Hollywood’s First War

As happens every year around this time, the cable spectrum has been heavily laced with programming throughout the week commemorating Veterans Day.  HBO trundled out its full epic and brutal miniseries The Pacific for a one-day re-run broken up by the debut of the James Gandolfini-hosted documentary War Torn 1861-2010, a disturbing look at the psychological scars America’s soldiers have suffered in every conflict since The Civil War; The History Channel ran an all-day marathon of WW II in HD, sprinkling its commercial breaks for the week with commemorative spots; AMC ran a day of war movies like The Enemy Below (1957) and A Few Good Men (1992) under the umbrella, “Vets Best” ; and so on.

The bulk of memorializing programming focused on World War II – unsurprising, in that it remains, to this day, America’s greatest, defining, and least morally problematic war.  Even 65 years later, despite a half-century of demythologizing takes on the brutality of WW II combat, it remains, as Studs Terkel dubbed it in his 1984 oral history, “The Good War.”

The same can’t be said of any of America’s military engagements since, and with each new commitment of US forces, Hollywood has searched –  and often struggled – to find an appropriate voice with which to connect with the audience perception and understanding of a particular conflict.  Hollywood is still struggling to find a successful key to the country’s complex, multi-faceted, and seemingly endless involvement in the Middle East.

The fate of 2008’s The Hurt Locker is emblematic. Even with a modest budget of $12 million, and despite near-universal acclaim, a host of award nods, and an Oscar for director Kathryn Bigelow, the film barely crawled to breakeven.  Behind The Hurt Locker stands a line of modest earners, underperformers and flat-out flops including Three Kings (1999), In the Valley of Elah (2007), Red Sands (2009), Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), Syriana (2005), Lions for Lambs (2007), Jarhead (2005), The Kingdom (2007), Rendition (2007), and Brothers (2009).  Even the man who found a hit in the Holocaust with Schindler’s List (1993), Steven Spielberg, couldn’t do better than an underperformer in Munich (2005) with a domestic gross of $47.4 million against a budget of $75 million.

At this time of remembrance for the service and sacrifice of America’s men and women in uniform, it is worth comparing that near-universal rejection of the country’s most recent conflict with the response to Hollywood’s grappling with its first war nearly a century ago.  It was, perhaps, the American movie industry – and its audience – and their most courageous…and their most honest.

It was a combination of timing and the circumstances of both the movie industry and the US involvement in World War I which guaranteed the greatest conflict in history up to that time would make only a modest impact on American movies during the war years.  As an industry, American movies were still in a nascent, half-formed state, the movie-making technology of the time crude and physically awkward, and, there was some question as to just how interested the American audience would be in a war for which – over much of its duration – the country was only a sideline observer.

On June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.  For decades prior, the major powers of Europe had been constantly angling for position on the global stage, each trying to secure and advance their own expansionist designs while containing and/or disadvantaging the others.  The end product of all this often covert diplomatic maneuvering was an interlocking network of secret treaties and alliances which turned the single radical act of a lone assassin into a lit match tossed into a pool of gasoline.  Within two months of the archduke’s death, those crisscrossing commitments had drawn nearly all of Europe’s major powers into war with each other, each seeing in the conflict an opportunity for imperial self-aggrandizement, and each arrogantly assuming a quick war and sure victory.

Across the Atlantic in the US, sentiments about the war – at least at the outset – were mixed.  There was an understandable inclination to support the democratic powers of the west (i.e. Britain, France) against militarist Germany and its allies, the fading Ottoman and Austro-Hungary empires. On a more pragmatic level, the US also had significant financial interests in the western European countries which would be at risk in the event of their defeat.

But to others, the war in Europe was no more than the latest – if grandest – in a centuries-long line of bloody duels between European empires jockeying for supremacy; a competition in which the US had no clear stake or interest.  In fact, US aversion to direct involvement in the war was so strong, Woodrow Wilson won his second presidential term in 1916 on the campaign promise of maintaining the course of neutrality the country had been steering since the outbreak of hostilities.

