1910s, Auteurs, French cinema, War

J’accuse (1919)

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Director/Screenwriter: Abel Gance

By Roderick Heath

Of all the great creators of early cinema, Abel Gance seemed the one born with the very stuff of the new medium in his blood, immeasurably talented and determined to stretch the new art to the absolute limit of expressive possibility. And yet he’s always been a figure with a complex legacy. The illegitimate son of a doctor and his working-class mother, Gance was brought up by his grandparents in a regional coal mining town until his mother married a Parisian chauffeur and mechanic, whose surname her son took. Although he left school at 14, Gance maintained a voracious fascination for art and history. Initially working as a law clerk, he eventually turned to acting, joining a theatre in Brussels. Gance started writing and selling film scenarios to Gaumont for 50 to 100 francs each, despite his initial disdain for the medium – “You could eat for three days on 50 francs,” he said in the 1960s, by way of simple explanation for getting into that line of work. He made his screen acting debut when he returned to Paris. He contracted tuberculosis, an ailment that would keep him out of the army, but after successful treatment Gance formed a movie production company with some friends, and released his first work as director at the age of 22, La Digue (ou Pour sauver la Hollande), in 1911. Gance made successful films throughout World War I, but signs of the ambition that would make him both a great filmmaker and a hapless victim of industry models and public taste were already manifesting.

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Gance would later complain of the total resistance to any sort of innovation he often encountered from studios like Pathe, which for a time wouldn’t accept any movies that didn’t shoot people entirely full-frame. His five-hour epic Victoire de Samothrace, which he refused to cut down, had trouble getting exhibited, and the proto-psychedelic La Folie du docteur Tube ran into trouble with censors bewildered by its distorted visual effects. But as Gance persuaded his backers to let him try making more psychological works, the films he started making, including Le Droit a la vie, Mater Dolorosa and La Dixième Symphonie (all 1917) proved hits, replete with signs of innovative visual gusto and rapidly maturing dramatic sensibility. Gance spent a brief spell in the French Army’s film unit in the last year of the war, an experience that left him deeply shaken and depressed as he witnessed the carnage and lost friends. After the war’s end, Pathé bankrolled his next film, a massive and potentially controversial undertaking. Borrowing the famous phrase Emile Zola levelled in attacking the state during the Dreyfus affair, Gance proposed a movie examining the terrible cost of the war.

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The result, J’accuse, was immediately acclaimed and immensely successful in France and the UK as a public reckoning with the war through film, in a manner echoed decades later by the likes of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Deer Hunter (1978). Gance followed it with an even more ambitious work, La Roue (1920), initially nine hours long. After a detour with Max Linder’s comedy-horror film Au Secours! (1924), Gance hunkered down to begin work on a projected multi-episode portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte. He only got to make one episode, which, at six hours long and composed of an astonishing stream of imagery, left his audiences overwhelmed as it was. Napoleon, upon release in 1928, and his sound follow-up The End of the World (1931), confirmed Gance as a beggaring genius of the medium, but also a creator who far outstripped the public’s readiness to keep pace. Although he kept making films on and off for another thirty years, he never regained the same edge of vision or artistic liberty, although he did after a fashion get to extend his Napoleon cycle with The Battle of Austerlitz (1960).

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But it wouldn’t be until Napoleon’s restoration and revival in the late 1970s, that it was recognised as a singular height of movie artistry, just as Gance passed away. As Gance’s two best known works, J’accuse and Napoleon seem on the face of it to offer nearly antipathetic attitudes, the former regarded as a bleak and critical antiwar tale befitting the immediate post-war mood of disillusionment and appraisal, and the latter a high-flown tribute to la gloire of Napoleon’s emergence as warrior chief exporting French Revolutionary values at the point of a gun. Gance pushed this vision to the point where some have accused it of being rather fascist in outlook. And yet J’accuse and Napoleon aren’t nearly as opposed as they might seem. Both are in large part works about the meaning of patriotism, tales where idealism and dank realism clash with often calamitous results. The giddy historical romanticism of Napoleon was couched less in love of war, which is portrayed just as ferociously and grimly as it is in J’accuse, than Gance’s faith in the nascent Emperor as a supreme example of human potential in general and the French in specific unleashed by the positive aspect of the Revolution. In short, the essence of a cause, whilst J’accuse expresses a sentiment demanding a sense of responsibility in the living as well – in short, a desperate search for a cause.

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Gance’s reflexive sensibility is somewhat represented in J’accuse by his hero, the provincial poet Jean Diaz, who is at once a celebratory voice of French culture based in his adoration of its landscape, and a social critic who wields Zola’s catchcry as a perpetual intellectual motto. Gance had taken powerful inspiration from D.W. Griffith, who returned the favour by helping Gance get J’accuse attention in the US. The influence of the first reels of The Birth of a Nation (1915) is apparent on the opening of J’accuse, depicting a small Provence town as the outbreak of war is announced and the populace celebrate by dancing in the streets and marching by firelight. Jean (Romuald Joubé) lives with his mother (Mancini) and longs for his childhood sweetheart Édith (Maryse Dauvray), who has been married to François Laurin (Séverin-Mars). The two former lovers gaze at each-other from the windows of their houses on opposite sides of the town square. Édith and François’ marriage took place at the behest of Édith’s father Maria Lazare (Maxime Desjardins), a former soldier from the Franco-Prussian War and staunch revanchist who keeps a map on his wall with the territory of Alsace-Lorraine, marked in black ink. François is Lazare’s idea of a surrogate son, a man’s man and potential warrior for his cherished fantasy war, with a penchant for hunting, drinking, and domestic violence, in about that order.

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Gance’s initial tableau portrayal of the Laurins’ home life sees Édith seated by the window in pining remove: Gance opens up the rest of a blacked-out frame to reveal François, sitting by his dining table, with a deer he’s killed spread out, dripping blood on the floor, as François gets hammered and is stoked to a livid rage when he catches his wife making eyes at Jean across the way. Gance segues into a brief but bloodcurdling vision of a terrified, semi-unclothed Édith at the mercy of François’ drunken attentions, grasping a handful of her hair and forcing her head back for a view of her nipples. Unsurprisingly, Édith seeks out solace with Jean, who approaches her on the banks of the river flowing by the town, but François hovers too attentively for any rekindling of their former romance. But François must serve the purpose for which Lazare has anointed him, and he joins the army, and Jean and Édith are free for a time to subsist in something like happiness. Catching wind of this thanks to his father-in-law, François returns home on leave and forces Édith to go live with François’ parents in a different town. But this proves to put Édith in the path of danger, and it’s reported, much to the grief of her father, Jean, and François, that she’s been captured during a German advance. Grief-stricken upon first learning of this development, François soon becomes convinced that Édith’s vanishing has been concocted to cover up the fact she’s now secretly living with Jean. Meanwhile Jean, given a personal motive to fight, joins up, and much to François’ surprise and disdain he soon finds himself under Jean’s command.

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The storyline of J’accuse has a basis in familiar melodrama, with its propelling tension of eternal triangle versus patriotic solidarity, with scenes like a shadowy suggested rape similar to what had been seen in many propaganda movies made during the war. And yet Gance methodically complicate it with nimble psychology and a web of allusions to his concept of the war and its social background. Jean is plainly presented as his symbol of France’s higher-minded aspect – “All intelligence, all melancholy, all tenderness, all France,” as an intertitle puts it. A sensitive artist at the outset, he is also a product of maternal values, whilst Édith has been stuck with her oblivious patriarch and brute of a husband. Lazare, described as “straight and simple as a sword blade,” is an emblem of the revanchist mindset and epitome of an armchair general – he gets word of Édith’s capture whilst he and some like-minds are pouring over a map and arguing strategy – who soon finds himself utterly stricken as the reality of the war claims costs from his pride and feeling he cannot pay. Gance’s stabs at a kind of panoramic social commentary, accusing people like Lazare of dooming a younger generation to slaughter and suffering, and propagating a violent mindset through arch nationalism, has an edge of immediate anger that’s as surprising and confrontational as the social criticism in Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). Édith is the encapsulation of the long-suffering female population, literalising the notion of invasion as a form of rape and subjugation. François at first represents a blunt and ignorant streak in the national character, but also qualities of native strength.

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As the story unfolds, Gance charts the changes to his characters and the smudging of their initial identities as the nature of war breaks down clean oppositions and forces hybridisation. Jean’s optimism as a poet is initially described through his book of poems entitled Les Pacifiques. His mother falls asleep in bliss as he reads to her the poem “Invocation to the Sun,” at the same point where later in the film she will die, suggesting Jean’s poem has a kind of metaphysical power too rarefied for a world he soon learns is infinitely cruel and grubby as well as bounteous beautiful. Jean proves himself every bit as gutsy and competent as François once he does become a soldier, taking the place of one of his soldiers for a solo foray across No Man’s Land to blow up a German ammunition dump, a deed that a CO tells him could just easily gain him a court martial as a medal: he earns the latter. François, a man without means to express himself like Jean, tries at first incoherently to impose will on things and people, but a weird streak of romanticism in the man first described as a drunken brute is revealed as he reverently fetishizes a glove of Édith’s he takes with him to war. Once Jean arrives at the front, he discovers François has erected a sort of shrine to his wife composed of such objects, a display that tells Jean that François, in his own way, loves Édith as much as he does.

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François’s shrine to Édith resembles a similar array in Lazare’s house, except that the old man sits in worshipful regard of his own old military paraphernalia. The rhymes of sexual obsession and militarist mania echo throughout J’accuse as both evoke forms of loyal and compulsion that override all good sense, stakes for which men live and die. At one point Gance depicts Lazare plucking at one of the shining buttons on François’ uniform, an amusing flourish that nonetheless underlines Lazare’s virtually erotic delight in soldierly trappings and his equally pseudo-erotic claiming of François as a tool for killing Germans. Eventually, as Édith returns home with the child she’s had after being raped by German soldiers, the two zones converge, plunder of body and nation sparking crazed reaction. Immersion in violence and soldierly responsibility ironically prove to humanise and mature François, and once Jean approaches him and begs his forgiveness for not realising François loved Édith as much as him, the two become inseparable comrades. But the shadow of jealousy doesn’t entirely depart them. Eventually Jean is given a medical discharge as he’s exhausted and ailing from assuming too much of his command burden, and he returns home. Eventually, with a spry humour, Gance has Jean’s mother and Lazare become furtive friends as each becomes an agent for their son, trying to find out what the other knows about Édith’s fate.

