It was called The Great War, and The War to End All Wars. World War I, which began 100 years ago, in July 1914, was many things – an orgy of mass slaughter, the first mechanized war, the first truly global conflict. It was also fodder for writers, authors, playwrights and artists, who filtered their war experiences through their creative sensibilities. And it was reflected in that new medium, the motion picture.
When it came to depicting the war, film was “immensely important,” says Robert Eberwein, author of “The Hollywood War Film.” “Film gives a sense of reality. If I’m seeing it, it happened. It was the immediacy of the war experience which photography could convey.”
Yet not just in film, but in all the other arts, there were key differences in how the war was portrayed. Europeans saw the war from a more intimate perspective, having endured three years of bloodshed before America even entered the conflict in 1917. Americans, as seen in jaunty marching songs like “Over There” and star-studded war bond rallies featuring the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, saw entering the fighting as something of a lark.
“The American version is different from the European version, because the war was fought over there,” said Paula Uruburu, a professor of film and literature at Hofstra University. “This machine goes into effect in America that is romanticizing the idea of going to war.”
“The American view, starting with (the 1925 film classic) ‘The Big Parade,’ was about great marching groups of men going off to fight, this virile manhood kind of thing,” said Doran Cart, senior curator at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. “The Europeans represented a more personal viewpoint, not necessarily a sweeping scale. British films, for example, show the comradeship, in it for the common man, fighting for the king and our buddies.”
There was also a contrast in how artists portrayed the war on the ground and the conflict in the air. The ground combat, with its trench warfare, mustard gas and staggering number of casualties (an estimated 10 million military deaths), was always shown as realistically as possible, in works like “Paths of Glory” and “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Yet the war in the air has been romanticized, in everything from film to Snoopy and his Red Baron fixation.
“They were going up in these little boxes that had only been invented a decade before,” said Uruburu. “There was something extraordinarily heroic about their actions, and that’s why they were romanticized.”
“It’s an aestheticizing of war,” said Eberwein. “Air films had cameras in the planes and there is a certain visual appeal to aerial shots. The fact is you’re being shot at, but it isn’t the same as hand-to-hand combat.”
The war was so much worse than anything that had gone before that it altered the way humanity saw itself. Cynicism became rampant, and a sense of “let’s live for today” permeated society. You can see it in America’s “Lost Generation,” a term used to describe the young people who came of age during the war, and mentioned by Ernest Hemingway in his novel “The Sun Also Rises.” It’s evident in the hedonism and debauchery of postwar Germany, captured in the show and film “Cabaret.” And it’s evident in artistic movements like dada and surrealism, which dealt with the absurdity of existence and the unreality of reality.
“The war came and caused people to lose faith in humanity and civilization,” said David Beer, who has taught World War I film and poetry at the University of Texas. “It subconsciously crushed the psyche of society for a while. There’s an awareness that the war pretty much changed the whole world.”
Contrast World War I with World War II – a conflict invariably portrayed as just and necessary, in order to save the world from fascism. Then compare WWI with Vietnam, another conflict seen as futile and unnecessary, with massive loss of life, societal upheaval and a generation of soldiers returning home disillusioned and mostly unappreciated. Films like “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now” reflect the same sense of despair and loss as classic World War I films like “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Gallipoli.”
“Especially people who experienced the war firsthand, like Hemingway, … it was hard not to be changed by that,” said Cart. “People were disillusioned, and it is reflected in the culture. They saw things that changed them, and it’s reflected in their art.”