However, as the massive clash of European superpowers ground on, US sentiment – stoked by, among other things, American civilian losses at the hands of marauding German U-boats, and surging pro-war propaganda — began to lean toward involvement, and, in April 1917, Wilson called for a declaration of war against Germany and its allies.  Despite the declaration, the country was ill-prepared for war and it would be more than a year before significant numbers of American troops saw combat during the summer of 1918.  Even then, while America’s numbers helped tipped the scales in what had early on deteriorated into a horrifyingly sanguinary war of attrition, the US was something of a junior partner.

By war’s end, a little over three million men would serve in the US Army during WW I (far fewer than were fielded by the British or French), with casualties numbering just under 117,000 killed (more than half by disease), and almost 206,000 wounded.  These numbers paled next to the casualty counts of the other major combatants whose losses tallied higher than the total number of American soldiers.  Forty-four percent of the almost 5-1/2 million men Great Britain mobilized during the war were killed or wounded; more than half of Germany’s 11 million servicemen; a shattering 75% of the French Empire’s 7.5 million troops (final tally:  37 million people were killed or wounded in the war, 40% of whom were civilians).

The US’ late entry into and limited engagement in the war, the movie industry’s inchoate state, the technological limitations of the medium – all these worked against a significant timely – or even desired — response to the war by American movie companies.

This is not to say the movie industry ignored the conflict.  Some of the then-growing majors had films about the war on movie screens by 1917.  Paramount put out several propagandistic efforts such as the luridly titled The Claws of the Hun (1918), boasting in a full-page ad that it was using its moviemaking muscle as a “weapon of victory.” Universal, as well, produced a number of films about the war including Treason (1917), and The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin (1918).  The Birth of a Nation (1915) maestro himself, D.W. Griffith, turned out the flag-waving Hearts of the World (1917), while Charlie Chaplin starred in what was probably the first so-called “service comedy,” Shoulder Arms (1918).  Still, compared to the torrent of war-related films which would pour out of the studios during WW II, the movie industry’s response to the cataclysmic events of 1914-1918 could only be characterized as underwhelming, and the generally unimpressive box office performance of these releases suggests the movie-going public was, at best, ambivalent about features concerning the war.

However, in the years following the armistice, the terrain of both the movie industry and the psychology of its ever-growing audience changed substantially.

The unprecedented bloodletting of WW I resulted from a perfect storm of tragic elements:  19th century strategic thinking combined with new 20th century technologies of mass slaughter.  The last major war on European soil had taken place during the 19th century, in an era of muzzle-loading cannon, horse cavalry, and single-shot muskets.  Commanders went into The Great War still thinking in last century terms of overwhelming enemy positions with frontal assaults.  But, on the battlefields of the Western Front, those waves of charging infantry were pummeled by fast-firing breach-loading artillery, then channeled by concertina wire into killing zones where they were massacred by machine guns.  If an assault did manage to close with the enemy, attacking troops faced a hail of fire from bolt-action, magazine-fed rifles and semi-automatic pistols and even – in the last year of the war – hand-carried automatic weapons.  The new generation of military hardware also included poison gas, submarines, armed aircraft, flamethrowers, tanks, and massive, heavily armored and armed battleships – the “dreadnaughts.”

The exponentially growing violence of combat on the Western Front was made all the worse by the miserable physical conditions under which the war was fought.  Barely a month after hostilities had begun in the west, the opposing armies had battled to a stalemate, digging in along an unbroken 400-mile line of heavily fortified trenches extending from the Swiss border across northern France to the Belgian coast; a battle line which shifted only modestly through years of brutal attacks and counterattacks.  Life in the dank, rat-infested trenches was supremely dismal, and disease and ailments like trench foot were as much a danger to troops as enemy fire.

Because of its late arrival on the scene, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) did not suffer as long or as extensively as its British and French allies, or its German opponents.  Still, Americans were no more prepared for the high-tech carnage of the Western Front than any other army.  Besides a rather one-sided10-week romp against Spain in 1898, the country’s most significant conflict – and, up until WW I, its largest in scale (and still its bloodiest) – had been The Civil War which had ended a half-century before the so-called Great War.  In sum, the general populace’s notions of war were uninformed at best, horribly naïve and antiquated at worst, with the few movies made during the war doing little to enlighten them.