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On the same night Jean’s mother finally passes away after an illness, Édith turns up bedraggled and exhausted, having escaped from German occupied territory with her child, Angèle (Angèle Guys). Lazare, consumed with rage and shock as he beholds his family’s colonisation by his hated opposites, leaves with the intention of finding some way of avenging himself on the enemy, and vanishes, never to be seen again. When François next returns from leave, Édith, terrified that François might kill the child if he learns who she is, gives Angèle to Jean, who pretends it’s the displaced child of some relatives of his and determines to raise the child as perfectly French. The servants in the Laurin house, including solicitous maid Marie (Angèle Decori), help them keep the secret. But François soon comes to suspect some secret and believes Angèle might be Édith and Jean’s lovechild. He unmasks the deception by pretending that Angèle drowned in the river: Édith immediately dashes down the riverside in panic, only to find Jean and Angèle strolling together. François waits in Jean’s house for them to come there, and in the scene that follows sees François almost bash Jean’s head in before Édith manages to intervene and tell François the truth. François immediately resolves to return to the war to kill Germans, and Jean elects to return with him, this time as a private soldier.

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J’accuse unfolds in three episodes, each just under an hour long (the film apparently originally contained four, but Gance, always a tinkerer, edited it down, and now only the shorter version survives). Jean and François’ return to the front concludes the second part. For a film of 1919, J’accuse is a wonder of form, for Gance’s pace of editing and richly composed visuals, as well as the careful, rhythmic construction that becomes a form of conceptual rhetoric, taking us from personal drama to incantatory poetic device describing the downfall of a generation and the heavy load of its survivors. The near-delirious editing style Gance would push to the limit on Napoleon was already present here. It’s evident even in a functional early sequence where Jean and Édith look at each-other from their respective houses. Gance gives straightforward alternations of their faces in mutual regard, but the naturalism of the shots of Édith is contrasted by semi-abstract shots of Jean and his mother against a black background, making emblems of them, and creating the suggestion of internal dialogues as the mother’s face reveals aspects of pride and concern in her son’s ardour: Édith is a figure in the world where Jean and his mother are creatures of intangible ideal. Gance portrays the workings of Jean’s mind and Lazare’s through montages of the conflicting images that pace through their minds, Jean’s littered with visions of islands and oceans, setting suns and ghostly fantasias of Edith wandering in scenes pastoral and moonlit; Lazare imagines cavalry charges and maps of conquered territory. The sight of an owl, a potential evil omen on the night of the war’s start, offers at first only two strange, glaring orbs glaring out at the startled revellers from a field of dark, before the rest of the bird is lit up.

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Throughout the film Gance deploys interludes of symbolic drama and an ardour for mixing in fragments of literature and art like a distant ancestor of Jean-Luc Godard’s penchant for the same approach. Quotes from Corneille appear on screen. Artworks are arrayed in dialogue like an artistic representation of spring revels, which Jean keeps pinned over his bunk, giving way to Death riding in the sky over battlefields, and visions of dancing skeleton. These symbolic flourishes seem to have made a particular mark on Fritz Lang, who would recreate the Death motif in particular in Metropolis (1926). Radiant, pastoral illustrations are used to convey the sensibility of Jean’s poems, illustrations that are revised to dank and haunted images by the end. J’accuse, in its war scenes, certainly feels like the definition of the WWI epic as it would become a genre over the next two decades, with an immediate stylistic impact on Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and on through the likes of The Big Parade (1925), Wings (1927), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and Westfront 1918 (1930), most of which would march protagonists through similar sagas commencing with the start of the war and the concomitant romanticism of the future young warriors and trace through a series of increasingly terrible and disillusioning events. But its influence might well echo further. Horror cinema had been a minor force before the war but J’accuse coincided with the release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in defining the haunted spirit of the immediate era. The last part of the film hinges upon a more literal connection between the war dead and the spectre of an emerging army of revenants.

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Until then J’accuse remains anchored by its personal drama, which, despite its potential banality, Gance sells entirely through conviction and observant, humane sense of character. Gance’s ambition was to be the Victor Hugo of cinema, and he has a similar talent for balancing real art and raw melodrama. To watch the film is to embark on a long and compelling trek with his characters. He imbues the steely Lazare with an edge of amusing vulnerability as he strikes up a friendship with Mme Diaz, and works in some gentle humour as the two parents become interlocutors for their feuding and suspicious sons. Gance portrays François’ partial redemption and maturation after making the viewer loathe him at first, and even elicits some sympathy for him as he’s frustrated by Édith’s initial incapacity to see his growth. But Gance is also canny enough not to believe in total transformations, as François’ cruel streak when his jealous anger is raised resurges when trying to divine the truth about Angèle. Jean has an aspect of idealised self-portrait, a warrior-poet who finds his worldview tragically misshapen by frontline experience but whose artistic gifts serve a real purpose according to Gance. He fires up his fellow soldiers with inspiring rhetoric reminding them that “inside every Frenchman is a Gaul,” a notion Gance illustrates literally by having the shade of a Gaul, looking remarkably like Asterix, striding across No Man’s Land and through the trenches by the contemporary French soldiers, achieved with double-exposure shots. Jean’s vitality as an inspirer of men is later contrasted by his equal effect as an advocate for the dead and evoker of the spiritual as well as physical landscape, scar-pocked and corpse-littered, for the edification of the residents of his home town.

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Édith’s return from exile sees Gance illustrate her tale of woe by a flashback to her rape, portrayed with the silhouettes of the German soldiers projected against the wall with outreaching hand looming over her. The villains are abstracted almost into an existential threat in a shot almost exactly the same as the murderous Cesare attacking his victim in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The familiar world has become nightmarish, but the fruits of the nightmare are clasped in Édith’s hands, unveiled as Édith spread out the shawl she’s been wearing against the rain to reveal Angèle. Édith’s fear her husband would kill her child and Lazare’s departure to go looking for foreigners to kill is contrast by Jean’s mental refrain of “J’accuse,” this time illustrated with the words spelt out by bound and trussed figures tied in torturous forms to make the letters, over a painted image of a young female martyr sinking into water. Subtle Gance wasn’t, but the angry tallying of the abuses and responsibilities is very much part of his project. Jean even teaches Angèle how to write “J’accuse,” and later she helps him relearn the words when he’s terribly shell-shocked. Angèle is ganged up on by local kids who force her to play the part of a German soldier executing a prisoner, complete with Pickelhaube helmet jammed on her head, a prop she tosses in the fireplace once she returns in tears to her home.

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Such scenes ram home just how raw the wounds of the war still were when Gance shot the film: it’s not exactly a work of forgive-and-forget liberalism, but rather a tribute laced with smouldering anger for the conflict’s direct impact on the country and its inhabitants. The famous climactic scenes turn the accusations around on the civilian populace themselves. When Gance remade the film with sound in 1938 as an urgent plea for peace in the countdown to the next great war, he extended its narrative to also make it a pseudo-sequel where the returned Jean labours on an invention that could render war obsolete, again smacking of a metaphor for Gance’s hoped-for impact as an artistic voice. The editing gains pace again as Gance’s rhetorical efforts increase in the older film, as Jean and François become two casualties of a calamitous onslaught, during which Jean sees the dancing skeletons romping amongst soldiers in the midst of crumbling buildings and shell-punched battlefields. When a shell lands close to Jean and François whilst they talk, many of the men around them are killed and François is left in a state of near-lunacy.

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Not recognising François in his dazed state, he gives him a bunch of letters he wants sent to Édith at intervals so she’ll think he’s alive even if he’s killed in battle. Whilst Jean is hospitalised a grand battle unfolds, during which François is fatally wounded, and he finishes up in the bed neighbouring Jean, dying as they two men hold hands. Édith is the shocked witness to Jean’s return home, injured and almost deranged, but still aids him in getting people of their town to gather in her house. There, in the stark firelight cast out from her hearth, Jean begins to recite a tale, part poetic parable, part hallucinatory rant, in which he pictures himself as a solitary guard over a vast field of crosses under a sky of boiling cloud. The crosses become the corpses of the dead, which then begin to twitch and move, finally standing up and amassing into a vast new army that starts marching down the road, with Jean fleeing ahead of them in alarm. He tells the initially dismissive townsfolk that they’re coming to demand answers from the living – “If you’ve been faithful to your dead, you’ve nothing to fear” – and begins terrifying his peers by identifying their transgressions during the war, naming one as an adulterer, another as a high-living profiteer.

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The march of the army of the dead is explicitly counterpointed with the march of the living under the Arch of Triumph as part of victory celebrations, in a split screen effect: official pomp and rites of healing bought at the price of sanitising and suppressing the reality of loss. Bedraggled, bandaged, wound-pocked and white-faced, Gance’s soldier ghouls lurch up to windows and gaze in upon the living, shocking them into protestations of regret and faith. One who turns up is old Maria Lazare himself, along with François. This vision of almost cosmic horror and collective guilt does at last abate and find a vague sense of mutual compassion. The army of dead halt on the threshold of the house, and begin to retreat in sheer gratitude for being able to see their friends and loved-ones, marching back along the road, carrying their grave marker crosses. This gives a salve to the townsfolk, but the sight of Angèle helping Jean write “J’accuse” again on the mantelpiece disturbs Édith, and she realises that Jean really is mad. This climax is certainly one of the great sequences of cinema, silent and beyond, although its sits in fascinating tension with the rest of the film, which is precisely about the ambiguities of private situations and how they mesh with such a vast and impersonal epoch.

