Mud and slaughter: cinema in the trenches
One hundred years ago this month, the cream of western Europe's youth were being slaughtered by the thousand in a battle so vast and chaotic it was almost without precedent. Unimaginative tactics, terrifying new weapons and the total disregard of the officer class for their supposed inferiors combined to turn the meadows around the River Somme into blood-soaked killing fields.
There were other big battles during World War One, like Ypres and Passchendaele, but The Somme was the worst, claiming more than 300,000 lives and permanently traumatising those fortunate enough to survive it. It was the muddy nadir of a conflict that's rightly remembered as an entirely pointless one: a Balkan spat ignited a simmering arms race, and a higgledy-piggledy system of alliances dragged Britain, France, Germany and Russia into a dreadful slugging match that lasted four years and solved precisely nothing.
But the Great War was also a new kind of conflict, industrialised and on a staggering scale, and the conditions of its fighting have left enduring symbols in the collective consciousness. The mud, the rats, the trenches, the rain, the mounted machine guns, foot-root, tin mugs, round and pointed helmets and the guy who gets shot by a sniper after ill-advisedly lighting a fag; all of these tropes and clichés summon up terrifying images of hell on earth, and of ordinary men caught up a slaughter from which there was no escape. Film-makers, of course, have always been fascinated by the stark visual possibilities of stories about World War One, and were making movies about the battlegrounds of France and Belgium even while the guns were still blazing.
By 1917, a young Charlie Chaplin had become a cherished icon among the troops, laughter being an especially precious commodity during times of war. But the same year, he began his journey towards artistic maturity when he made a film that reflected the hardship of life in the trenches.
When Chaplin announced his plans for Shoulder Arms, industry friends warned him against making a comedy about a war that had claimed anything between 10 and 15 millions lives.
"Dangerous or not," Chaplin would later recall, "the idea excited me," and he went ahead. In it, his bumbling every-man Charlie is sent first to boot camp and then to France, where he forms part of the "awkward squad".
In a magnificent extended dream sequence, he receives a package from home containing a lump of Limburger cheese so smelly it can only be handled with a gas mask. He throws it behind enemy lines and follows, capturing 13 German soldiers, and when his officer asks how he managed it, Charlie says "I surrounded them".
Humour can provide ways of dealing with unpalatable subjects, but the reality of the Great War's pitched battles was so gruesome that film-makers and their backers were reluctant to confront it. King Vidor had a go in The Big Parade (1925), a masterfully made silent melodrama that would have a great influence on war films to come.
Those movies that did address the subject to this point glorified the Great War shamelessly and ignored the unimaginable suffering of a conflict that often rendered honour and heroism meaningless. But Vidor did the opposite, spending an hour-and-a-half letting us get to know a group of cocky but likeable young men before exposing them to the slaughter of the trenches in a compelling and, for the time, shocking battle sequence. Our heroes lost limbs and lives, and the Western Front was depicted as something close to Dante's Inferno.
But The Big Parade seemed tame compared to Lewis Milestone's 1930 masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front, which underlined the futility of war by considering it from the German perspective.
In Germany, as elsewhere, young men had been hoodwinked by poets and nationalists into imagining war as a high and noble endeavour, and Milestone's film followed the fortunes of a group of young military academy classmates whose romantic notions are about to be shattered by their experiences at the Front.
Soon the trigger-happy warriors have been transformed into bitter and battle-hardened veterans who grumble about the Kaiser and their officers, and dream of a new world order in which Europe's leaders would be forced to resolve their differences in hand-to-hand combat. All Quiet on the Western Front is full of unforgettable images, none more haunting than the final scene, in which Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) is mesmerised out of hiding by a passing butterfly and gets shot by an enemy sniper.
When Milestone's film was released in Germany, Joseph Goebbels and his henchmen released stink-bombs and mice in cinemas that were showing it.
