish is traditional]") give the pair new strength and dignity sufficient to keep the information secret right up until their execution - First Giovanni Busacca refuse to give any informations and insult the Austrian officer then, when Busacca was sent to face the firing squad, also Jacovacci refuse pretending Busacca was the only one to have the informations. The battle then ends in an Italian victory, without anyone knowing of the pair's sacrifice.Alberto Sordi: Oreste Jacovacci
Vittorio Gassman: Giovanni Busacca
Silvana Mangano: Costantina
Folco Lulli: Bordin
Bernard Blier: Captain Castelli
Romolo Valli: Lieutenant Gallina
Vittorio Sanipoli: Major Venturi
Nicola Arigliano: Giardino
Geronimo Meynier: Messenger
Mario Valdemarin: Lorenzi
Elsa Vazzoler: Bordin's wife
Tiberio Murgia: Rosario Nicotra
Livio Lorenzon: Sergeant Barriferri
Ferruccio Amendola: De Concini
Gianni Baghino: a soldier
Carlo D'Angelo: Captain Ferri
Achille Compagnoni: chaplain
Luigi Fainelli: Giacomazzi
Marcello Giorda: the general
Tiberio Mitri: Mandich
Gérard Herter: Austrian captain
Guido Celano: Italian major
The film is an ironic account of life in the trenches on the Italian front of World War I and the vicissitudes of a group of comrades fighting there in 1916. It is narrated in a simultaneously neorealist and romantic idiom, combining typical features of Italian comedy with attention to historical detail. One review wrote that it "realises a fusion, in some ways unsurpassed, through criticism dressed as comedy and the perspective of historical criticism capable of dealing with the past with the same lucidity and with the same anti-conformity as that shown by cinema following the eveolution of contemporary Italian society. Another review stated "Italian comedy was getting to grips with grand cinema and this had to pass through a direct contact with social reality and great labour in psychologically defining character.
The remarkable crowd scenes are accompanied by acute characterizations of many characters, human and fearful anti-heroes, resigned to their fate in solidarity with each other, united by their enforced participation in a disaster which in the end overwhelms them. Monicelli and his scriptwriters Age & Scarpelli and Luciano Vincenzoni reached the pinnacle of their careers with this film, combining artistic skill with unparalleled fluidity of storytelling, comedy and dramatic tone, and paving the way for a new style of war film. In the citation for an honorary degree from the University of Udine on 30 May 2005, Monicelli was rewarded "for his extraordinary contribution to [public] knowledge of Italian history through his films, particularly 'The Great War'. A master of cinematography and the course of history, but also ... a kind of master ... who taught us things we will remember for a lifetime."
The short final sequence shows the two main characters redeem themselves by making a small but courageous gesture of sacrifice, one as a "swaggering hero" and the other as a "heroic coward", the latter being Sordi's role, for which he won the Nastro d'Argento for Best Actor. One reviewer wrote:
In the end it will redeem them all, when cowardice will become honour and the spirit of belonging will prevails over selfishness, in a triumphal and optimistically patriotic ending which shrinks from the danger of falling into petty rhetoric, because it seals, just for once, the triumph of cowardice over courage. Perhaps this was not cowardice, but simply love for life."
The reconstruction of wartime life is, from a historical point of view, one of the best contributions by Italian cinema to the study of the First World War. For the first time a representation of that war was purged of the rhetoric of Fascist and Second World War propaganda, which continued the myth of Italy fighting a successful and heroic war, meaning The Great War had problems with the censors and banned for under 18s. One reviewer wrote "Its antirhetorical character brought press reactions right from the start of filming, but its public success contributed more than anything else to the de-mythologising of patriotic and romantic historiography which had always clouded the massacre that was the First World War under the oratory of ardour and sacrifice." Until then Italian soldiers had always been portrayed as courageous and willing men sacrificing themselves for their country. The film also denounces the absurdity and violence of the conflict and the miserable living conditions of civilians and soldiers, but also speaks strongly about the friendships which grew up among soldiers from very different classes, cultures and regions of Italy. Forced to live side by side, the soldiers' regional rivalries and provincial nature, never thrown together before for so long, helps to partly form a national spirit that before then was nearly non-existent, in strong contrast to Italy's commanders and institutions, which are shown as the main things to blame for the war.
The film was born out of an idea by Luciano Vincenzoni, influenced by "Two friends", a story by Guy de Maupassant. Initially thought of as a star vehicle just for Gassman, it was the producer De Laurentiis who decided to add another character, played by Sordi. The screenplay combined characters and situations from two famous books - "A Year on the Plateau" by Emilio Lussu and “Con me e con gli alpini” by Piero Jahier. In an interview, the director himself stated:
Lussu and Jahier are considered as the film's two screenwriters. In particular I turned to Lussu, saying that he deserved to be rewarded for the borrowings from his book, but (perhaps because he was convinced Italian comedy was rubbish) he told me that he would have nothing to do with it and we could realise the film just as we liked
The journalist and writer Carlo Salsa, who had actually fought in these areas in the First World War, was a script consultant, helping with the story, dialogue and background, all particularly vivid and original. The scenes were mostly shot in the province of Udine, at Gemona del Friuli, near Venzone, at Sella Sant'Agnese, in the fort at Palmanova and in the Nespoledo district of Lestizza from 25 May to mid June 1959. Other scenes were filmed in Campania at San Pietro Infine.Academy Award for Best Foreign Film
Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival (1959)
David di Donatello for Best Producer (1960)
David di Donatello for Best Actor (Gassmann and Sordi jointly) (1960)
Nastro d'Argento Best Design (Mario Garbuglia) (1960)
Nastro d'Argento for Best Actor (Sordi) (1960)