The Cinematic Legacy of World War I



War defines us. Its effects are sweeping and deeply personal, from the damage to individuals caught up in them to the diasporas begotten in their wake. Tales of war are told and retold, poems, memoirs, novels, plays, songs, paintings, sculptures, films, from The Iliad to Antony and Cleopatra, from the Arc de Triomphe to Maya Lin’s Wall, from Rambo to War Horse. We are immersed in its landscapes and operate within its metaphors, constantly fighting some battle or another. The Great War, which began one hundred years ago this month in Europe, toppled three empires and redrew nation-states with borders still contentious to this day. It cost the lives of almost an entire generation and left the Lost Generation of poets, writers, and artists to make sense of it. It put nations of women to work and offered a glimpse of what economic freedom could mean. Fought with new technologies (the tank, the telegraph, the automatic weapon, poison gas, the aeroplane), it occurred just as communication (the radio, the telephone, newspapers, books, films) made its giant leap into mass media. It also tipped the balance of moviemaking power, devastating the European film industry and leaving Hollywood the big victor.

According to Stephen Ross’s Working Class Hollywood: “In 1914, the United States produced slightly more than half the world’s movies; by 1919, 90 percent of the films exhibited in Europe and nearly all of those shown in South America were made in the United States.” Nordisk studio, whose profits on films like The White Slave Trade and international star Asta Nielsen ushered in a golden age of Danish cinema, saw its output plummet. David Bordwell counts down the decline: 123 films in 1916, 61 films in 1917, forty-four films in 1918, thirty-nine in 1919, and eight in 1920.” The resulting “exodus of talent” gave Carl Dreyer, a scriptwriter at the studio since 1912, the opportunity to direct. France’s Pathé, which ten years earlier was the “leading supplier of moving pictures on the American market,” found its domestic production virtually halted. Its biggest star, Max Linder, went first to Chicago then to Los Angeles in hopes of maintaining a career. (Linder later ended up another casualty of war, committing suicide a result, it is believed, of long-term depression suffered after serving in the war.) In the 1920s, France became a hub for the avant-garde and fostered an artistic narrative tradition that marks its national cinema to this day. Germany, which too late recognized the propaganda value of movies, set up Ufa studios in the ashes of the war, which went on to make—and break—bank on historical epics and big-budget spy and science-fiction pictures. It nurtured talents—still recognized today by name—that pushed the unchained camera, chiaroscuro lighting, and street-film aesthetics to their narrative limits. Russia, whose Bolshevik Revolution succeeded largely because of opposition to WWI, briefly but vigorously cultivated new narrative and documentary forms and then pursued a national cinema in virtual isolation.

With World War II looming only twenty-five years into the future, it seems military tacticians were the only ones to have learned the lessons of the First World War but novelists, playwrights and filmmakers found endless fodder for their art and gave indelible form to its horrors: Rex Ingram’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; King Vidor’s epic antiwar film The Big Parade; Lewis Milestone’s adaptation of the German novel All Quiet on the Western Front; G.W. Pabst’s first sound film Westfront 1918, a masterful depiction of the German side; Jean Renoir’s unforgettable Le grand illusion;  Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory; David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia; Peter Weir’s Gallipoli; Serge Bozon’s La France, to name but a few. Muddy trenches, barbed wire zigzagging across barren terrain, skeletal remains of machine-gunned forests and bombed-out villages, lines of infantry snaking their way to doom, row upon row of planted white crosses became war’s grim iconography—and, at the center, the protagonists, with one clear duty: the renunciation of war’s most persistent and damaging fiction that there’s any glory in it.



The Dead
Abel Gance served in a French photography unit and was appalled by the fighting on the front, and his inability to capture any of it. “It was dangerous in the front line—a lot of cameramen had been killed—so we did all we could to keep out of harm’s way.” Thereafter batted around the military from one odd job to another, Gance was eventually sent home, sickly from work in a poison gas factory. But even before he served, he had already had his fill. Letters from his friends described their harrowing existence in the trenches and news of their deaths often followed. In constant mourning, he began to develop an idea for an antiwar epic. J’accuse (1919) is often cited as the first major antiwar film, even if it is pro-French. (Alfred Machin’s much shorter Maudite soit la guerre, or War Is Hell (1914), shows fighting the Germans as akin to fighting a brother.) Two men in love with the same woman have to make peace with each other in order to fight the enemy. The Hun is hardly present and, when he is, he’s portrayed as irretrievably bad. In one spectacular scene, a shadow of a German’s instantly recognizable helmet engulfs the captured French wife. But, near the end, the stark rows of crosses and rising dead, tinted in supernatural violet light, created a visual shorthand for the war’s tragic folly. Gance shot the scene with borrowed soldiers on eight days’ leave from Verdun.