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Gance’s annexation of medieval imagery and outright embrace of a distorted dream vision that gives a voice to an unsayable truth clearly rhymes with the emergence of surrealism around the same time, as well as the nascent German Expressionist movement. Jean, the warrior-poet, enacts the general crisis of all humanist artists when confronted by the post-war world as he mocks his own pastoral idylls and instead conjures armies of corpses and alien landscapes: it’s like Gance is incidentally trying to portray the birth of twentieth century modernism and genres. Gance’s sensibility is ultimately directed outwards in opposition to such interiorised visions, however, his conjurations broad dramatic gestures. When he returns to his home, Jean thumbs through Les Pacifiques again and laughs in disdain for his naïvely perfect visions, and finally collapses, seemingly into a catatonic state, after accusing the sun itself of lying to humanity. If he’d made it just a couple of years later Gance might have allowed Jean to recover some sliver of the hope and meaning in his old work, but J’accuse ends with the wrenching sight of its embodiment of the national spirit left as a stricken, maddened ruin. Gance does admit one ray of light, quite literally, as the rising sun falls upon Jean’s prostrate form, suggesting that the long and evil night is over.

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1910s, Crime/Detective, German cinema, Horror/Eerie, Silent

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

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Director: Robert Wiene
Screenwriters: Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer

By Roderick Heath

Imagine what it must have been like, to be someone who just bought a ticket to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari way back in 1919. Perhaps some ex-soldier just back from the abandoned trenches, curious to see that crazy new film someone told him about, or perhaps just in need of some cheap seat to rest a tired backside on. What reached out on a shaft of projected light and touched the cinema screen might well have seemed perverted gibberish to some or an internal landscape finally given shape to others. Maybe some later commentators were right, that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari represented a strange new psychic frontier not just in cinema but in social and political life, particularly for the battered and seething nation in which it was made, and also that nation’s challenge to the rest of the world in winning the peace with fearsome works of creation before a more sinister project took hold. More securely, the film gave birth to the movement today labelled as German Expressionism in film, and every genre and mode of cinema that mode inflected, from French Poetic Realism to Film Noir and the myriad children of Citizen Kane (1941).
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If films like Cabiria (1914) and The Birth of a Nation (1915) represented one great stage in the development of cinema, a stage defined by tethering visual technique to basic storytelling precepts, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari seems to have inaugurated another in exploring how the technique of film structuring and elements placed before the camera could be manipulated not simply to feign a coherent flow of association in cause and effect, but to imply other levels to drama, to throw off the former raison d’etre for cinema, its illusory realism, and instead pursue its potential as an expressive instrument to depict more ethereal realms. States of mind. Hallucinations. Dreams. Nightmares. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is also, of course, arguably the first masterpiece of horror cinema, albeit one with an unusual and contested genesis and a much-pondered legacy. Horror certainly existed on screen before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Georges Méliès had teased its outskirts with some of his fantastical works. D.W. Griffith likewise, with his Poe variation The Avenging Conscience (1914). Paul Wegener had already tried once to film the Golem legend he’d heard about in Prague, as he would again more famously in 1922. J. Searle Dawley’s Frankenstein (1910) had brought Mary Shelley’s novel to life over 16 thrilling minutes; Joseph W. Smiley’s Life Without Soul updated it with epic pretences.
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But The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari gave the genre a new and certain form and a special cinematic status, as a place where many familiar rules of movies could be suspended. It wasn’t the first film to try and transpose a set artistic style into a filmic context, either. Anton Giulio Bragaglia’s Thaïs (1917) had done the same thing with Futurism, with a similarly implied fragmentation of ways of being and seeing. Futurism’s rigid, rectilinear elements however asserted form over becoming, suggesting method and pattern under surface chaos, whereas the liquid flow of Expressionism and its associated dramatization of emotional states proved far more potent as a tool for filmmakers. Some of the value of Expressionism was purely mercenary, as shadow-drenched and highly stylised sets that required far less effort to build and dress and light were cheaper. Indeed, the makers of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari adopted the style in part for just such a reason, working as they were in the anxiously straitened months after the Great War’s end. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari began its genesis when Czech poet and author Hans Janowitz and writer met screenwriter Carl Mayer, when both men were broke and flailing. Both had become committed pacifists during the war: Janowitz had served in the army, whilst Mayer had avoided service by feigning insanity and going through a gruelling examination by a psychiatrist.
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Janowitz and Mayer were left angry and disdainful of authority by their experiences, and channelled their feelings and circumstances as Janowitz provided the concept and Mayer developed it into a screenplay. Enterprising producer Erich Pommer, impressed with their work and enthused at the prospect of an interesting and provocative film that could be shot cheaply, initially hired one of the brightest young talents on the German film scene to film the script, a young Austrian screenwriter turned director named Fritz Lang. Lang did preparatory work on the project and was probably the one who invested it with a key idea that was to prove at once inspired and influential, and, eventually, controversial, in regards to the film’s accepted meaning, by coming up with a different version of Janowitz and Mayer’s proposed flashback structure, and devising a new sting-in-the-tale ending. Lang had to leave the project as he was working on his The Spiders (1919-20) at the same time, so Robert Wiene, a slightly more established director, stepped into his place. Set designer Hermann Warm enthusiastically proposed not merely stylising the film’s visuals but embracing an approach close to what was already being done on the stage, and aiming for dreamlike abstraction. Expressionism was actually something of a dated movement by the time The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was made, having been founded in the 1890s and practiced by artists like Gustav Munch, whose famous painting “The Scream” gave the movement its most emblematic work in 1893, defined by attempts to describe mental and subliminal states through visualisation. Modern painting was to continue a drive towards abstraction, but Expressionism could have an outsized and more permanent effect on cinema, because it offered a clear conceptual basis for manipulating the unavoidably concrete persons and objects the young art form required to pass before its lens in order to exist.
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The actual plot of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is exceedingly simple, but its suggestions and evocations run like artesian water. For Janowitz and Mayer it was an experiment in storytelling that was also a disgusted shout of anger at the collapsed social order in Germany and the many annexes of authority. For Wiene and Warm it was to be a perfect exercise in dramatic style, allowing them to do something new on screen. The opening credits promise a film in six acts, each act announced and departed with a title card with ceremonious exactitude. The opening sees two men seated on a bench in a garden-fringed courtyard, tangled and denuded tendrils of bushes casting shadows on the flagstones and brickwork, as the older of the two men (Hans Lanser-Ludolff) begins to narrate with wide and frazzled eyes: “There are spirits – they are all around us. They have driven me from Hearth and Home, from Wife and Child—” Immediately the audience is encouraged to enter into a zone of credulity as to the possibility of the numinous as well as immersed in a mood of devastation, a place where weary and shattered survivors of mysterious conflicts are swapping accounts. The immediate horizon is entirely personal, the general outlook invoking the entire post-war mood. The other man on the bench, Franzis (Friedrich Feher), sees a young woman draped in white (Lil Dagover) strolling towards them, and fixes on her with hopeful adoration even as she passes by in glaze-eyed distraction. “That is my fiancé,” he tells the older man, and begins to narrate a tale he promises is even stranger than his companion’s experiences.
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Franzis’ narrative recalls the “little town where I was born,” the town of Holstenwall, strongly inspired by Janowitz’s native Prague and transposed into a fantastical landscape of painted buildings on a hillside in a manner reminiscent of medieval art. A carnival rolls into town, bringing with it a peculiar plague infection, in the shape of a rotund old man wearing a top hat and black coat, round glasses balanced upon his nose, an expression of grim humour usually on his lips and fanatical intent in his eyes. Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) himself. The carnival’s arrival stirs the hopes of Franzis, then a student, and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) for a bit of jollity and distraction. As they head out to check out the fair, they move through pathways that are violently stylised simulacra of real streets yet evoking the tight, twisted, somehow paranoid alleys of an old Germanic town. They pass by Caligari, who’s out seeking a permit from the town clerk to stage his peculiar entertainment as part of the carnival, exhibiting a somnambulist, or sleepwalker. He enters the clerk’s office and finds him seated high above the hoipolloi in a stall, barking commands and dismissive comments at those who deign to require his aid, and Caligari is passed on to one of his juniors to get the required permit. That night, Caligari unveils his unusual attraction to the crowd, before Wiene fades out to end the first act.
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Act II dawns upon the sight of investigators hovering over the bed of the town clerk, where he lies murdered by an unknown intruder. Meanwhile Franzis and Alan decide to attend Caligari’s exhibition, and gaze on with tantalised regard as Caligari unveils his attraction, the somnambulist himself Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a man the doctor claims has been asleep for all of his 23 years, but his sleeping existence allows him to tune into levels of existence unknown to others, allowing him to know the past and foresee the future. “Awaken for a moment from your dark night!” Caligari intones, whereupon the somnambulist’s eyes slowly flicker open, and Cesare gazes out on the audience without really seeming to see them, his gaze instead fixed upon a source of cosmic dread only he can perceive. At Caligari’s promise Cesare can answer any question, Alan enthusiastically asks how long he will live. Cesare answers him with sad assurance that he will die at sunrise. Alan and Franzis leave the fair in disquiet, and the glum mood is reinforced as they come across a poster offering a reward for aid in capturing the clerk’s killer. Their spirits are lifted as Franzis meets a woman he knows, young Jane, recognisable as the woman glimpsed in the opening, and the daughter of a prominent local physician, Dr Olsen (Rudolf Lettinger). Alan is instantly smitten as badly as Franzis already is, and the two men make a pact to stay friends no matter who she prefers as a suitor. That night, however, Alan is awakened by the sight of a stranger invading his room, and cowers in terror before the fiend, unable to fight him off as he’s stabbed to death.
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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari helped define many of its cast members, including Veidt, Dagover, Krauss, and Klein-Rogge, as definitive faces of Weimar cinema. The film incidentally invented the mystique of Veidt, who would go on to gain a level of stardom outside Germany, starring in films in Britain and America. Veidt would meet an early death just after appearing in Casablanca (1942), but remains most potently identified as Expressionist film’s weird yet charismatic muse. When he helped bring the Expressionist aesthetic to Hollywood through starring in Paul Leni’s iconic The Man Who Laughs (1926), his leering visage, charged with inherent perversity and tragic stature, gave the movement one of its most indelible mascots. Veidt’s Cesare is a pale face with black rings around his eyes, a visage of phthisic, spiritually and physically famished humanity, attached to a body clad in black hose. When he goes out on his forays under Caligari’s command he’s an inky squiggle writhing upon the painted sets, hints of a mime’s precision of movement and gesture as Cesare moulds his body for a world of windows and alleys as tight as his coffin home, a shock of black hair swept over into paltry obedience. Most male horror movie villains still aren’t allowed the same charge of bizarre erotic appeal the young, rubber-limbed, intense-looking Veidt wields, as part of the films texture demands identifying Cesare as not merely the animated minion of Caligari but as the dream-self of Franzis, the lean and rapacious projection of his id out to kill his friend-rival and snatch Jane away for nefarious ends.
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Veidt and the other actors move through the sets that seem at times to twist and swim like seaweed in deep water or form to ruthless angles, the liquid state of dreaming constantly stricken with the sharp edge of the murderous will, which finds expression in the triangular edge of Cesare’s knife. The filmmakers put their set design to satirical as well as psychologically significant use. The town clerk and the policemen are all seen perched at absurd heights, looking like hunched and patient vultures waiting for a meal as emblems of tin-pot authority. Caligari targets the clerk as punishment for his brusqueness and mockery, an anarchic gesture that has an irony as one source of jumped-up egotism attacks another through the personified apparatus of the subconscious. Wiene and his creative team might have been borrowing some ideas in turn from Louis Feuillade, the French serial maker and proto-surrealist, after the war’s end allowed cultural traffic again. Feuillade delighted in his own visions of black-clad marauders scuttling across rooftops and assaulting the bourgeois order. That Cesare in his bodystocking and heavy eye makeup is similar to Musidora’s look in Feuillade’s Les Vampires, 1915-6, has suggested an intriguing edge of sexual ambiguity to Cesare, another realm of breakdown this time in terms of gender. Cesare certainly bears an odd resemblance to Jane herself, Dagover’s face a plain of pure white and black pits where her eyes live: the virgin and the monster are mirrors.
