“Honor” has become a foreign term to us today. The idea of defending one’s honor seems quaint, and even funny–think of Oliver Hardy in Tit for Tat (1935), accused of fooling around with a man’s wife. Indignant over this smear, he declares dramatically: “My character. It has been ‘smirched. Ruthlessly dragged through the mud and mired…Never let it be said that a Hardy’s spotless reputation should be so maliciously trodden upon!”
We of course laugh at Ollie’s melodrama. But there was a time when honor did indeed have the utmost importance in many people’s lives. It was the backbone of numerous old families, the foundation of their day-to-day routines, and was expected to be defended quite literally to the point of death. Can we even wrap our minds around a time when parents would be crushed by the idea of their son not volunteering to go to war? I can’t think of a better illustration of this seemingly inscrutable mindset than The Coward (1915), one of the most riveting Civil War dramas of the silent period.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
–From “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon
After four years of the extended commemoration, we’ve reached the very tail end of World War I’s centennial (not counting 2019’s recognition of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles–don’t worry, WWI buffs, I haven’t forgotten). So it’s fitting that in these final days of 2018, the new war documentary They Shall Not Grow Old should be in theaters (limited numbers of screenings and all).
What’s also fitting, in my opinion, is that Peter Jackson is at its helm. He’s proved in the past that with care and preparation he can churn out stunning works like the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which has a practically transcendent effect on me to this day–by the way, that Hobbit trilogy doesn’t exist). They Shall Not Grow Old is an excellent addition to his filmography, and is certainly a milestone within the genre of war documentaries. Continue reading →
To say that the gentle, baby-faced, cartoon-character-come-to-life Harry Langdon is not an obvious pick for a World War I-themed film might seem like a huge understatement. But funnily enough, there was something about the sight of Langdon’s innocent clown blundering through shell-pitted battlegrounds that worked. Was it the contrast, which was so stark that it became funny? Did the “Little Elf’s” bewilderment echo the disillusionment many folks had felt during those stressful war years?
In any case, Langdon would use WWI gags a bit more often than most clowns, in the short All Night Long (1924), the feature The Strong Man (1926), and the three-reeler Soldier Man (1926). Soldier Man in particular seems to get overlooked, which is a shame–many of the scenes and gags are certainly what I would call “classic Harry.” Continue reading →
This is the last post of WWI in Film Month. Many thanks to all who’ve been following along the last few weeks! This subject could easily fill years of blog posts all by itself. September we’ll be back to “normal,” but I know I’ll continue studying about World War I in the years to come. It was the game changer of the 20th century, without a doubt.
On this day back in 1918, the Battle of the Scarpe ended, and Bailleul, France was retaken by the British. Armistice Day was only two and a half months away.
By 1925, the Great War had been over for seven years. No one back then dreamed it would one day be the “first” World War. Millions of people had mourned their dead, and countless wounds both literal and figurative had been slowly healing. But the scars were deep and permanent, even as the world moved on to the prosperity and gaiety of the 1920s.
By 1925 the frenzy of the 1910s anti-Hun propaganda was a strange, fading memory (although its effects on German Americans were long lasting). With the battles long over and the cities and villages of Europe slowly repairing themselves, people were able to step back and look at the Great War with more objective eyes. Director King Vidor was one of those people, and the result was his magnificent drama The Big Parade.
His timing turned out to be perfect, for The Big Parade would be one of the biggest hits of the entire silent era, its box office gross second only to The Birth of a Nation. Continue reading →
On this day back in 1918, day two of the Second Battle of the Somme was raging. Albert, France was recaptured by the British.
This is a tale that begins in the strangest and most humble of locations–a bin of odds and ends in a Goodwill store. Wait, let me be more specific–it was a bin of odds and ends in a Goodwill outlet store. (Yes, that is a thing. You can buy clothes by the pound!)
That bin was where my brother (who runs across the darnedest things in that store) scrounged up a copy of a very old, dark green book: Private Peat, written by Harold R. Peat and published in 1917. While a little worn on the ends of the spine, it was in otherwise great shape, the yellowed pages clean and with a little crispness in them yet.
He showed it to me when I dropped by for a visit, and after reading a few paragraphs I was intrigued. Harold Reginald Peat was a Canadian who had been a private in WWI, and Private Peat was his detailed account of his wartime experiences and his thoughts on the war itself. The writing was engaging, witty and had plenty of little details about serving “over there” that only an actual soldier could know. So I just had to borrow it, and just had to read it from cover to cover.