American wartime war movies 1917-1918 typically didn’t deal with the circumstances of front line combat, Griffith’s drum-beating Hearts of the World – featuring footage Griffith had actually shot on the Western Front — being a notable exception.  Rather, they were drama-driven, or, more accurately, melodrama-driven, set away from the battle front and featuring broad caricatures of threatening Teutonic villainy, damsels in distress, nefarious plottings of sabotage and espionage, and so on.

It was not until years after the war that the American movie industry –  and American moviegoers – began to take a long, serious look at what was assumed, until the Second World War, to be the great tragedy of the 20th century.

Beginning in the 1920s, Hollywood kicked off a successful cycle of World War I films, often grand in scale, which extended through the coming of sound and even into the 1940s.  It was a long line, but a thin one.  The war movie of the 1920s-1930s was never the box office staple it would be during WW II and for decades thereafter; the number of war movies produced during those two decades would total only a fraction of the war-related movies the studios produced during the 44 months of the US involvement in WW II.

Although WW I films dominated the war movie genre, other types of war films were also produced during the period.  There was, however, a marked difference between the character of WW I and non-WW I war films of the time.

WW I movies might be action-packed, but there were no pure action adventures where the war served mainly as a vehicle for breathtaking thrills.  Nor, despite sometimes heavy doses of humor in some WW I titles, were there true service comedies in the vein of Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms aside from a small number of shorts. It was almost as if there was a shared sense by moviemakers and moviegoers alike that The Great War had been such a monumental tragedy it would somehow be disrespectful to exploit it for mere escapist thrills and/or laughs.  It was a code of conduct articulated in an opening title card of 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front:

This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it…

But there was, evidently, no such tacit taboo among other types of war movies.  If the setting was exotic enough (French colonial North Africa for two versions of Beau Geste [1926, 1939] and the Laurel & Hardy slapstick comedy, The Flying Deuces [1939]), or historically removed enough from the still-fresh impressions of The Great War (19th century British Colonial India in The Four Feathers and Gunga Din [both 1939], the American Civil War for Buster Keaton’s The General [1926], the Crimean War for The Charge of the Light Brigade [1936]), movies could be as packed with adventure, exciting action, high-spirited derring-do and/or laughs as moviemakers could make them.  Although these movies varied tremendously in tone — from the serious drama of Beau Geste and The Four Feathers, to the sweeping action of The Charge of the Light Brigade, to the cheekiness of Gunga Din, to the laugh-out-loud comedy of The Flying Deuces and The General — as a rule, they all provided handsomely mounted entertainment and big-scale action without treading on Great War sensitivities.

The WW I movies Hollywood turned out between the world wars also vary considerably in tone and style.  John Ford’s Four Sons (1928) concentrates on the drama of a German family torn apart by the war, while the strongest elements of Hell’s Angels (1930) – directed by eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes – are its screen-filling air battles.  The screen adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s 1924 stage play, What Price Glory? (1926), breaks up front line despair with the laugh-out-loud comedy of two soldiers competing for the attention of a French innkeeper’s daughter, while All Quiet on the Western Front commits to a relentless depiction of life and death in the trenches.

For all their differences, and despite being produced over a period of two decades by different moviemakers at a variety of studios, the WW I movies of the 1920s-1930s are strikingly unified in their vision of the war, so much so that, looked at collectively, they all seem of a piece; like different colored tiles in a mosaic of a single, grand panorama of The Great War.  All share the same brooding sense of tragic waste.  “(For) what?” asks one pilot on learning yet another comrade has failed to return from The Dawn Patrol (1938),“What have all these deaths accomplished?”

There are no tributes to famous battles among post-WW I combat movies, nor is there that WW II feeling of a compelling purpose behind the fighting.  These movies tend to be apolitical, and recognize no victory worth saluting.  The war in movies like The Big Parade (1925), Four Sons, The Dawn Patrol (1930, remade in 1938), Journey’s End (1930), The Legion of the Condemned (1928), All Quiet on the Western Front, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), Wings (1927), Hell’s Angels, The Eagle and the Hawk (1933), A Farewell to Arms (1932), and What Price Glory? seems pointless, drenched in a heavy air of unnecessary-ness.  Trying to puzzle out the reasons for the war, one German soldier in All Quiet… can only come up with, “I think it’s more a kind of fever.  Nobody wants it in particular, and then all at once, there it is.  We didn’t want it.  The English didn’t want it.  And here we are fighting.” A flyer from The Dawn Patrol speculates the cause was something more elemental:  “Man is a savage animal, who, periodically, to relieve his nervous tension, tries to destroy himself.”