‘All Quiet on the Western Front’

The Defeated
On his way back to Paris from directing a play in New York City, G.W. Pabst, a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was detained by the French now officially at war. Pabst spent the next four years in an internment camp. His masterpiece about the war and his first sound film, Westfront 1918, was released the same year as Universal’s All Quiet on the Western Front, an adaptation of the widely read antiwar novel by German writer Enrique Maria Remarque. According to film historian Hans-Michael Bock, Westfront got lost in history, released during the tumultuous first year of the worldwide depression. All Quiet’s controversial screenings in Germany didn’t help either. Goebbels sent his Brownshirts to Berlin theaters with “briefcases full of mice, stink bombs, and sneeze powder” to disrupt the screenings. Before long, both films were banned. (Years earlier, the Kaiser’s government had trenches dug outside the Reichstag so German citizens could get a taste of what it felt like to be on the front lines. The Fascists learned different lessons from WWI than everyone else.) Never mind, Pabst had already managed to convey his humanitarian, if pessimistic, message in 1925’s Joyless Street about what war does to the defeated, particularly its women, reduced to the joyless barter of body for bread. In her first film outside Sweden, Greto Garbo begins her long career of suffering on-screen.


‘The End of St. Petersburg’

The Archetype
Vselovod Pudovkin has long been identified along with compatriot director Eisenstein as a master of montage, both in theory and practice. Unlike Eisenstein who attempted to create a collective hero by casting what he called “types” and to stimulate intellectual associations in his films, Pudovkin opted for emotional responses to individual characters. Still, Pudovkin had mass consciousness in his heart and, in his three most famous films, built his stories around an archetype, the mother (Mother), the son (Storm Over Asia), and, in The End of St. Petersburg, a nameless peasant. Driven by starvation from the countryside, St. Petersburg’s young boy seeks work in a factory in the city and gets caught between his need to work and solidarity with his class. He chooses badly and his radicalization begins. When World War I breaks out, his choices become further limited and we next see him slumped over in the mud of the Eastern Front. (“Saxony—Württemberg—Bavaria”). Pudovkin himself had served in the artillery division of the Tsar’s Army. Wounded in 1915, he spent the next three years in a German P.O.W. camp, where his biographer says he learned English, Polish, and French, and, one assumes, a great deal about Europe’s working classes. Along with other Russians, he eventually escaped from the camp and made his way back to Moscow to find that the Bolsheviks had already been in power for a year. Upon its release, End of St. Petersburg was criticized for being “too abstract” to reach audiences. For today’s movie-viewer it is quite easily grasped, but no less powerful for being obvious. A row of heavily embroidered uniforms sits across from a row of finely tailored woolen suits as titles refer to the war as a “transaction.” An army of derby-topped stockbrokers madly rushing the trading floor is intercut with soldiers madly dying. The action is quickly paced and the plight of the masses quite moving. The main female character, who at first doesn’t see the need to share her family’s food, seems to learn the most relevant message of all.


‘A Farewell to Arms’

The Lover
Frank Borzage had tackled the war in two previous silents: Whom the Gods Would Destroy (1919), which his biographer Hervé Dumont called propaganda for Wilson’s League of Nations, and 1927’s 7th Heaven, about two Parisians united in poverty then, in the last twenty minutes of the film, separated by the war. Based loosely on Ernest Hemingway’s popular 1929 book, A Farewell to Arms (1932) uses the war as the catalyst for a story of undying love between an ambulance driver and a Red Cross nurse. They meet in a hospital, true to Hemingway’s original semiautobiographical story, and fall in inconvenient love. Shot in Borzage’s signature soft focus, the lovers, played by Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, exist beyond the war, in moments stolen in a makeshift bomb shelter, a garden arbor, or simply in each other’s arms. The war seems mere backdrop for the pair’s personal melodrama, as if it’s too distasteful a focus for Borzage. Not until the end, when Frederic abandons his duties and embarks on a long slog from Italy to Switzerland to find her, does the film bring us face to face with the ravages of warfare. To reach her, Cooper has to step over the dead. Upset by the changes to his story—most significantly, Frederic’s desertion out of love for Catherine rather than disgust at the war—Hemingway disavowed the film, replying to the studio’s offer for a private premiere, “Use your imagination on where to put the print—but do not send it here.” Hemingway is one of those contradictory creatures who condemned war but could not seem to get enough of it. Borzage made two more films about World War I and, later, one of the few anti-Nazi films to come out of Hollywood before the U.S. joined the fray, 1940’s The Mortal Storm, about another pair of lovers.


‘King and Country’

The Deserter
Like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, King and Country depicts an unjust court-martial hastily mounted in the midst of war. Rather than illuminate the absurdities as they trickle down through the ranks, this Joseph Losey-directed English film centers on the dialogue between Dirk Bogard as the reluctant defending officer and Tom Courtenay as the young deserter. How to defend someone for shirking their duty when so many others don’t and how to condemn someone for trying to stay alive? Baroque with noirish tones, deep-focus photography, and layered mise-en-scène, this 1964 film is based on World War II correspondent and playwright James Lansdale Hodson’s novel Return to the Wood. While Private Hamp supplies arguments (ever so passively) for his life, the soldiers in the unit who’ve captured him select a random rat from the distended belly of a dead horse for a show trial of their own. For the resolutely leftwing Losey, the film’s dual witch hunts had particular resonance. Hounded out of the States by HUAC, the former director with the Federal Theater Project found an artistic home first in Italy then in England where he made an unforgettable trio of films based on the work of Harold Pinter, two of which also starred Bogard. Like the films noir he’d made in the U.S. before his exile, King and Country is haunted by fatalism from the outset. The soldier’s lot is foreordained, but Captain Hargreaves’ sense of duty will never be the same.


