From Chaplin to Hemingway: World War I in Film

Haaretz's film critic marks 100 years since The Great War by looking back at the movies that defined a generation and gave birth to cinema.

June 28 was the centenary of the event that ignited World War I: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on June 28, 1914.

World War I became known as The Great War, The War to End All Wars and The First Modern War — not only because of its scope (it spread over more than half the globe and killed more than 16.5 million people,) but also because it was the first war that used advanced weapons, such as tanks, submarines, aircraft, aerial bombardments and chemical warfare.

Some of the modern character of the war also stems from the fact that cinema existed when it began, though it was in its earliest stages; the first American feature film, “The Birth of a Nation,” by D.W. Griffith, about the Civil War, was made only in 1915. Films about World War I were not produced while it was in progress, but many works were subsequently made dealing with the war and its implications. Also, the globalization and technological advances that typified the war had an influence on cinema, which was the first global art form, and in which technology plays a major role.

To mark the centenary of World War I, the Tel Aviv Cinematheque will be showing films that take place against its backdrop all through July.

The thing most associated with World War I is the trench, which appears in almost every film or television series about the war. It was seen in film as early as 1918, near the end of the war, in a 46-minute film by Charlie Chaplin.

In “Shoulder Arms,” Chaplin’s character, the Tramp, dreams of becoming a war hero when he is sent to France. He defeats German soldiers using particularly smelly cheese and even captures the Kaiser. To a certain extent, this brilliant comedy by Chaplin could be defined as the first significant film to deal with World War I.

The same year, Griffith directed his film “Hearts of the World,” the story of two young lovers which begins before the war’s outbreak and takes place in a German-occupied French village. The film was one of the harshest in its portrayal of the Germans as cruel occupiers; Lillian Gish, who starred in it, wrote in her autobiography that Griffith was later ashamed of the propagandic nature of the film.

King Vidor’s 1925 film The Big Parade.

One of the bleakest and most impressive films about the war was “J’Accuse,” which was directed by Abel Gance and produced in France in 1919. (The title has no relation to the Dreyfus Affair.) The film combines a realistic portrayal of the war with scenes of hallucination and nightmare. At the center of the plot is the story of a jealous husband whose wife is unfaithful to him, and who finds himself on the battlefield fighting alongside his wife’s lover. The film’s climax takes place near the end, when the wife’s lover has a fever dream in which he sees the war dead emerging from their graves and marching homeward.

Valentino goes to the trenches

One of the best films produced during the silent film era is King Vidor’s 1925 film “The Big Parade,” which was highly successful. The war is more present in this film than in any of the others I have mentioned so far, with the location centered on the Marne region in France, where several of the war’s bloodiest battles took place. The plot itself is a romantic one, with its emotional power stemming from the love between comrades that develops between the protagonist and two of his friends from the working class, as well as from the surrealistic portrayal of the battle scenes.

Many films about the war combine plot elements of two men competing for a woman and of friendship between enemies. Most of the films that were produced during World War II avoided those elements and concentrated on relationships between men. Although women were present, they had small roles, as the wife or the lover waiting at home, to whom the men wait to return. An excellent example of this is “Hell’s Angels” (1930,) which Howard Hughes directed with the assistance of other directors. The film, which includes several of the most ostentatious aerial fight scenes ever seen until then, centers around a love triangle between two British brothers and a woman, and also portrays the relationship between the two brothers and a German friend of theirs.

The Germans also made films about the war. Georg Wilhelm Pabst's “Westfront 1918” (1930,) describes with painful realism the lives of German soldiers in trenches in France toward the end of the war, the outcome of which has already been decided. In one of the film’s strongest scenes, a soldier returns to his village on leave to find how badly the war has affected its people. If I were to describe any of the films as anti-war, Pabst’s film would be among them.

From Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.

Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel “A Farewell to Arms,” which tells the story of a writer during wartime and his tragic love for a nurse he meets on the battlefield, has two film versions. The better one was made in 1932, starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, and was directed by Frank Borzage. The second, made in 1957, starred Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones, and was directed by Charles Vidor.

Kubrick and Kirk Douglas

Many American Depression-era films portrayed the hardships encountered by soldiers returning from the war, as their glory as soldiers fades and is replaced by a life of poverty and wandering. They were called “the forgotten men.” One of the most impressive cinematic depictions of this phenomenon was a musical number entitled “Remember My Forgotten Man,” directed by the choreographer Busby Berkeley, which appeared toward the end of the film “Gold Diggers of 1933” by Mervyn LeRoy. The number was daring for its day: a white woman, and then a black man, plead to have their forgotten men remembered. It ends with a kaleidoscopic performance that was typical of Berkeley’s choreography, but instead of incorporating women who looked alike, as Busby often did, this time the dancers were soldiers in uniform marching toward oblivion.

World War I gave rise to some of the most important films in cinematic history, created after the war. Jean Renoir’s 1937 film “La Grande Illusion” is a paean to the spirit of human liberty. The film takes place in a prisoner-of-war camp to which two French soldiers have been sent. One soldier is an aristocrat and the other is from the working class. The film is not only one of the most important films dealing with the war, but one of the greatest in the history of film.

Another exemplary film is Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film “Paths of Glory,” which translated the memory of the war into a moral play in which a French officer (played by Kirk Douglas) protects French soldiers accused of cowardice and treason to their country because of their refusal to leave the trenches for certain death. In 1964, Joseph Losey made a similar film, “King and Country,” which told the story of a soldier accused of desertion and the lawyer who tries to save him from a death sentence.

Several interesting films that take place during the war were also made in recent years. The two most prominent of them are “Merry Christmas,” a French film made in 2005 by Christian Carion, and “War Horse” (2011) by Steven Spielberg. “Merry Christmas” tells a true story that took place on Christmas 1914, when combatants on the western front declared an unofficial cease-fire and some spent Christmas together, each side returning to its trenches after the holiday. “War Horse” tells the story of a teenage English boy who goes to the front in search of his beloved horse, who had been sold to the army.