True to the static nature of combat on the Western Front, the war in these movies comes off as a quasi-permanent state with no sense the fighting and dying is moving the men toward some ultimate war-ending triumph.  Rather, the front line was, is, and always will be, an insatiable, eternal Moloch into which are chain-fed a generation of young men from all sides.  Boiled down to its essence, the shared thesis of this body of work is that of good men dying in an ugly war run by generals removed and insulated from the miseries of the front in service of national aims so abstract as to be meaningless.  Observes one droll infantryman from All Quiet…: “Me and the Kaiser, we are both fighting.  The only difference is the Kaiser isn’t here.”

It’s a testament to both the universality and adamancy of this grim vision of The Great War, as well as its persistence, that most of the war films turned out over those two decades feature central characters who either die (The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, All Quiet on the Western Front, Wings, The Eagle and the Hawk, Hell’s Angels, The Dawn Patrol) or are maimed (The Big Parade) before the final fade-out.  And, in the rare event the main character manages to physically survive the war, he is still so psychologically damaged as to be beyond repair, as in 1937’s They Gave Him a Gun with Franchot Tone as a good man turned gun-crazy hood by his frontline experiences.  Says the opening title card of All Quiet…, they were “…a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war…”

Replacing the ambivalence of the war years, Hollywood’s perception of The Great War was one that was, by the 1920s, also widely shared by the American audience as indicated by the consistently strong box office tallies of these releases.  Perhaps the public had needed a few years to gain some perspective on and understanding of the war, to get far enough beyond the wartime sloganeering and propaganda for a clear-eyed, curious look through a cinematic window to see what had destroyed—spiritually as well as physically — so many young men.  Whatever the cause for the attitudinal change, many of these movies were among the top performers of their release years, with The Four Horsemen…, The Big Parade, What Price Glory?, and Four Sons ranking as some of the biggest moneymakers of the silent film era, while All Quiet… was among the top 75 earners of the 1930s.

WW I was a war of mass actions, so, consequently, most of these productions are epic in scale.  In those days before Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI), any credible depiction of WW I combat on either the ground or in the air had to be recreated full-sized.  In Hell’s Angels, Howard Hughes’ efforts to capture the sky-filling violence of the air war not only made the film the most expensive film production up to that time, but cost the lives of three stunt pilots.  The U.S. War Department provided over 4,000 soldiers, 200 trucks and 100 aircraft for the shooting of The Big Parade. In an interview for The Parade’s Gone By, film historian Kevin Brownlow’s 1968 tribute to the days of silent film, Wings director William Wellman – himself a veteran of the Lafayette Escadrille (a French air squadron of American volunteers) – tells of taking his production to Texas where he had the space to film his grand scale air battles over an enormous recreation of the Western Front trenches.  At one point, Wellman had 165 aircraft tangling in a mock dogfight over his faux battlefield populated with thousands of extras – all to get just three and a half minutes of film.

The focus of these movies is the front line soldier (or the combat pilot), and perhaps his immediate superiors who share with him, at least to some degree, the same discomforts and dangers.  The higher echelons are rarely glimpsed, their distance from the front line never respected.  Like a malevolent deity, they are the often unseen power on high calling for a regular (What Price Glory?) – or even daily (The Dawn Patrol) — sacrifice of Abraham from their subordinates on the line through their directives which accomplish little more than a lengthening of the casualty lists.  “Orders!  Orders!” cries despairing John Gilbert in The Big Parade, “Who the hell is fighting this war — men or orders?”