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Feuillide’s narratives were still nominally contained by the borders of the crime and thriller genres where the forces of law and order are plain heroes and the wrongdoers eventually punished. Despite of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s famous twist, and indeed because of it, the impression of order in Wiene’s film is infinitely more tenuous, threatening collapse. Amidst the stylised settings, which aim for a sense of having stepped out of an immediate liminal zone, the costuming and absence of electrical lighting and other signifiers of modernity suggests the film is set about a quarter-century before it was made. This could be for the same reason a lot of filmmakers today set movies in the ’70s and ‘80s, to escape omnipresent technology for a better sense of narrative integrity and mood. A dark-tinted mode of nostalgia is often a fascinatingly pertinent aspect of the Horror genre, a longing for the past mixed out with attempts to relive and remaster the outsized anxieties of childhood. But it also has strong implications for the type of story being told here, looking back to a time certainly pre-war and regarding the start of a subtle fracturing in society, a sense of intense anxiety in the face of an oncoming century and its threating modernity. There’s a whiff of Victorian sentimentality in the white-clad maiden and the friendly romantic rivalry of the two students, sentimentality brutally erased as the real story becomes clear. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the story of the death of illusion, of the petty comforts and assurances as well as everyday oppressions and pomposities of the pre-war life.
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Wiene’s work on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often downplayed in commentaries by comparison to its writers and designers, and the director often regarded as a one-hit-wonder. To be sure, Wiene did not become a figure of great subsequent renown like Lang and some other Expressionist directors, but he continued to try and augment his conception of Expressionism’s possibilities with Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire (1919), an admired take on Dostoyevsky, Raskolnikow (1923), and The Hands of Orlac (1924), also featuring Veidt. Here Wiene’s camera often seems happy enough observing his actors moving around the weird sets from a perched perspective. The immobility of the camera seems dictated by the carefully composed sets that can only deliver the intended effect when viewed from a certain, rigorous viewpoint. But Wiene’s calm and poise, his minimalist sense of how to generate a sense of dislocation and hallucinatory transience, certainly helps knit the eerie mood, attentive to the way the design presses upon the actors and warps them to a new behavioural bent. Perhaps the film’s most striking moment in directorial terms comes in a little scherzo of cuts that comes when Alan is murdered: quick close-ups of his thrusting hands trying to ward off his killer give way to the sight of the murder glimpsed in silhouette on the wall. Surely Alfred Hitchcock remembered this moment when, forty-one years later, he would shoot the shower murder for Psycho (1960), as his technique is nearly identical, only more sophisticated in delivery.
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Many more essential clichés of the horror movie, particularly those that would follow in the next twenty-five years, are sketched out here. The lurking, sepulchral killer. The murders in silhouette. The flight across rooftops. The assault on the silk-draped lady in her boudoir. The mad scientist. The twist ending. James Whale would model many scenes in his Frankenstein (1931) upon Wiene’s, although Whale’s monster is childlike and exposed in trying to synthesise a reason for existence rather than insinuatingly erotic and directed by malign will. The twisted, bizarrely canted rooftop landscapes of Holstenwall and alternately cavernous and onerous interiors would return throughout a legion of imitators in subsequent years in the likes of Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein (1939), mostly with the Expressionist mimicry offered as vaguely psychosomatic decoration. More crucially, Wiene’s oneiric setting offered up a new possibility for filmmakers, the hope of finding new expressive methods to encompass individuals and communities in dialogue. Lang would unleash an infinitely greater scale of production concept on this ambition with Metropolis (1926), in presenting a city as a living organism and product of the mind. Obtaining such a conceptual scale and breadth was to become a major ambition for filmmakers in the ‘20s including Lang, Sergei Eisenstein (although he and the other Soviet filmmakers would be obliged to swap the psychological for the sociological), and King Vidor, just as others like Paul Leni, Teinosuke Kinugasa, Luis Buñuel, and others would pursue its ideas deep into the inner world.
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The medieval landscape of the town mimics and transforms the physical architecture and social landscape of Central Europe, often regarded as quaint and attractively old-fashioned, into a threatening realm, charged with disquiet and danger as new forces sift the town’s hierarchy with the intention of attacking it. The buildings on the horizon become serrated teeth in a shapeless maw, the strasses and platzes pinched and oppressive, as if anyone walking them is a mouse in some laboratory experiment. Which is what they are, as Caligari seeks the perfect instrument to realise a cherished ambition of enacting a sick fantasy out in the world, with Cesare his tool and the citizenry the specimens. Caligari comes to town with the carnival, that vehicle of transformative wonder and alien anxiety reaching back into the Middle Ages (seed here for a bunch of Ingmar Bergman’s films as well as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes), Trojan horse for his malign project. Of course, the circus is also cinema itself, the moveable feast with its panoply of enriching and disturbing exhibits, offering the perverse thrill of encounters with monstrosities. Caligari is actually a warden of the insane, abusing authority to attempt casting a spell on a mass crowd, to infect the world with madness. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is its own monster, its own act of mass mesmerism and huckster bravura.
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After Robert’s death, the sick and depressed Franzis tells Jane what happened to him, to her dismay, and then sets out with her father to Dr. Olsen (Rudolf Lettinger), to investigate Caligari and his sleeping imp. Eventually Franzis discovers, by pursuing Caligari until he enters a stark, lonely, high-walled building beyond the town’s fringes, that he is the director of an insane asylum. The Director had become obsessed with a story he found in an old book in which a fairground mesmerist named Caligari conducted a reign of terror with a somnambulist, and awaited the time when he would be charged with an inmate with the same disorder so he might reproduce those events. The Director’s fixation with this perverse anecdote urges him to try and turn a dubious, possibly spurious event (note that it supposedly happened in Italy, long in folklore and pulp literature the land where outlandish and perverted practices always seemed to be possible to their rubbernecking European neighbours) into reality. Caligari cunningly puts Franzis and Olsen off the scent by replacing Cesare in his coffin with a dummy, so that the somnambulist seems to be secure when someone is out marauding in the town. A man (Klein-Rogge) is arrested when he breaks into a house with a knife in hand and seems to be intent on murder. Pounced on by police, the man is imprisoned and presumed to be the killer at large, but when he’s interviewed by Olsen and Franzis, he confesses to hoping to use the other killings as an alibi to commit his own crime. Still the police hold him a cell, chained up like some troll at bay.
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The Great War had cruelly torn apart minds as well as bodies through the manifold terrors of the trenches and the new and alarming phenomenon called shellshock. Such phenomena stoked angry disbelief in some quarters, including amongst leaders who could well be likened to Caligari as those hell-bent on animating the mindless, somnolent body of the pathetic citizen and shoving it to do battle on its behest. Ruined people were returning from the war, and the evolving arts of dealing with mental illness and psychological distress were gaining a new currency, implacably tests the fabric of everything about it. But just exactly what psychiatry was in 1919 was still a vaguely mythical and frightening realm for many at the time. Mayer’s brush with a headshrinker in staying out the army had provided ammunition for the script, in the suspicious sense that the new profession presented a method for the powers that be to manipulate the mind as well as the body. Like many another puppet master to follow in horror cinema, Caligari is undone by one, singular, vastly powerful force: lust. Jane, searching for her father, comes to the circus, and encounters the rotund exhibitor and his imp. Caligari plays the charming helper even as his eyes shine lasciviously behind his round glasses, but Cesare unnerves Jane. Soon Caligari sends Cesare out to steal Jane away from her house. Cesare manages to snatch Jane away and carries her away across the Hollstenwall rooftops and reaches the fringe of town, but pursuers force him to drop her, and he’s later found dead in the countryside, having burst his weak heart trying to make it back to his master.
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Cesare’s kidnapping foray proves a relative anticlimax, despite the feast of iconic images it provided to define the film ever since, and subverts a cliché even as it invents it. Other fiends snatching away maidens in the night would be made of sterner stuff in subsequent horror films, needing to be chased down by torch-wielding lynch mobs and muscular heroes. Cesare, a being without mind or will, proves pathetic by comparison, used until he breaks down by Caligari, obliged to leave Jane behind as he desperately scrambles away. Focus shifts then on Franzis tracking Caligari back to the asylum, discovering his identity, and learning about his motives. The Director is the true monster, of course. As Franzis and the other medical men working under the Director read through his diary, Wiene illustrates the fit of electrifying obsession gripping the Director as he dances about the laneway outside the asylum, Caligari’s name and cosmically dictated demands he step into the fakir’s place and obtain mastery over men flashing on screen: “Du Must Caligari Werden”, or You Must Become Caligari. This might be another touch from Lang, or one he took away with him, as it powerfully anticipates the driving notion of his Dr. Mabuse films, in which temptations to omnipotence ultimately consume individuals but also bless them with a form of immortality, transforming them into a world-spirit of mad ambition that likely candidates can wear like a cloak. When Cesare’s body is found, Franzis contrives to have the Director confronted with the corpse: the sight sends the Director off in paroxysms of mad grief. Soon the mastermind is wrapped in a straightjacket and hurled into a cell by some big strong orderlies. Tyrant is toppled, order restored.
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Except, of course, for the sting in the tale. Franzis ends his narration to the old man, and they rise from their bench, moving across the asylum courtyard where “Cesare” and “Jane” are clearly inmates, lost in their own private psychoses, just as Franzis is, his tale of Caligari and Cesare confirmed as the fantasy of a disturbed man. Franzis’s insistence that Jane is his fiancée is met by her haughty insistence that she cannot love anyone as she’s a duty-bound queen. Cesare drifts with a bunch of flowers clasped preciously to his face, floating in dreamy melancholy. Another inmate raves on in what looks a hell of a lot like a proto-Hitlerian manner, suggesting the urges of demagoguery were already plainly nascent and alarming the filmmakers. The Director appears, now a well-dressed, calm and commanding man: Franzis begins to stir up the inmates, declaring that the Director is Caligari, and then attacks him. This gets Franzis tied up and tossed into a cell in the same manner Caligari was just moments before. The Director manages to placate him, before turning away and declaring meditatively as he removes his glasses that now he finally understands the nature of Franzis’ delusion, he now sees a way to cure him. One of the first and surely the greatest of movie twists, a total upending of what movie narrative is supposed to be and a radical reorientation of all that’s been seen. But what does it mean in the face of the film before it?
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The critic Siegfried Krakauer famously penned a thesis in his 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler, suggesting that Wiene’s film as it stands offered up a disturbing forecast of the oncoming fascist wave, demonstrating that post-war anti-authoritarian impulse was a sign of madness begging for a strong-minded leader to take it all in hand. Janowitz echoed the theory as he complained his and Mayer’s intentions had been distorted by the imposed framing, turning what should have been a clear-cut anti-authoritarian tale into something more familiar. Krakauer’s thesis was very attractive for some obvious reasons in providing a grand and sinister narrative for art divulging life, but commits its own crime of oversimplifying. More likely that Lang proposed his twist with a common form of distrust imposed upon fantastical material; there was a fantasist in Lang but also an ironic realist, elements that would always war in his movies, and his gift to the Expressionist credo was just such a tension. Lang probably wanted something better attuned to his instinct for moral complexity as well as sheer believability. The same touch is evinced here that would surface again in works like Fury (1936) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), a sense of ordinary people undone in the face of both social evil and personal frailty.
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Part of the potency of the final revelation lies precisely in how it makes perfect sense: the story as recounted comes across much more like the ravings of a paranoid man than a likely set of events, creating doppelgangers and projecting evil intentions upon physicians. The form of the fairy tale here crashes against a cold reality, a hard and unforgiving sobriety where dream logic is at the mercy of technocrats and the new breed of psychic cartographers. Wiene hardly offers a reassuring ending, despite Caligari’s announcement that he might have Franzis’s cure in his grasp. Rather the film leaves off with the sinister suggestion we might all be as detached from reality as Franzis, writing appropriate characters to fit the faces we know and constructing narratives more soothing to our minds than reality. For a 1919 audience this ending surely would hardly have been soothing, but rather deeply disturbing, implying that the substance of knowing goes no farther than our own limited senses and awareness. Caligari’s own project of transmuting obsession into reality both resembles an act of demagoguery but also a piece of anarchic performance art, just as Franzis reorders reality to suit his own perspective. Far from cutting off the arsenal of the subconscious as a tool for attacking authority, the film ultimately confirms that possibility. Soon the anarchists of the subconscious would run amok in the cultural zone and twisting the nose of rousing beast. Just how effective a weapon was in their grasp was and remains one of the great questions of modernity.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be viewed here.

