Great Films about the Great War

A series of posts taking you day-by-day through a proposed travel version of my course HIS230L World War I. Read the introduction to the series here, or the previous post here.

Saturday, January 5, 2013 – arriving in London

This will be a quiet day for the group, so I’m going to stretch the theme of the series a bit and talk about something that won’t really figure in our trip: war movies.

But first: “today” we’ll arrive at Heathrow, find our hotel or hostel, maybe go for a quick walking tour of central London, and then settle in for a busy week to come.

The Queen's Garden, Kew
The Queen's Garden, Kew - Creative Commons (Jim Linwood)

The details are a bit fuzzy here. While I spent three months doing dissertation research at Britain’s outstanding Public Record Office (now known simply as The National Archives), I ended up living close to the PRO, in the village of Kew. (Thanks to the Wades for hosting me, if by any chance they happen to be reading this blog!) While it’s a lovely place to spend an English summer, Kew is too expensive and distantly located to be of use for this trip.

So… Does anyone have recommendations for good hostels (or cheap but safe hotels) in London? The AYA hostel near St Paul’s Cathedral is well-rated by the guides I’ve read, partly because it’s so centrally located. (And who wouldn’t want to spend several nights in a former school for the cathedral’s choir boys?) Anyone have any experience of it, or better options to recommend?

Wherever we end up staying… (here comes the segue to me talking about movies) I have this unlikely dream that they’ll have a small theater for us to use. Excited as I am about taking students to Europe, one thing from the on-campus class I’ll miss is the ability to delve deeply into the cinematic history of WWI.

It’s a tradition that’s only grown since I started teaching this course, with Passchendaele, My Boy Jack, Company K, and A Very Long Engagement having been added to the corpus of WWI flicks in that time. But I keep coming back to four older, outstanding films about the war:

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Poster for All Quiet on the Western FrontPerhaps the most famous WWI film (based on Erich Maria Remarque’s international bestseller), this is one of two movies I’ve traditionally had students watch in its entirety. (And, at 130 minutes, that’s a lot of entirety.) I reconsider that tradition every year, fearing that students will be so distracted by the pre-Method acting, primitive sound and pyrotechnics, and lack of background music that they’ll tune out after ten minutes.

But each year I’m surprised to find how well it holds up. Students routinely praise it on the worksheets I have them complete, citing its ability to convey an anti-war message while still having empathy for soldiers, the slice-of-life attention to detail, and the novelty of American actors playing German protagonists in a time equidistant between the end of one conflict between Germany and the USA and the beginning of another. (Were it easier to get a hold of, I’d also like to screen G.W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918, made on the same theme and at about the same time in Weimar Germany, even as Nazism began to rise in power.) It’s also fun to watch some war movie cliches being born: e.g., the guy who most resists joining up will certainly be the first one to die in combat.

Grand Illusion (1937)

Grand Illusion PosterI tell students this is an early POW escape film. Which is true. But it’s kind of like saying Citizen Kane is about newspapers. Simply put, this is one of the most highly regarded films of all time. (#22 in this annually-updated calculation of critical acclaim; here’s Roger Ebert’s appreciative essay. Fun fact: the current #22 on the Internet Movie Database Top 250 list is The Matrix. Really. Grand Illusion doesn’t have enough votes to be included, though Gran Torino rounds out the top 100, and that film’s writer grew up not far from my church, so I’ll cut IMDB some slack. Anyway…)

Before or since, movies about war have never been so lyrical or poignant as Grand Illusion. Directed by Jean Renoir (who two years later made another film that rates even more highly on the aforementioned list), the film features a mostly French cast, but the script moves among three languages as its imprisoned heroes interact with other POWs and their German captors — commanded by a cosmopolitan aristocrat played with tragic dignity by the silent era director Erich von Stroheim. Without being as preachy as All Quiet and similar anti-war statements, Grand Illusion both acknowledges the sources of human conflict (not just nationality, but class and creed) and hopes that they can be transcended.

Paths of Glory (1957)

Paths of Glory PosterUnfortunately overshadowed by the film its director made right after it, Paths of Glory has as strong a case as any for being the best (anti)war movie ever made. It has much in common with All Quiet on the Western Front: war depicted as an ultimately immoral waste of life that corrupts or at least tempts all who encounter it; an American cast playing a different nationality (French this time, and again with no attempt at dialect — whew!); and an extraordinarily touching finish. (More on that in a moment…)

It’s also quite unlike All Quiet, and all for the better. It’s shorter (less than 90 minutes), with absolutely no wasted images, dialogue, or narrative. The acting style shows signs of emerging from treacly theatrics into bracing naturalism. And as remarkable as some of the camera shots are in All Quiet, Lewis Milestone is not Stanley Kubrick.

But back to the film’s finish… The last scene features a young actress (the only one in the film, and soon to become Kubrick’s wife) playing the role of a German girl forced by a French barkeeper to sing for the entertainment of poilus awaiting their return to the front. At first the pretty melody of the tune is drowned out by the soldiers’ derisive, lascivious, and even menacing cheers, but as she continues, something remarkable happens that’s better seen and heard than written about.

Most years, this scene is what closes HIS230L. I tell students that it’s as hopeful a note as I can end on in a class on the First World War: a small miracle that, every time I watch it, makes me think of John 1:5 — “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

But of all the movies I wish I could somehow add to this converted course, another stands out…

Gallipoli (1981)

Gallipoli PosterIt’s not nearly enough to keep me from turning the course into a trip to western Europe, but I will deeply regret not having students watch this film, the other that I always screen in its entirety. And not just for the way it ends, with a gut-wrenching illustration of Clausewitz’s principle of “friction” capped by a stunning frame of film that recalls Robert Capa’s iconic (though perhaps staged) “Falling Soldier” photograph from the Spanish Civil War. Or for the silly but inevitable moment earlier on, when some student whispers, “Hey, that’s Mel Gibson! He looks so young…” (or “He sounds so Australian…”)

No, I’ll miss it because Gallipoli conveys an important dimension of the war that’s lost when time and cost confine travel to western Europe: the first ‘W’ in WWI. The story of the Battle of Gallipoli illustrates both the globe-spanning reach of World War I and its inherent absurdity. Consider how the idealistic young protagonist Archy, en route to volunteer in Perth, tries to explain the war to a man who’s been in the Outback for months:

…I’m off to the war.

What war?

The war against Germany.

I knew a German once… How did it start?

Don’t know exactly, but it was the Germans’ fault.

The Australians fighting already?

Yeah, in Turkey.

Turkey?! Why’s that?

’cause Turkey’s a German ally.

Ah, well, you learn something every day. Still, can’t see what it’s got to do with us.

We don’t stop them there, they could end up here.

And they’re welcome to it.

ANZAC Cove, Gallipoli, Turkey
ANZAC Cove, Gallipoli, Turkey

Yet, without being compelled by any conscription or draft, nearly 10% of the entire Australian population enlisted to fight in a war thousands of miles from home. Sixty thousand men died. While we’ll see Australian memorials and cemeteries like this one in northern France, Gallipoli was the epicenter of the Australian experience and the place where Australian identity independent of the British Empire was born. The anniversary of the battle’s beginning remains a national holiday in Australia and New Zealand (ANZAC Day).

Tomorrow: we hit the ground running with the first of four museum tours in three days…

<<Day 2                 Day 4>>

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