The front line soldier – or pilot – in these movies is no superman.  The best soldier can crack under the unbearable pressures and miserable conditions of the front as does German infantryman Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) in All Quiet… Even a veteran officer’s considerable poise can erode under the stress of too much time on the line (Captain Flagg [Victor McLaglen] in What Price Glory?; The Dawn Patrol’s squadron leader Brand [Neil Hamilton in the 1930 version; Basil Rathbone in 1938];the alcoholic Lieutenant Stanhope in Journey’s End). One too many brushes with death and a soldier might permanently lose his nerve (flyer Monte Rutledge [Ben Lyon] in Hell’s Angels; Fredric March’s psychologically gutted pilot in The Eagle and the Hawk who commits suicide rather than face another round of war in the air). For most, knowing their odds of survival diminish with each action, it’s a heroic act simply to pull themselves “over the top” in the next assault; to climb into the cockpit for the next mission.  However idealistically they may have begun the war, they come to view patriotism as an affliction of either the sociopathically rabid, or the dangerously naïve.

On leave, All Quiet…’s Paul Baumer returns to visit his old teacher, Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy), who doomed Paul’s entire class by rousing them to enlist en masse in the German army.  Kantorek pushes Baumer to tell some tale of front line heroism to stir up yet another classroom of potential cannon fodder, but the angry Baumer tells him in front of his pupils, “You still think it’s beautiful to die for your country…The first bombardment taught us better.” Such patriotism, All Quiet… and its fellow combat movies posits, serves only as fuel to keep the killing machines killing.

It is a not uncommon motif in these movies to show men in the opposing armies having more commonalities than differences, suggesting this had not been a war of peoples, but as the product of the failures of their respective governments.  In All Quiet…, Paul shares a shell hole in No Man’s Land with the corpse of a French soldier.  Battle fatigued, Paul goes on a delirious rant to the dead man, begging his forgiveness, thinking that in another time, another place they could’ve been friends.  In Hell’s Angels, two British brothers flying for the RAF unknowingly attack a zeppelin on which a German friend of theirs from before the war is the bombardier.

Some movies took this brother-against-brother theme to a more emphatic level by making it more literal.  In The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, two cousins – one French, the other German – end up facing each other on the battlefield, only to both be killed by the same stray shell.  Four Sons focuses on the heartbreak of a mother with sons on both sides of the conflict; three on the side of her native Germany, a fourth who had emigrated to the US years before fighting for the Allies.

Perhaps no movie made the case in such extreme fashion as Hell’s Angels. Ben Lyon and James Hall play brothers flying in the same RAF squadron.  After they’re shot down and captured by the Germans, Lyon loses his nerve when they’re threatened with execution, and Hall is compelled to kill his brother to keep him from divulging valuable information.

There is a pervasive fatalism connecting all of these movies, a feeling the war is so ultimately all-devouring that there is no surviving combat at the front.  The seemingly never-ending war will always outlast any soldier’s amount of skill or luck, no matter how considerable.  In What Price Glory?, company commander Flagg is haunted by the battle which decimates his unit, and even more so by the inevitable next battle which will bleed his outfit even more.  Similarly, The Dawn Patrol’s squadron commander Brand is close to cracking as he is regularly forced to feed unseasoned replacements directly into flight assignments from which few return.  “You know what this place is?  It’s a slaughterhouse,” declares a fraying Brand, “and I’m the butcher.”  In All Quiet on the Western Front, death eventually finds “Kat” Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), the wily, resourceful – and seemingly indestructible — older soldier who has been a mother hen through most of the film to Paul and his cadre of friends new to the front.  In the climactic scenes of Wings, an American airman played by Richard Arlen survives a crash landing and escapes the Germans in one of their own aircraft, only to be misidentified as the enemy and shot down and killed by his best friend.

The WW I combat movies of the 1920s-1930s featured a war without victors populated solely by victims.  The Western Front comes off as a Land of the Damned where men are sentenced to fight for no discernable purpose until they die or crack.  Coming away from the full body of these films with their shared Boschian vision, it’s hard not to agree with Kat Katczinsky’s prescription for how wars should be fought:

“I’ll tell you how it should all be done.  Whenever there’s a big war comin’ on, you should rope off a big field…And on the big day, you should take all the kings and their cabinets and their generals, put ‘em in the center dressed in their underpants, and let ‘em fight it out with clubs.”

– Bill Mesce

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