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1920s, Silent, War

Wings (1927)

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Director: William A. Wellman

By Roderick Heath

F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) might have won the perhaps more elevated “Most Artistic Production” Oscar amongst the first year’s roll of award winners, but Wings, which took the award for “Best Production,” has been inscribed in posterity as the legendary precursor of every film to capture the Academy’s premier prize. Looked at as a monument to the craft and dynamism of Hollywood filmmaking at the cusp of that first great, wrenching change in the industry, the transition to sound, Wings is indeed a stirring, even staggering relic. Surely taking some courage from the colossal success of King Vidor’s The Big Parade two years earlier, Wings rode the wave of a new popularity for revisiting the dread and grandeur of the Great War. It also virtually invented a cinematic subgenre, the aerial war movie, with the likes of James Whale’s Journey’s End (1930), Howard Hughes’ and Whale’s Hell’s Angels and Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (both 1931), to follow in quick succession. The mythos of World War I’s flying aces remained so powerful that the 1960s and ’70s saw something of a revival, kicking off with The Blue Max (1966).
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As a dramatic entity, Wings straddles fashions in moviemaking, mimicking the seriousness of its concurrent bunkmates in the profound statement on war business, like The Big Parade and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but also making a play for a big, broad audience, mixing genres and styles in an all-out quest for audience-grabbing entertainment. In short, it’s a blockbuster, 1920s style. Paramount Pictures bigwigs Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, and B.P. Schulberg saw the cost of the film rise to more than $2 million, a serious chunk of change for the time, on a mammoth production leveraged with the participation of the War Department. At the eye of this storm was a young director who may well have felt fated to helm such a work: 30-year-old William A. Wellman.
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During WWI, Wellman, who had briefly played professional ice hockey, had joined up at the age of 21 and flown in the Lafayette Air Corps. This made him the only director in Hollywood with combat air experience. Wellman, bullish, brazen, and all too happy to clash with his actors in the name of art to the point where he was later to be nicknamed “Wild Bill,” had dabbled with acting, which Douglas Fairbanks had suggested to him before the war, after returning home. Deciding acting was an unmanly business, Wellman moved into film production. He worked his way up quickly through crew ranks until he was acting as an uncredited codirector; he released his first two, credited features in 1923. Wings teamed him with two more men with wartime flying experience: actor Richard Arlen and story scribe John Monk Saunders, who would pen many aviator dramas and war films over the course of his Hollywood career and become the biographical subject of John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles (1957). Wings was not exactly to be a warts-and-all vehicle for Wellman to dramatise his youthful experiences. Wellman returned often to tales of war throughout his career, including some of the greatest films of the genre, including The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and Battleground (1949), as well as his very last feature film, the sadly low-budgeted and miscast Lafayette Escadrille (1959), where he at least pulled off the stroke of casting his son William Wellman Jr. as himself, a young flyer confronted by the grim truths of aerial combat. Wings, by contrast to the spacious, spare, often melancholy tone of his later war films, is a product of youth–the youth of both the director and the excitable industry in which he worked.
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Wings aims directly at the youth audience of the late ’20s by suggesting their own way of life (and not bothering to be too exact about clothes and hairstyles)—that what would eventually become teen culture was already warming up just as the war beckoned. He introduces protagonist Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and his neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow) as two all-American kids, proto-flapper and hot-rod-building adventurer. “Jack had once pulled Mary out of a bonfire – and sometimes he regretted it,” a title card informs, hilariously setting the scene for the duo’s oblique relationship, with Mary jumping in energetically to aid Jack in rebuilding his battered car, which, as another card explains, had already provided Jack with the experience of flight several times. Jack and Mary transform the car into a speed mobile, and Mary sets the seal on the creation by christening it the “Shooting Star,” complete with a hastily painted logo on the side. Jack, however, oblivious to Mary’s ardour, thanks her and zips away to take the object of his own desire for a drive: Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), who has the advantage of being a girl from the big city.
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Wellman’s introduction of Sylvia and her beau, David Armstrong (Arlen), is one of his cleverest and wittiest visual flourishes, with camera attached to the porch swing the pair are resting in, Sylvia plucking a lilting guitar in a picture of fulsome romanticism, only for Jack to appear in Shooting Star behind them. The motion of the swing lends a stroboscopic quality to Jack’s approach, until he arrests the swinging and drags Sylvia away for a jaunt in his jallopy. The old world of quiet days and gentle courting is giving way to the crash-bang pace of the 20th century even before war starts. Sylvia’s affection remains with David, who is the son of the town’s richest man. When war is declared and David and Jack join up, Sylvia humours Jack by giving him a locket photo of herself, but tells David he’s the one she loves.
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The days of youth give way to war, and Jack and David’s march off to serve is repeated by thousands of others, including Mary, who is inspired to join the ambulance driving service, and Herman Schwimpf (El Brendel, patenting his squarehead act), a German-American who confronts folks who deride his patriotism by stripping down to shirtsleeves to show off the tattoo of Old Glory on his bicep. He stops this practice after a drill sergeant assumes he’s getting uppity and clobbers him. During training, Jack and David antagonise each other constantly in their ongoing competition for Sylvia’s affections, but after the sergeant makes them square off in boxing competition, they beat each other to a standstill and bond instead, becoming inseparable partners during subsequent flight training.
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Gary Cooper pops up as a cadet named White who wakes from a snooze as the duo enter his tent upon their arrival at flight school, dismisses the usefulness of good luck charms, offers the arrivals a bit of his half-eaten candy bar, and then leaves behind what’s left to do more practice flying. White is immediately killed in an accident, leaving Jack and David with no illusions about the danger of the business they’re engaging in. Cooper’s brief appearance here sent him skyrocketing to stardom as thousands wrote to Paramount demanding to know all about him. It’s interesting to consider why: not as conventionally handsome as either Rogers or Arlen, nonetheless, his subtle expressivity, the contrast between the dark shrewdness of his eyes and the beaming smile he gives just before waving them farewell, has the force of someone born to be in front of a movie camera, his register immediately declaring itself both subtler and more complex than the other men. If the plot of Wings is often naïve and aspects of it remain rooted in its time, Cooper is the sudden, looming emblem of cinema growing up, as well as learning to talk.
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Schwimpf flunks out as a trainee pilot but becomes David’s mechanic. David quickly declares a tiny toy bear that was a childhood keepsake his charm, whilst Jack puts his trust in Sylvia’s picture. Sent to the Western front, they debut together in battle, sent up with the Flying Circus of Captain Kellermann, this film’s addition to the many movieland avatars of Manfred von Richthofen, aka, the Red Baron. The two rookies prove themselves, though Jack is forced down and nearly killed, and they soon evolve into hardened warriors of the sky, with Jack an ace famed amongst servicemen as he paints his trademark Shooting Star logo on his plane. Wings followed The Big Parade and preceded Hell’s Angels, which was supposed to be a competing production but which would be delayed for years by Howard Hughes’ outsized ambitions. Wings isn’t as sophisticated as either film in contemplating the social breadth of the war’s impact nor as interested in context, happy to present its two young gallants as heroes and Schwimpf as comic relief rather than straining to observe the many types fed into the doughboy ranks, as Vidor did, or the whirl of shifting worldviews and systems, which fascinated as Hughes and Whale, recalling rather Rex Ingram’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1922) as a blend of vaguely poetic wartime tragedy and big, sexy melodrama. It could be argued, really, that Wings leans mostly closer to something like Top Gun (1986) than to any of these, at least until its last act. The storyline is simple and often more than a little archaic. But Wings is made with such epic élan that it stands tall on its own, mostly due to the richness of Wellman’s filmmaking.
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Wings is alight with vigorous cinematic ideas almost to the point of being show-offy, riddled with dynamic tracking shots, geometric framings, or shots with actors lunging at the camera—anything to invigorate the visuals. Sometimes Wellman incorporates outright symbolic flourishes, like boiling the defeat of the German army down to an overhead shot of a dead young warrior lying on a Knight’s Cross painted in a parade ground, and a plane’s propeller winding down and stopping in front of a field of white crosses in the background, signifying the death of a pilot amongst the last to fall in the war. That jokey early shot of Jack racing up to Sylvia and David on the swing sets up a visual motif, as many of the battle sequences are filmed and framed the same way, except with the camera mounted on winged steeds with the looming figure behind an enemy plane lunging for the kill.
