A PFA series brings World War I films into focus
One of the most fascinating things about this film is Griffith is an American, world-famous for [1915's] Birth of a Nation. He is invited by the British to make a feature film that will encourage Americans to join the war, or at least to be sympathetic to the Allied side of the war.
But by the time he arrived in Europe, the war had already come to America. So the project changed, and he created an American story about the war. I'm shortening a story that goes on even longer, but this kind of crazy wandering from one project to another reflects the difficulty of trying to find an image for the war other than making the Germans hideous, lustful barbarians. How do you portray the battles, the French, the Americans? That's all being changed as he's making the film, and he starts falling back on the patterns that he used when trying to sell the Civil War [in Nation].
All of this relates to your question, because today we have a quite pronounced way of selling government, or more frequently anti-government documentaries. Back then were the very beginnings of this effort to use film for these types of social purposes.
SFBG Hearts used real soldiers, and some of the films, like Grand Illusion, don't depict any battles, but some of the special effects in the other films are surprisingly impressive. Disembodied hands gripping the barbed wire in All Quiet on the Western Front...
RM That is an unforgettable image, even all these years later. There was also a silent version made of that, with that same shot in it. In some ways, Paths of Glory is the most shocking of the films in the series, because it's so angry. But the sheer horror of the war, I think, has never been better illustrated [than in All Quiet].
This leads to a subtext in this series: In some ways, you could regard this as a kind of cross-section of the kinds of films that represent the war. But I have a particular argument to make, which is that the films help perpetuate the illusion that the war that Americans fought was interchangeable with the war that Europeans fought. All Quiet is a great example of that. To this day, we think the Americans fought in trenches, that our cause was as confused and as hopeless to understand as was the European cause, and so on.
But in fact, we fought quite a different war. Our reasons for going into the war were quite different, and the experiences we had in the war were quite different. You can ask a class, as I do, "How many of you had relatives that were killed in the First World War?", and just a sprinkling of hands will go up. Ask the same question in Europe, and it doesn't matter if it's France, England, or Germany — all the hands will go up. That gets blurred over in these films, and I'd like [audiences] to reconsider that.
The other thing I want to do is show how the war was used as the teens gave way to the 1920s, and into the 1930s. It had different functions, especially during the Depression, [when it was] interpreted so that it was appropriate to this great economic disaster. That's the reason I'm including Gabriel Over the White House. And it has a much different purpose when it's being incorporated into Soviet history; that's why I'm showing the Ukranian film, Arsenal.
SFBG Perhaps it's due to those complexities, but World War I hasn't become a part of pop culture, for lack of a better phrase, the way World War II has.