The National Socialists didn't much care for Westfront 1918 either. Georg Wilhelm Pabst's sombre combat drama explored similar themes but was even bleaker in its conclusions. The Nazis would ban it, describing it as "a one-sided and very false representation of war": after all, they'd soon be asking their people to take part in an even nastier one.
When the Germans overran France in 1940, Jean Renoir fled to America, and with good reason. His films were detested by Goebbels, who described one of them, La Grande Illusion (1937), as "cinematic public enemy number one", and ordered all prints destroyed. By chance, one survived, and thank heavens, because Grande Illusion is an anti-war masterpiece.
The title came from a book by the English economist Norman Angell, who described World War One as "the great illusion" because of the similarities and common interests of the combatants. The illusion Renoir's film shattered the notion that war could be fought along honourable lines by gentlemen on opposing sides. Jean Gabin played a working-class air force pilot who's amused and baffled by the antics of the officer class during lengthy stays in German PoW camps.
Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939 gave the world a brand new global conflict to worry about, and for several decades thereafter the Great War was forgotten by film-makers, who had more immediate problems to address. But in 1957, a talented young Hollywood director called Stanley Kubrick decided to make a film about the Great War based on a scathing novel by Humphrey Cobb.
Paths of Glory was inspired by the execution of four French soldiers for failing to following orders. Kirk Douglas played Colonel Dax, an infantry commander who's forced to lead his men on a suicidal assault on a heavily defended enemy fort which fails miserably. Dax then agrees to defend three men who are to be court-martialed as an example in a trial he describes as "a mockery to all human justice".
It's an extraordinary film, my favourite Kubrick movie, in fact, and his tracking shots through the warren of French trenches are unforgettable.
Even more subversive, in the context of postwar Italy, was La Grande Guerra (1959), a dark comedy about two Italian infantrymen who do their level best to avoid seeing action before ending up as inadvertent heroes. Mario Monicelli's film openly mocked the madness of nationalistic fervour, and focused on the problem of how ordinary men retain their humanity in times of war.
People tend to forget that Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was set during World War One, far from the trenches in the deserts of the Arabian Gulf. It certainly is an extraordinary film, a visually breathtaking account of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire led by a cultured and mysterious British army Lieutenant called TE Lawrence (Peter O'Toole). Things got good and nasty during the battles of Aqaba and Tafilah, but the desert campaign would have seemed like a walk in the park to the poor Tommies in the trenches.
In Joseph Losey's haunting 1964 drama King and Country, one of those Tommies reached the end of his tether and decided to walk home to London from Passchendaele. Private Hamp (Tom Courtenay) is clearly suffering from shell-shock, and his superior officer Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde) agrees to defend him at trial.
He's found guilty of desertion nonetheless, and in a devastating final scene, his firing-squad execution is botched, and poor Hargreaves has to finish him off with his revolver. Losey's film seemed the perfect indictment of a truly nonsensical war.
If you watch one film…
Nothing in Rebecca Miller's rather dour cinematic output to date prepares you for the unalloyed joy of Maggie's Plan. Her new film, which opened here yesterday, summons memories of Woody Allen in his pomp, though it offers a very different take on the battle of the sexes. Greta Gerwig is Maggie, a young Manhattan woman who's decided to have a baby with the aid of a distant friend as a surrogate. Maggie believes in a meticulously planned life, but her grand plans are thrown into confusion when she falls for a married college professor.
John (Ethan Hawke) is clever and charming and tying to write a novel: Maggie agrees to read it, and next thing you know they're having an affair. He claims his brilliant wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) is suffocating him, so he leaves her, and he and Maggie have a child. But several years later, Maggie has grown tired of John's laziness and self-absorption, and hatches a plan to reunite him with his ex. Joyously messy, and very funny, Maggie's Plan is peopled by characters who seem real, and there are no villains here, just ordinary, imperfect people. Moore is hilarious as the terrifying but likeable Georgette.