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High-flying exploits were the drawing card for Wings, of course, and the action sequences are quite something thanks to the stunt flyers, many of whom came from the ranks of the U.S. Army Air Force. Impressive is the climax of Jack’s first-ever aerial battle, which finishes with Jack crash-landing and hanging upside from his plane as the enemy continues to rake the wreck from above, and then dashes after an English soldier off No Man’s Land and through narrow, shallow trenches as cannon shells burst around him. The physical staging of the earthbound battle sequences unfolds on that mindboggling scale of many silent films, as the planes dash over recreations of battle-scarred France that stretch far and wide, where whole towns were been erected to be convincingly decimated in bombardments. The painstaking aerial photography makes the most of it all.
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The action in Wings has a thrilling, dashing force that for the most part nudges it closer to action-adventure than the grim exigencies of antiwar dramas, but Wellman’s understanding of what he was portraying constantly declares itself in the teeming physical detail and the sense of force and motion he builds into the aerial sequences. Wellman turns what could have been a very simple sequence, a German Gotha bomber being wheeled out of its hanger and sent up on a mission, into a symphony of shots from ground level to high overhead in the same way filmmakers of a later generation might linger over some colossal spaceship, and with a similar implied sense of awe for technology in beauty and menace. One particularly great sequence sees a small town through which soldiers are moving being attacked by the Gotha, with Mary caught out in the street and forced to shelter under her ambulance as the town is blown to smithereens about her. Soldiers hiding in basements have floors above collapse on their heads, and the town church’s steeple is flung like so much rubbish to land on Mary’s vehicle. Jack and David fly in to save the day, cheered on by Mary and the soldiers below.
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Both flyers emerge victorious, and they’re decorated by a French general for their achievement, but both men, David particularly, are left tired and anguished by the experience. Given leave in Paris, Jack goes on a wild bender, losing himself in drink and hanging out with prostitutes vying for his attention. Wellman tests the limits of what he could get away with as he surveys the wild nightlife of the Folies Bergere, tossing in visual jokes like a kilted Scot warrior and his black-satin-hugged floozy both bending down daintily to help with one of her shoes buttons, and another hooker stealing Jack’s flyer pin to use as a slight restraint on her plunging neckline. One startling shot sees Wellman’s camera swoop across several tables, noting the types enjoying their boozy flings, including an older lady paying off a gigolo and a lesbian couple, before zeroing in on Jack as he enjoys his cups, illustrating both the motley gallery of Parisian nightlife at the height of war-stoked frenzy and conveying Jack’s giddy, frantic joy in his forgetful drunkenness.
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Mary, cruising the streets in her ambulance, hears that all of the American soldiers are being recalled for a big push, and she sets out to track Jack down, following his trail of painted shooting stars to the Folies Bergere, and tries unsuccessfully to extricate him from the arms of his coterie of clinging demimondaines. David skips upstairs with one lady, but Mary, helped by a kind member of the staff, disguises herself as a floozy to win Jack away: Jack, hallucinating bubbles, visualised as tiny animated circles drifting up from his champagne, decides to go with whichever girl is giving off the best bubbles, and shakes them both. Mary wins, of course, but once she manages to stow him safely in a bed, she’s wounded to see Sylvia’s picture his locket, and then is caught changing back into her uniform by a pair of MPs rounding up flyers: they assume she’s been naughty and tell her this will be the end of her war.
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This sequence shows off the blend of the corny and the bravura that distinguishes Wings overall, with Wellman’s risqué, authentic sense of the reality of the young servicemen living it up between duels with death blending with silly, crowd-pleasing touches like those animated bubbles, and the goofy cavorts of the storyline as the film finally brings Mary properly back into the movie only to then write her out through some tawdry morality that becomes all the more gaudily entertaining for the blend. Bow, who had risen to the peak of her stardom after It (1927) to become just about the biggest thing in Hollywood, was essentially shoehorned into the film to increase its marketability in a manner similar to her film debut, Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), where she likewise inserted herself into a macho milieu. Her presence in Wings, plying her ebullient, energetic, blithely sexy yet tomboyish persona, is both one of the film’s great pleasures and also one of its problematic elements, as it creates a more than slight dissonance. The subplot of Mary venturing out to war just like the boys has a feminist flavour that’s very apt for Bow’s persona and the moment of the film’s making, and which Wellman accepts casually, even gleefully. But her presence in the drama is readily dispensable, and Bow herself summarised correctly that she was just the “whipped cream on top of the pie.” Her game physical performing and big, bright acting style seem to belong to a different movie in places, and Wellman pushes the film to the limits of tonal elasticity. It doesn’t help that the way the story is structured keeps Jack and Mary away from any substantial romancing. In fact, Jack’s dedication to Sylvia isn’t dispelled even as David wavers on confronting him about it, almost leading to an ugly quarrel between the two men that is interrupted by a call to battle. David, who’s already been morbidly anticipating his demise, leaves behind his keepsake, and goes down in combat.
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A German flyer risks a hot reception to drop off word that David has been killed. Jack goes on the warpath, launching back into battle with hysterical bloodlust, not knowing David managed to escape his crash and the attempts of some Germans to capture him, and is sneaking back across enemy territory. Wings’ climactic scenes go all out in display of production spectacle as it recreates the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, part of the great “100 Days” offensive that ended the war, with a rah-rah tone, as the Yankees set the Germans scurrying on the ground. But Wellman’s tart, forceful vignettes continue to flow: two German officers interrupted as they drink beer in an observation balloon and forced to leap clear; a young American serviceman killed by a shell splinter as he smokes a cigarette without anyone realising he’s dead at first; a tank rolling over the top of a machine gun nest as the age of mechanical war finally renders the trench war slaughter obsolete.
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Wellman handed out cameras to cast and crew to grab action any way they could, capturing soldiers, tanks, and aircraft in sprawling images amidst well-coordinated battle footage that is spectacular, if a bit impersonal, a triumph of technical cinema that remains detached from the story at hand. Triumphalism is contrasted by an overt swing towards ironic tragedy in the air. David manages to steal a German fighter plane from the Flying Circus, decimates several aircraft on the ground, and wings his way back to his friends. Except that Jack, who’s been flying around mercilessly gunning soldiers on the ground and shooting down enemy planes in his hunger for revenge, zeroes in on David and, assuming he’s just another enemy, shoots him down, David’s pleas as he realises his friend is trying to kill him unnoticed. David’s plane crashes into a farmhouse near a French unit and a military graveyard, and Jack lands to claim a trophy only to realise his mistake.
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Wellman stages a lush pieta complete with a French farmer’s wife and her daughter, whose prayers are interrupted by the crash of David’s plane, to bear witness as incidental Madonna and child, and David’s passing is envisioned as an airplane propeller slowing to a stop. Jack kisses David in his death throes, a brotherly gesture that nonetheless brings the overtone of homoeroticism that often percolates under the surface of their relationship to a boil (and which bobs up again in The Public Enemy, 1931), complete with acknowledgement that their “friendship” ultimately was more important than anything else. A farmer helps Jack bury his friend in the midst of fervently dreamlike images—hand-carved crucifixes, crumbling brick, blooming flowers, leafy woods—in an eruption of pre-Raphaelite romantic melancholy as Wellman stages a funeral not just for one sorry hero but for a generation, one he was lucky not to join. David is laid to rest and with him the war, leaving Jack to head home alone to be greeted festively as a hero, but facing up to the onerous task of visiting David’s parents whose stern mourning crumbles before Jack’s distress, the hair at his temples stained prematurely white. Of course, all ends happily as Jack heads home to embrace Mary, and the two are last seen sitting in Shooting Star and kissing under a real shooting star scoring the night sky.
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Wellman went on to have a major career and stands as one of the great underappreciated filmmakers, providing something of a darker, diastolic contemplation of American landscape to John Ford’s in the length of his career, with films that responded to the shifts in the zeitgeist. After Wings, he moved on to contemplate the impact of the Depression and the allure of criminality with The Public Enemy and Wild Boys of the Road (1933), and wryly analyse the cults of Hollywood and mass media with A Star Is Born (1936) and Nothing Sacred (1937). In the 1940s, The Story of G.I. Joe and Battleground, Wellman would get to make the kind of all-but-happenstance war narrative he touches on here, pruning away the box office pretensions and reducing the concerns of his cinema to the experience of men lost in the midst of tumult and agony. But Wings is an exemplar of late silent cinema in its force and visual daring, and still the entertainment machine it was made to be. It deserved, as much as any rival, to be the first Best Picture.

