The cinematic depictions of the First World War have often focused on the perceived loss of innocence of the aptly named “lost generation” from their war experiences, either on the front lines or on the home front. In our historical study of the conflict, we have rightly become obsessed with the sheer violence, trauma and absurdity of the war. Unlike any conflict before, the First World War nearly destroyed a generation and shifted the course of human affairs more rapidly and drastically than any other single conflict beforehand. As such, the First World War of the silver screen is one which emphasizes the plight of the individual soldiers, who in the course of the war became little more than cannon fodder to commanders and grand strategists.
In lecture, Professor Porter-Szucs showed us a battlefield clip from the French film, A Very Long Engagement (2004). What is important to note is that the film used the war as the setting for a romantic narrative. This film exhibits the common thread which links much of the First World War film genre: the plight of the common soldier; both in the battlefield, and in all that he lost upon becoming a soldier. Such is the case because the war, in its intensity, violence and fruitlessness so drastically altered the cultural and social perceptions of war. Films such as Gallipoli (1981) emphasized the vain loss of so many young men in a pointless conflict. As Professor Porter-Szucs indicated, many of those who perished may have lived to see the invention of the television, witness man’s conquest of space, and be shocked by the flagrant sexuality of Rock and Roll music. What made the cinematic depiction of the First World War so potent and popular was its distinction as the first war of the age of new media, which so aptly and shockingly displayed the unprecedented carnage of its battles, and the seeming pointlessness of such an immense loss of life.
WWI films usually focus on how the war affected the individual lives of the soldiers and the lives and relations they had to leave behind. As the post-bellum popularity of war poetry and All Quiet on the Western Front indicate, the First World War left many with a permanent distaste for this total and industrial style of warfare which came to typify armed conflict in the modern age. Debunked were such archaic ideals of warfare as chivalric honor, noble bravery and the value of the man over the weapon. War was no longer a test of masculinity, a noble pursuit, or a character-building exercise. War was hell. The post-war culture, epitomized in art, literature and cinema decried the culture of violence which had precipitated and came to characterize the conflict, and emphasized that war was not inevitable, and was something to be avoided.
Since the First World War, directors and producers have approached the conflict in a variety of unique and interesting ways, but virtually all have been lamentations and condemnations of the conflict. The Christmas Truce of 1914, a frequent subject of WWI cinema, is such because in retrospect, it seems to have been the last chance to restore civility, the last opportunity the young soldiers at the front had to preserve their unwounded humanity.
The French film Joyeaux Noel (2005) focuses on the camaraderie of the belligerents during the truce and contrasts it with the virulent nationalism and xenophobic environment in which its participants had been raised and educated. In Richard Attenborough’s musical Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) the Christmas Truce is a somber affair, the last breath of the Belle Époque. The absurdity of the conflict, the disconnect between the front line soldier and the generals, is encapsulated in the words of a German soldier to his British counterpart as they meet in the middle of no-man’s land: “We will not ever shoot again… unless you start.” In its pointlessness, the war, as depicted on film, became the ultimate tragedy, to be avoided at all costs.
The Christmas Truce is the quintessential tragedy of the war, the best example of what the “lost generation” truly lost. The First World War of cinema is thus a far cry from the idealized and romanticized conflict detailed in Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel. For Junger “the war was our dream of greatness, power, and glory” a quite disparate sentiment than those shared by the filmmakers of the succeeding decades. The calamity of the Second World War only served to magnify the tragedy of war, which at the same time served to discredit the nostalgia of war, as illustrated in Junger’s account.
The cinematic depiction of the First World War is thus an interesting and subtly important footnote in the greater narrative of modern European history. In its distinction as the first war fictionalized or documented in the age of cinema, it was in itself not a mere art form, but had the potential to shape its audiences perspectives and ideals. The raw realism of the cinema provides perhaps the greatest opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the viewers. Thus while such nationalist celebrations of the First World War as Storm of Steel have become discredited and marginalized, the cinematic depiction of the war, with its violence and graphic nature remains a popular sub-genre of war films, and continues to serve both as memorial to the dead, and a warning against the carnage of modern warfare.