This Means War

Nick Pinkerton on “The Great War: A Cinematic Legacy” at MoMA

John Ford, What Price Glory, 1952, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 111 minutes.

THE FIRST WORLD WAR began one hundred years ago this summer, which is another way of saying that this is the hundredth anniversary of the modern world. The historical convulsions set in motion by the events of 1914 changed everything—arts and letters no exception. When hostilities were opened, the Italian Futurists clambered for the clangorous front, while the disillusion of Dada and Neue Sachlichkeit waited on the other side of the trenches. Many of the chief litterateurs of decades to come passed through the crucible of the war: Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a French cuirassier, rode into battle on horseback as men would’ve a century prior, when Europe last experienced all-out war. Siegfried Sassoon caught “friendly fire” in the head and survived, while fellow poet Wilfred Owen wasn’t so lucky, strafed by a German machine gun a week before Armistice. Driving an ambulance in Italy, Hemingway collected some souvenir shrapnel, but Scott Fitzgerald, for all his dreams of martial glory, never got further than Camp Sheridan outside of Montgomery, Alabama. Some years hence, Fitzgerald would have Dick Diver in his 1933 Tender Is the Night visit the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, and muse over the war he’d missed. “You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you can remember,” Diver says of the requisites for fighting in the trenches,

You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafes in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and wedding at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers… Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.

As that “love battle” betrayed its true gristly toll—countless fingers, toes, arms, legs, ears, noses, eyes, genitals, guts, and lives—the art of moving pictures was entering its bumptious adolescence. British, French, and German troops had dug into the muck that would constitute the Western Front by February 1915, when still noninterventionist Americans were going over the top in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the film that defined screen treatment of the battlefield for a generation in its reenactments of the Civil War. (With the Siege of Sebastopol, prequels to the present conflict.) Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1919) and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Little American (1917) are among the earliest screen treatments of Europe’s self-immolation in the massive mobilization of prints that constitutes the Museum of Modern Art’s five-week series “The Great War: A Cinematic Legacy,” a feat worthy of Gen. Pershing. The program traces representation of the war from Griffith and DeMille—for all the innovation of their technique, still indebted to sentimental Victorian dramaturgy—to twenty-first-century offerings like Joyeaux Noel (2005) and War Horse (2011) of which, come to think of it, the same might be said.

There is, however, an identifiable sweet spot in MoMA’s lineup. What was then still called the Great War reached its peak popularity as a screen property in the years 1930, ’31, and ’32—near enough that the war is still fresh in the collective memory, distant enough that it could be faced…or mined for spectacle, as in Hell’s Angels (1930), the megaproduction of a twenty-two-year-old millionaire named Howard Hughes. Hughes took to the sky to shoot the film’s staggering aerial battle scenes, while he left the inglorious task of staging the dialogue to hired help James Whale. Whale was a veteran, having enlisted straightaways in the Worcestershire Infantry Regiment after seeing firsthand the zeppelin attacks on London depicted in Hell’s Angels. Second Lieutenant Whale served with distinction before going MIA during the Flanders Campaign, spending the remainder of the war at Holzminden prison camp, where he pursued a fondness for amateur theatrics that would blossom into a stage career after the war. His greatest success in the theater was the West End production of Journey’s End, a R. C. Sherriff play concerning life in the trenches, starring Colin Clive—in 1930, it would become Clive and Whale’s debut film. (Whale is better remembered today for more fantastic horrors, having twice directed Clive as Dr. Frankenstein.)

Left: D.W. Griffith, Hearts of the World, 1918, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 117 minutes. Right: Rex Ingram, The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, 1921, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 132 minutes.

Hughes’s flying circus got off the ground in the first place as an attempt to one-up the then-reigning champ of dogfighting pictures, Wings (1927), whose director “Wild” Bill Wellman had been chosen largely on the distinction of his combat experience with the Lafayette Flying Corps. A film whose vertiginous airborne scenes, done without safety net or rear projection cheats, remain simply awesome, Wings will be playing MoMA along with Wellman’s mauled final film, Lafayette Escadrille (1958). Recommended supplementary viewing is his 1933 Heroes for Sale—available on volume three of TCM Archives’ Forbidden Hollywood Collection—a remarkable portrait of the difficulties faced by returning veterans readjusting to the home front, starring Richard Barthelmess.

Barthelmess, a star for Griffith early in his career, plays leads in The Patent Leather Kid (1927) and Howard Hawks’s The Dawn Patrol (1930), both at MoMA. In the latter, he’s the leader of a British squadron who faces a new level of psychological torment when he’s grounded behind a desk, sending other men to their deaths. Hawks, who’d spent his war years stateside as a flight instructor in Texas, got in some “combat hours” here flying an enemy German plane, and The Dawn Patrol is one of the earliest instances in which the director’s ethos of male camaraderie and self-reliance appears in a form recognizable from great later works like Only Angels Have Wings (1939)—a film which Dawn Patrol in many ways presages. (Barthelmess returned from semiretirement for Angels, baring fresh plastic surgery scars.) Curiously absent here is Hawks’s Sergeant York, a morale-boosting biopic of one of the U.S. Army’s most decorated WWI combatants starring Gary Cooper which was released in the precarious summer of 1941, though one can see Cooper opposite Helen Hayes, both supernally gorgeous, in Frank Borzage’s lyric 1932 film of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

As represented by MoMA’s program, 1930 was a watershed year—and not only for Hollywood productions. This was the year of G. W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918 and Niemandsland, two of several films from Germany on the slate, offering perspectives from the other side of the trenches. It was also the year of Lewis Milestone’s, er, milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran who’d been conscripted out of secondary school, the film following a group of classmates through a similar recruitment and into the meat grinder.

After the boom years of the early ’30s, there was through the course of the decade a marked decline in the output of trench drama, and MoMA’s program reflects a long lull before the vernacular American “Frenchmen” of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). These were the post-’33 years in which the Production Code made its presence felt, when it became more difficult to deal frankly with the experiences of men at war. This wasn’t the only source of potential censorship: The Road Back (1937), the Whale-directed follow-up to All Quiet on the Western Front, also from a Remarque novel, was cut down before release when Universal Studios submitted to pressure from the German consul in Los Angeles, representing the PR concerns of the new government. These were also the years of Fire over England (1937) and Hollywood Anglophilia, when America’s interests were being subtly aligned with those of our British cousins, and when pop culture had ceased to look backward to the dead of the Somme and had begun to look ahead to an uncertain future. For how could a property as popular as the Great War do without a sequel?

“The Great War: A Cinematic Legacy” runs August 4–September 21, 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.