Monday 22 January 2018

How horror of fighting is told on stage and screen

Kubrick and Spielberg are just two of the movie greats who took a view on the conflict.

'All Quiet on the Western Front'
'All Quiet on the Western Front'
Author of 'All Quiet on the Western Front' Erich Maria Remarque with actress Marlene Dietrich.
Stanley Kubrick's 'Paths of Glory'.
'Blackadder Goes Forth'
Frank McGuinness.
Author Jennifer Johnston
Sebastian Barry.
'A Long, Long Way'
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

From All Quiet on the Western Front to Blackadder Goes Forth, novels, films, plays and TV programmes have done as much to shape our impressions of the First World War as history books.

While the Second World War is glamourised as a just war between good and evil, the earlier conflict has mostly been portrayed as a futile struggle, where nobody really won after sitting in the mud in trenches for months on end.

The popular image of the war is of a pointless exercise, where upper-class generals sent ordinary men into battle – lions led by donkeys.

Edmund Blackadder in the classic BBC sitcom sums up the most common perception: "We've been sitting here since Christmas 1914, during which time millions of men have died, and we've advanced no further than an asthmatic ant with some heavy shopping."

No book did as much to portray the war as a hellish nightmare as All Quiet on the Western Front.

Erich Maria Remarque's novel became an international bestseller after its hugely successful 1930 film tie-in.

The plot follows the plight of six classmates swept up in the conflict, as narrated by Paul Bäumer. The ordinary soldiers reserve their hatred not for the enemy but the armchair warriors leading the ordinary folk to slaughter.

On the day the Armistice is signed, Paul, feeling that he can never cope back in civilian life, walks into no-man's-land and is shot.

In the 1930s, the Nazis banned the book because of its negative portrayal of war. They couldn't capture Remarque himself, but executed his sister on a trumped-up treason charge.

Stanley Kubrick took up some of the same themes in Paths of Glory, a 1957 American movie based on the novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb. Kirk Douglas plays Colonel Dax, a commander of French soldiers who refuse to continue a suicidal attack. Dax tries to defend them against a charge of cowardice in a court-martial.

Few World War I stories have captured the public imagination like War Horse, the children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, which was turned into a play that recently ran at the Grand Canal theatre in Dublin.

The novel was first published over 30 years ago but gained enormous popularity after it was turned into a film by Steven Spielberg.

The plot revolves around Joey, a horse bought by the British army for service in France in the war, and the attempts of young Albert, his previous owner, to bring him safely home.

In recent decades Irish writers have tackled the war, and the confused sense of identity it evokes.

One of the biggest hits on the Irish stage since the 1980s has been Frank McGuinness's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.

It follows the progress of eight men from the 36th Ulster Division who brought to the battlefields of France their own hang-ups. Seen through the memory of the sole survivor of the group, a guilt-ridden Ascendancy Protestant named Pyper, it also shows how in war men bond instinctively. The gay, upper-class Pyper falls in love with a young blacksmith.

There is a similar theme of friendship across the class divide in Jennifer Johnston's short novel, How Many Miles to Babylon.

It is a tale two boys from Wicklow, prior to and during the war. Alex comes from the big house while his friend Jerry is from a humble background.

They both enlist and find themselves facing the horror of the trenches in Flanders. When Jerry goes absent without leave Alex is put in charge of his execution squad.

Sebastian Barry also follows the story of Irish soldiers who went to the war in his novel, Long Long Way, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2005.

The novel tells the story of Willie Dunne, a young recruit in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. It brings to life the divided loyalties that many Irish soldiers felt following the Easter Rising in 1916.

Barely 18 when he leaves to fight the Germans he faces unimaginable horror, and sustains his spirit with letters from home and the camaraderie of the mud-spattered Irish comrades who fight and die by his side.

Willie returns on leave to find a world split and ravaged by new political forces.


See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.

Irish Independent Supplement

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