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1930s, War

Hell’s Angels (1930)

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Directors: Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding

By Roderick Heath

Few movie productions can be described as legendary events, but the making of Hell’s Angels has surely achieved that status. This mythologising reached its zenith with Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), which documented the extraordinary dash and cash expended on Howard Hughes’ colossal industry-crashing project. If the modern concept of the blockbuster is a cinematic form that tries to dazzle an audience by constantly pushing its expectations for spectacle on screen, then Hell’s Angels certainly meets the definition. Discounting early works like Intolerance (1916) where nobody really knew how much was spent on them, Hell’s Angels set a record for expense that took nearly 20 years to break, and it was released in the midst of the Great Depression, when Hollywood was starting to be more aware and wary of its profligate tendencies. Yet Hell’s Angels eventually piled up nearly $18 million at the box office and made Jean Harlow a movie star. All in all, not bad for an independent film. Hughes was, at the time, little more than a clever rich kid bedazzled by planes and movies, seeking to combine those two obsessions into one massive project. He poured his personal gusto and finances into a labour of love that took four years to complete, saw him wield the largest private air force in the world to make his vision come true, and resulted in the deaths of four airmen.

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As that death toll alarmingly suggests, for anyone with admiration for the time when moviemaking meant really doing death-defying stuff, Hell’s Angels is still a rousing, hair-raising experience, yet the film itself has been largely neglected, even dismissed. Perhaps, such treatment suggests that’s one other thing it has in common with the modern blockbuster: grandiose spectacle allied to inconsequential drama. That’s not true, or at least not entirely. Yes, the basic plot of Hell’s Angels is pretty hackneyed: two brothers, one girl, war enough for all. As prejudicial as it sounds, Michael Bay’s awful Pearl Harbor (2001) can in some ways be described as its remake. But Hell’s Angels has, like many early talkies, an eccentric energy and an elastic and lawless sense of the new cinema on top of Hughes’ untrammelled creative vision that marks it as nearly sui generis, an exemplar from the time before Hollywood had firmly fashioned new templates and moulds for sound-era cinema.

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The basic plot is just that, a framework around which the filmmakers weave a strangely antiheroic, erotically provocative, and morally open-ended drama, one that delves as insidiously and unremittingly into the notion of the Great War as a cultish auto-da-fé as many more self-consciously arty attempts. It definitely belongs in the front line, with The Big Parade (1926) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), of the era’s WWI dramas. Still, Hughes was no actor’s director, and to handle the dramatic portions of the film, he went through three directors, including two truly talented helmsmen on the rise in Hollywood. Edmund Goulding, who was to become MGM’s reputed lion tamer of star egos, moved in after Marshall Neilan took an early powder. When Hughes decided to reshoot most of the film as a talkie, and Goulding had moved on, he hired British war veteran James Whale, then still largely unknown except for having directed the stage play Journey’s End. Whale only finished up with a credit for having “staged” the dialogue by Joseph Moncure March, who retrofitted Harry Behn and Howard Estabrook’s original scenario. Whale’s touch is, however, apparent throughout Hell’s Angels, in the eccentric scene shaping, the increasingly neurotic mood that permeates the drama, a greater interest in character behaviour than dramatic beats, and an intuitively engaged attempt to reconcile the theatrical settings he was used to with new cinematic freedoms, an intuition that would reach florid heights in the likes of Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1932).

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In the end, this was certainly Hughes’ baby, and it stands far above most of Hughes’ oeuvre: unlike The Outlaw (1943) and his big ’50s productions, Hell’s Angels isn’t chiefly a showman’s stunt, but a true attempt to make the biggest, boldest, and best movie he could. Scorsese wasn’t the only filmmaker impressed: Stanley Kubrick considered it one of his favourites, and elements of its ironic mix of antiwar saga and character drama with pervasive sexuality might have had an influence on Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), where, as in Hell’s Angels, that death-cult quality of war culminates in an act of self-sacrifice that result in mutual annihilation. The film also looks forward to attempts to paint war as a condition in which characters eddy in islets of frantic behaviour, like Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) or Phil Karlson’s Hell to Eternity (1960), in the face of impending death. Hughes’ film certainly displays a fascinating approach to the action-adventure tale that forms its heart in that he’s not out to simply wow the audience with bravura flimflam, but also to evoke a vision of warfare that is at once exhilarating and gruelling.

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Hell’s Angels follows a familiar arc in tracing three young men, friends at Oxford, and their fates in the coming struggle. It opens in Germany just before the war, where German Karl Armstedt (John Darrow) is spending break with his English friends, brothers Monte (Ben Lyon) and Roy Rutledge (James Hall). Libidinous and variably honourable, the young men are up to the usual business of young men, and Monte passes on a German girl he’s picked up onto a bemused Karl so he can pursue classier game: Monte, the quintessential lover not a fighter, is caught in flagrante delicto with the Baroness Von Kranz (Jane Winton) by her husband the Baron (Lucien Prival), a peerless Prussian officer who, with coolly humorous dignity, presents Monte with his card to arrange the necessary satisfaction. Monte, having no intention of risking death in such a fashion, packs his bags and flees the country, but Roy, who trails clanging old-fashioned qualities like cans on string, poses as his brother for the Baron’s friends, fronts up to the dawn duel in a strikingly geometric, expressionistic scene, and cops a bullet in the arm. When the young trio are reunited at Oxford, news of the outbreak of the war on the continent sends Karl into an episode of anguish whilst Monte ignores it entirely. Karl leaves soon enough for his homeland. Roy quickly joins up, an act Monte, who maintains an ethical as well as personality-dictated pacifism, initially spurns. But he’s soon roped in by the promise of a kiss from a girl (rising starlet Marian Marsh) at a Royal Flying Corps recruiting station.

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Undergraduate hijinks give way to the initially, collectively invigorating new reality, as Roy and Monte finish up as trainee pilots together, whilst society reorganises itself according to the new exigencies of war. Roy is head over heels in love with the upper-crust proto-flapper Helen (Harlow), the daughter of Lady Randolph (Evelyn Hall). Monte avoids meeting his brother’s object of fancy on the assumption she’ll be someone as drably upright as him. Roy is roped in to helping organise a ball Lady Randolph gives for departing servicemen and the girls, including Helen, who are joining the canteen service she’s sponsoring. The ball, filmed in a two-colour process, is an interlude of ebullient fin-de-siecle romanticism where Helen and her various boy-toys flit in and out of the shadowy garden like Shakespearean nymphs before a fall. Of course, the moment Monte claps eyes on Helen, sparks fly, to the point where they absent themselves from the party for a tryst in Helen’s apartment. Cue Harlow’s contribution to the language, “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” as Monte is startled to find her someone who surpasses himself in libertine indulgence. An elided sex scene later, Monte is immediately stricken with self-disgust for betraying his brother, who idolises Helen: he sparks Helen’s catty wrath, and he tries to warn Roy that Helen isn’t the girl he’s romanticising, but Roy will need more direct evidence.

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Helen embodies the shattering of apparent faiths that becomes the leitmotif of Hell’s Angels, as she refuses to play the beauteous embodiment of femininity to be defended, and rather treats the war as a smorgasbord of attractive masculinity just as the lads acted in peace time, an act that is consciously equated with the way the men use themselves up in the interests of systems that have no apparent interest in them. Early in the film, Monte watches as a radical preaches against the war, shouting “Down with capitalism! Down with war!”, only to be assaulted by the crowd; Monte’s bemused disquiet at the scene prefigures his own mounting misgivings about the great adventure. It’s fascinating to see Hughes, who finished up as the American Right’s ogrish caricature of its own paranoias, playing at radical chic in places throughout this film, which encompasses some of the popular anger of the postwar period against war profiteers and manipulative official rhetoric. Rather, war becomes a kind of heroic-sentimental religion of sacrifice, a note that reaches an apotheosis in one specific scene. Monte, as the only one who senses this and becomes almost schizoid in his simultaneous wish to prove his mettle whilst his good sense says run away, whittles him down, and he emerges a tragic antihero. Roy continues to live in a bubble of romantic certainties, whilst Monte, at once cynical and too aware of the underlying reality, is unable to maintain a stoic front and devolves into wild swings between tremulous anxiety and stony, maniacal bravado.

