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May 29, 2021

Saturday Evening Movie Thread 05-29-2021 [TheJamesMadison]

The Great War


When hostilities in World War I ended on the first Armistice Day in 1918, the medium of film was still new and silent. As the movies became more popular in the ensuing years, The Great War became a topic to mine in a variety of ways for about twenty years. Shaped often by some of the people who had direct experience in the trenches, skies, and on the seas of that war, the war that showed much of the world the pain of modern warfare through moving images never became sentimentalized. Before the advent of the Hays Code in 1934, the movies were free to show the war in its worst lights with no happy endings.

Time changed, of course. The Hays Code imposed restrictions on what kinds of violence movies could portray in American cinemas. The pain of the conflict faded for many audiences, hoping to find escapism rather than truth telling especially during the Great Depression. And finally, the Second World War began to grew until it finally exploded in Europe and the Pacific, often necessitating, from some filmmakers' perspectives, a change in attitude when it came to thinking of war in Europe in general.

From the medium's silent period with films like the Academy Award Winning Wings and King Vidor's The Big Parade through the nascent talkies with limited sound ability like James Whale's Journey's End and Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front to the dramas and adventure stories of the mid to late thirties like Howard Hawks' Today We Live and Jean Renoir's The Grand Illusion all the way to the borderline propagandas of Sergeant York and Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator the twenty-four years from the end of the conflict through the beginning of America's involvement in World War II was full of different tales of World War I. And then they stopped completely. From 1944 to 1951 there wasn't a single major release that dealt with World War I until John Huston's The African Queen dealt with it somewhat tangentially. Ever since, movies of World War I have been antiwar pieces like Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory and Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun or, more recently, odes to the men who fought like Sam Mendes' 1917.

This is about those early films, though. Made by the men who knew the war first-hand in some capacity, unafraid of showing what they lived through.

The Trenches


The most famous image of the war is men huddling up against the side of a muddy trench. The trenches constructed through the French countryside were where a large portion of the war was fought. This is also the dominant image of the war through film.

Probably the most famous early film about World War I is All Quiet on the Western Front. Based on the Erich Maria Remarque novel published in 1929, the film shows the war through the eyes of a wide-eyed innocent German infantryman who starts the war with dreams of defending his nation's honor and ends with the same young man reaching for a piece of natural beauty in the midst of the carnage, a butterfly, and getting shot by a sniper. It's a depressing look at a fight that the young man at the heart of the fighting never really understood. This ended up being a certain kind of model for a lot of these trench stories like G.W. Pabst's Westfront 1918, a German telling of a very similar tale that Joseph Goebbels banned in Germany after the rise of Nazism for its negative portrayal of the war, and the French film Wooden Crosses by Raymond Bernard. All three of these films formed the visual language of trench warfare in film, influencing greatly later works like Paths of Glory.

Something changed when war began brewing again in Europe. This is most evident in Sergeant York, I think. Made by Howard Hawks who had made three other World War I movies up to that point including the dirty and gritty The Road to Glory (that lifted footage from Wooden Crosses for its battle scenes), but when Alvin York makes it to France in the second half of the film, the trenches look different. They're filmed brighter (probably partially a difference of shooting outside in the day rather than on a set), and they somehow feel cleaner. They feel dirty rather than muddy. York has a tough job to do narratively, telling the story of a man who hated the killing he did in the war, seeing it as an afront to God, but needing to be invigorating enough for the audience so that young men in the theaters in 1941 would want to jump out of their seats and sign up for the new war. The fight was no longer being portrayed as pointless because it was no longer about World War I even if it was set in the trenches in France.

The Air


The movies about the flying aspect of the war provide the greatest variety in tone and type of story. There was a far more inherent sense of adventure in getting into a biplane and shooting down German planes than there was in sitting in the mud and waiting for an enemy shell to kill you. The first Best Picture winner at the Oscars, Wings is a rip-roaring adventure of daring-do as two American men go to war after pursuing the same woman in their small town. The action in the air is still absolutely thrilling that used real planes doing real stunts (similarly as to how Martin Scorsese dramatized the production of another World War I airplane production, Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels). A bit of a melodrama in the end, it's a high quality entertainment that manages a sense of realism through some of its more extreme emotional swings that border on the absurd.