‘Life and Nothing But’

The Dutiful
It’s October 1920 and the battlefields are still being cleaned up. Life and Nothing But’s Major Delaplane receives an order to deliver the body of an unidentified French soldier to be entombed as the Unknown Soldier. But maudlin pomp is not on Delaplane’s list of priorities. He is engaged in the long process of identifying the shell-shocked and getting an accurate count of the war dead. Shot widescreen in muted blues and grays, Life and Nothing But reveals the hard truths of war almost offhandedly, in throwaway moments and bits of dialogue. A chauffeur brags about the money his family made supplying coffins. “Better than the Renaissance—the Resurrection,” exclaims a sculptor on the abundant requests for monuments in surrounding villages. A piece of rare fresh fruit plucked from the last living pear tree in Verdun is proffered. “Steel, copper, and gold,” says Delaplane, are the real reasons the army wants to collect the dead. In an interview with Cineaste after the 1989 release of the film, director Bertrand Tavernier explained the story’s importance: “[T]he French figures have never been corrected. There is a difference of over 200,000 people reckoned today. We met a man from Verdun who told us how they always falsified the figures as an admitted propaganda effort to keep up the morale of the people. Even after the war, they did not want to face the truth. It is a subject that very few people in France have dealt with, and when they did, they could not get financing for their projects.” (To watch Paths of Glory, Tavernier says he had to travel to Belgium. Pressure from the French government delayed the release of the film in France until 1975.) Like Colonel Dax, Delaplane, as played by Phillipe Noiret, is incredulous at the barefaced duplicity of his superiors, but Noiret’s major is cantankerous and ribald, singing raunchy doggerel, drinking too much, and even half-heartedly attempting to gain sexual payoff á la Captain Renault. In the end, like Dax, Delaplane is resigned to his duty, summing up the sad truth of his station: “We plug up the holes and prepare for the next war.”


‘Army of Crime’

The Doomed
Missak Manouchian, driven from his home as a young boy by the Ottomans intent on eliminating the Armenians under the cover of World War I, explains to a young Jewish recruit who questions his orders in Robert Guédiguian’s 2009 feature Army of Crime: “Know what Hitler said in a Reichstag speech in 1936? He said, ‘Who remembers the Armenians now?’ My family vanished a long time ago.” Primarily a poet, he renounced revenge as unethical. But history had other plans and he finds himself in Paris during the Nazi occupation. He won’t take up a weapon and hasn’t even yet learned to shoot, but his beliefs won’t let him do nothing. He takes up command of a small band of saboteurs in the Resistance. Ragtag as his army is, Manouchian’s superiors expect results—they are paying salaries—and want something spectacular to get the press’s attention. Manouchian delivers and he and 22 others were caught and executed in February 1944. The Nazis distributed the famous l’affiche rouge that tried to discredit Manouchian’s fighters, labeling them the “Army of Crime.” Parisians knew the truth and defaced the posters with a corrective slogan: “They Died for France.” Seen through Manouchian’s eyes, the two biggest wars in the 20th century look like one long conflagration.

The Real Thing
The stories of World War I movies were often based on the experiences of real soldiers. Gance drew on his own experience and his friends’ letters home for J’accuse. Hemingway was wounded in Italy and fell in love with a nurse. Paths of Glory is based on an actual French court martial. Missak Manouchian lived. Also, at the time, newsreel cameramen rushed to the front (Ernest Schoedsack, later of King Kong, among them) but, like Gance, found it either too dangerous to shoot—a camera must have been easily mistaken for a weapon in this newfangled war—or were forbidden by the military (under penalty of death). Still a few got through, among them Donald Thompson, who was made official cinematographer by the French government after begin wounded at Verdun. Kevin Brownlow describes his exploits in The War, The West, and the Wilderness but says that seventy percent of what Thompson shot was seized by the French and never made it into theaters. Scenes enacted for the camera at a safe distance from the enemy comprised most newsreels for the homefront. (See Thompson’s Fighting the War to get an idea.) The centennial of the beginning of WWI has drawn attention to these artifacts, and European archives have created portals to make collections available online [ and, to name two]. Viewing them, it makes sense that a government intent on waging war saw fit to ban them. In one sequence from a recently uncovered piece of amateur footage, a camera sits above a turn in a labyrinth of trenches. One man stationed at the top receives corpses, piling them onto a handcart, constantly readjusting them to fit more. For a brief second, the soldier, intent on the logistics of cargo loading, looks at the camera and, for the first time, seems to realize what the camera is seeing and lays a rag over one dead man’s face. A split second passes. The man loads another body.

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