After doing a little research I discovered Private Peat was not only a very popular book in its day, but it was also made into a movie with the same name–starring Peat himself! (Only in the silent era, folks.) While it’s sadly lost, thankfully some stills and info still remain.
This is a repost of the piece I wrote for the WWI in Classic Film blogathon, which I cohosted with Movies Silently a few years back. (Hopefully I caught any 4-year-old typos!) I’m still pleased with it, although Current Me probably would’ve added more info on how many battle scenes Griffith had to stage, since feature-worthy combat footage was very difficult to get. FYI, I’ve since discovered that there is indeed a better print of Hearts of the World out there, although for whatever reason it’s not available on DVD (yet!).
On this day back in 1918, the Second Battle of Noyon began, one of the many battles of the Hundred Days Offensive (which would ultimately end the war).
By 1917, World War I had been raging for nearly three years. Europe was reeling from the ever-increasing death tolls and relentless destruction of cities, villages, and farmlands in France and Belgium. The scale of the war, involving all the nations with the most economic power at the time, truly deserved the phrase “unlike anything the world had ever seen.”
The U.S. had managed to stay neutral throughout most of the conflict, which was starting the leave the more battered European nations at their wits’ end. At some point in the winter of 1916 and 1917, the British War Office Cinematograph Committee decided to contact the one person who they felt could change the minds and emotions of the American people…none other than D.W. Griffith, who had recently completed Intolerance. Propaganda films were common at the time, and the Committee reasoned that Griffith, King of Filmmakers, would be certain to turn out an excellent propaganda film that would inspire Americans to finally join in to help defeat Germany.
On this day back in 1918, the Czech-Slovaks declared war on Germany and Britain officially recognized them as part of the Allies.
As we covered in my first article for WWI in Film Month, film was used for propaganda purposes on a major scale during the Great War–a scale that had never been seen before. Just around the time Edwardian magazine and newspaper writers were declaring, “There are no two ways about it, the moving pictures are here to stay,” government officials across the globe were getting mad gleams in their eyes.
They basically wanted this, in movie form.
Escapist films (your typical dramas and comedies that had nothing to do with the war) were still big draws for theater-goers, but many filmmakers also put out patriotic contributions to the “great cause,” sometimes by government request (as in the case of D.W. Griffith, who was asked by Britain to make what turned out to be Hearts of the World). Some propaganda was practical, such as sharing tips on rationing food or urging people to buy war bonds, while others famously seized upon the stereotype of the “beastly Hun” to create some pretty hair-raising melodramas. (Ads proclaimed these films were sure to “wake up” audiences to the dangers of Germany.)
Von Stroheim as the Menacing Hun in The Heart of Humanity (1918).
So here’s a list of 8 typical WWI propaganda films, some obscure, some that you’ve probably heard of before, and a couple that are downright eyebrow-raising. Continue reading →
On this day back in 1918, the French cruiser Dupetit-Thouars was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine, and the Second Battle of the Marne ended.
When Chaplin decided in the spring of 1918 that the setting for his next comedy would be the trenches of the Great War, many of his friends and coworkers were concerned. How could anyone insert slapstick routines into such a brutal conflict? How could that possibly be done in good taste?
As it turns out, they needn’t have worried. The idea was, after all, in the capable hands of Charlie Chaplin itself. The resulting Shoulder Arms (1918) turned out to be both a great success in its time and a classic comedy for us today. Continue reading →
This is the first post of WWI in Film Month, commemorating the Great War’s centenary.
On this day back in 1918, the Battle of Soissons in France ended with the Allies retaking Soissons, and Japan landed troops at Vladivostok, Russia.
When the year 1914 dawned, few imagined it would be the game changer of the 20th century. Certainly the world had been rapidly evolving for some time, right before peoples’ eyes–transportation and communication had been accelerating, economies had been booming and entwining with other economies, and industrialization had been taking place on a huge scale. There was relative peace, most of the recent wars being smaller-scale conflicts. One such war was the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, the first war filmed by a movie camera (wielded by the adventurous Frederic Villiers).
A street in an Ohio city circa 1914.
For there had also been a rise in new art forms, most significantly, the language of cinema. Youth in 1914 were part of the first generation to grow up with moving pictures, and millions of those same youth would fight in the first major war to ever be captured extensively by moving picture cameras. Continue reading →
UPDATE: Day 2 of the blogathon has begun over at Movies Silently! Be sure to drop in and see all the other posts we have lined up for you. p.s. Still have a post that isn’t listed yet? Just send me the link and I’ll add your article to the list below.