That doesn't mean that Hollywood couldn't treat the war from the air with the same gravity as it did in the trenches. Howard Hawks' The Dawn Patrol from 1930 (which was remade in 1938 with Errol Flynn) is a tough look at the effects of war on leadership. Following one man as he moves up from leading a squadron to becoming the commanding officer giving out orders that he knows will lead to the deaths of young men. He goes from hating his own commanding officer for giving those same orders in the early parts of the film to becoming a certain kind of brother through their mutual efforts to follow orders they may not understand but have to follow through on. It ends in a sacrifice to save another that ends up feeling completely genuine.

The Rest


There was never a huge movement of films about action on the sea. John Ford had a film, Seas Beneath, that he later dismissed because of the actress who was forced upon him. There was a well-regarded British adventure tale starring John Mills called Brown on Resolution. In terms of the conflict reaching parts of Arabia, the only film was Lost Patrol until David Lean made the cinematic titan Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. There were spy thrillers that were more of a way to use World War I as set dressing for adventure stories than any way to actually consider anything about the war like Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Agent and Josef von Sternberg's Dishonored.

The point isn't that these movies are bad or not worth your time, but that they represent the exception to the rule of how a world reeling from the worst conflict in history up to that point had dealt with it through movies. When Hollywood went to make a film about World War I, they made movies about the trenches or the fight in the air over them.

Personally, I find the movies about the war more interesting before the Hays Code than after it. The Hays Code hamstrung filmmakers in regards to violence that undermined the cinematic impact of portrayals of the war. It also required good guys winning, and World War I isn't really a treasure trove of good guys winning stories. It seems best approached as tales of loss. That being said, there really is a lot to discover in this little slice of cinematic history. From 1918 to about 1942, dozens of movies about the war were made, often by and starring men who were actually there in those trenches and wooden and cloth airplanes.

Movies of Today

Opening in Theaters:

In the Earth

Movies I Saw This Fortnight:

Army of the Dead (Rating 1.5/4) Full Review "Instead, Zack Snyder delivered an overly somber, emotional inert, and visually unpleasant epic action film. I was sorely disappointed by this." [Netflix Instant]

A Girl in Every Port (Rating 3/4) Full Review "This is his The Lodger, a solidly good silent film that presages what his future career would become." ["Library"]

The Dawn Patrol (Rating 4/4) Full Review "This is a wonderful film, and it's Hawks' best (surviving) film so far in his short career. There's greatness to come as well, I can feel it." [Library]

Scarface (Rating 4/4) Full Review "Scarface became famous because of controversy, but it has stood the test of time because of the strong script by Ben Hecht, the strong performances from the cast, and the confident direction of Howard Hawks." [Library]

Today We Live (Rating 3.5/4) Full Review "This movie's IMDB rating is a shame. 5.9/10? No, not in the least, does this movie deserve that." ["Library"]

Twentieth Century (Rating 3.5/4) Full Review "The 1930s is full of Hawks movies that I'd never really even heard of, and it's turning out to be full of gems as well. Twentieth Century turns into a madcap event of a screwball comedy by the end, creating an almost exhausting but consistently amusing film that gave me a stupid little grin from beginning to end." [Library]

The Road to Glory (Rating 3/4) Full Review "Between them, though, is a tense tale of life at the front lines of World War I, and it's kind of great." ["Library"]

Bringing Up Baby (Rating 4/4) Full Review "Hawks manages the chaos with a subtle hand that never takes the focus off of the characters as their situations become more and more insane. It's delightful and tense and hilarious." [Personal Collection]


Email any suggestions or questions to thejamesmadison.aos at symbol gmail dot com.
I've also archived all the old posts here, by request. I'll add new posts a week after they originally post at the HQ.

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