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Made before the war film had become a programmatic genre, and indeed probably contributing many clichés-to-be to its lexicon, Hell’s Angels, like others from the spurt of WWI epics of its time, tries to encompass war as an entire social experience, not focusing merely on individuals in combat, but also on the jarring shift from civilian mores to military ones, and trying to summarise aspects of the milieu’s ethos and tragedy. To that end, Hughes and Whale offer a sprawl of discursive yet organic observation, in illustrative vignettes like the kiss that catches Monte in a moment of very Chaplinesque character comedy and the hectic group shots that punctuate it, from scenes of Germans eating and drinking and the giddy young Oxfordians, to the carousing soldiers that sprawl with Hogarthian humanity. Such shots, essayed with a technically impressive depth of field, try to give the film a constant, recurring contrast between the business of life in communities, endlessly rich, and the ruthlessness of the warfare.

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There are almost essayistic excursions detailing the machinery of war—not just its technology, but its intricacies, from men receiving their uniforms to the arts of trying to catch zeppelins, parliamentarians announcing the war, power workers rushing to shut off the lights of London during a bombing raid, and shots exploring the workings of aircraft engines with a precise and fetishistic ebullience. Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive engineer’s sense of synergistic detail is here, albeit influenced thoroughly by the more sophisticated filmmakers of the ’20s, with hints of Vidor, Eisenstein, and Dziga Vertov evident. Hell’s Angels is technically superlative and brilliantly shot, the film’s one Oscar nomination having been for Tony Gaudio and Harry Perry’s cinematography and, as with many early sound films, the lack of nondiagetic music except at the credits is noticeable in the way one can sense the filmmakers not leaning on it to sustain and punctuate scenes. Instead, they unfold the story with a mixture of the theatrical and the naturalistic, which is perhaps one reason why I find a lot of movies from the period perversely more modern than much of what was made 10 or 20 years later. In a touch that notably captures the conventions of cinema changing from the silent to sound era, rather than subtitles or, as would usually be the practise until the ’70s, just having the German characters speak accented English to each other, silent-style title cards are used to translate their conversations. Hell’s Angels is also a quintessential pre-Code film, as good old-fashioned cursing and flickers of adult sexuality make it through where the later, much finer mesh of the Hays Office would have caught them—not that Hughes stopped trying to get one over on them.

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Most importantly, it’s the lack of artifice Hughes wanted and achieved that makes Hell’s Angels a spellbinding show. Whilst one major set-piece involves model work, that work is remarkably good, the climax involves colossal acts of set destruction and dazzling aerial feats. Hughes shows his cast clearly braving the skies for stunts free of back projection and other tricks, heightening the sensation of real danger these sequences project. Whilst the drama of Hell’s Angels isn’t the peripheral distraction it’s often painted, this movie is, of course, chiefly an almighty action film, and it really catches fire in the first major set-piece action sequence, as a zeppelin mounts a bombing raid on London. Here, Hughes is attentive to a duel of war technique, as the airship lowers a man in a cockpit down through the clouds to spot where bombs should be dropped, whilst opponents on the ground listen with amplifying equipment for the sounds of the airship’s engines. Of course, the spotter for the zeppelin is Karl, turning his intimate knowledge of the city to use at the encouragement of the ship’s memorably intense, scar-faced Captain (Carl von Haartman), or at least he’s supposed to be. Queasy at the thought of bombing the city he loves, he instead misdirects the Captain to release his payload into a lake, the eruptions boiling and flashing under the water with a strange, alchemic beauty. News that an RFC squadron, including Roy and Monte, is chasing the zeppelin forces the Captain, in his need to gain altitude rapidly and desperation to keep the airship out of British hands, to lighten the ship by the most expeditious means available. His crew thus begin hurling themselves overboard in a consummation of perverse nationalistic liebestod. Not only that, but with Karl still dangling on his slowly lifting cockpit, the Captain orders the cable cut. The crewman who brings to bear a massive pair of chain cutters wimps out, so the Captain, declaring “Für Kaiser und Vaterland!”, does the job himself, and Karl plunges like a stone to his death. So much for him and the Fatherland.

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As the RFC planes catch the zeppelin, Roy and Monte’s aircraft is damaged, forcing them to make a crash landing whilst the others continue the chase. The German gunners manage to beat off most of the attackers, the zeppelin’s titanic bulk gliding darkly through the eerily boiling nocturnal clouds, and the airplanes weave and dodge around it as they uselessly pepper it with bullets. But patriotic fanaticism meets its match as one of the British flyers, determined to bring the prey down, performs a suicidal dive from high above, and the exploding leviathan plunges to earth, nearly crushing Roy and Monte as they flee their plane’s wreckage. For most films, such a bravura sequence would be the climax, and the quality of special effects on display here is as high as anything Hollywood would see in the next 40 years. My earlier reference to Star Wars wasn’t entirely glib: it’s difficult to watch this scene and not recognise its conceptual influence, whether direct or as distant root, on the Death Star assault that climaxed Lucas’ film. Hell’s Angels shifts focus after an intermission to the Western Front, with the kind of stoic camaraderie that Hemingway was famous for projecting onto postwar civilian life, and which Whale’s stage work Journey’s End had also detailed is the norm. Monte, eaten up, unleashes his angry, sullen, hysterical feelings in a tirade against that code of grace under pressure, an explosion of rhetorical feeling that’s as excruciatingly exposed as a goldfish flapping on the carpet.

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Harlow, still a teenager possessing a slightly baby-faced, but defined predatory power, became the star with her speciality for playing vixenish blondes, but she was obviously still learning, and some of the other performances, including the inert Darrow, are unspectacular. Lyons is very much the driving human element in a theatrical but often volubly urgent fashion: moving from the slightly flaky rake of the early scenes to his blistering tirade in the flyers’ mess, he pulls off the mad swings between cool determination, sozzled disinterest, and crumbling character. As stock as the situations are, Hughes and Whale let their actors play them out with a conscious resistance to melodramatic emphases: when Roy discovers that Helen isn’t the woman he thought she was, there’s no subsequent revelation why Monte already knew that. Monte simply drags his brother away and helps him drown his sorrows with clingy French courtesans.

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Roy and Monte happen upon Helen making out with drunken abandon with a moustachioed officer in a moment of surprising carnality. When Monte subsequently wants to shirk their duty, his brother at first acquiesces, and finally drunkenly reminds Monte that they’ll be shot if they don’t turn up. They venture into battle sozzled and depressed, a vision of official heroism as adjunct to personal, existential crisis. The actual mission the brothers set off on is a virtual suicide jaunt to bomb a German arms depot as a prelude to a big push that might work with the ammunition supply suddenly curtailed. The duo are given a captured German Gotha bomber, with all the speed and manoeuvrability in the air of a flying whale, to penetrate enemy air space, and in an truly epic piece of bad luck, drop their bombs that destroy the enemy depot just as Von Richthofen (Wilhelm von Brincken) and his Flying Circus are flying by.

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What follows is an amazing piece of cinema, both in concept and execution, as the German pilots circle the bomber tauntingly, a frantic Monte battling them off as Roy tries to drive the cumbersome machine toward their oncoming friends in their squadron: the fighters run interference as the bomber tries to make it to the end-zone, and Roy and Monte’s likably eccentric squadron pal Baldy Maloney (Roy Wilson) does desperate battle with a German lieutenant, Von Bruen (Frank Clarke), who fixes upon the bomber. When the two sides collide (some literally), all hell breaks loose in a sequence that resembles the eye-popping drive of modern special-effects cinema without special effects, but it still runs on the same sense of quicksilver, observant detail as other parts of the film: a pilot takes a quick nip of courage from a secreted bottle as he’s being chased down, another waves farewell to the man who just shot him, and shots that present with surgical detail bullets tearing motors and men apart. Hughes’ constant use of cameras mounted in the nose of the aircraft makes it a relentlessly experiential affair, as the dying pilots spit blood or cry in agony as their planes spiral madly to earth, sun and sky turning into abstract maelstroms. In cumulative effect, it’s less a standard action sequence than a scene squarely in a tradition of the opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998), trying to both thrill and horrify in accounting war as a fundamental process of intimate destruction. Hughes’ approach is made all the more intense by the lack of trick photography, and the obvious guts of the men doing this stuff. Pilots are riddled with bullets, roasted alive, and plunge pell-mell into the earth, including one jaw-dropping stunt Hughes finished up doing himself because none of the other pilots, many of whom were real veterans of the war’s aerial battles, would dare it; Hughes ended up crashing, receiving only minor injuries. Finally, Baldy manages to best the German pursuing his comrades, only for Von Richthofen, circling with Olympian interest in the contest, to swoop in and finish the bomber off.

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The finale offers one of those wickedly intense moral quandaries that often arise in the war movie, as Roy and Monte, taken captive by the Germans, are faced with being shot quickly unless they spill the beans about where the upcoming attack will fall: for a final fateful joke, their interrogator proves to be Baron Von Kranz, who suggests the far less romanticised, more serpentine and aggressively purposeful twin to the humane Prussian Junker Erich Von Stroheim would later play in La Grande Illusion (1937). Monte, unable to cope with the fear of death, wants to spill the beans, so Roy cleverly manipulates Von Kranz into giving him a gun to kill Monte to cover up his own intended treachery. Considering how much of the film has equated war with sex and fidelity, both adventure and trial by combat, it finally segues into equating it with acts of familial loyalty. The story resolves in the gruesome spectacle of Roy shooting his brother in the back in what is finally more a mercy killing—Monte is happy he’s been saved from his own worst impulse—than fratricide, and the act of brotherly love is equated with what the two finally extract from their sacrifice, the chance for their brothers in arms to avoid being slaughtered. A final glimpse of victory partly mediates the bleakly deadpan shot of a depressed and sourly acquiescent Von Kranz, in his office, listening as Roy is marched out to meet his own deliverance, having proven that his own values were worth something, at the highest possible personal price. Over 80 years later, Hell’s Angels remains visceral, thrilling, and damn entertaining.

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2010s, Drama, War

War Horse (2011)

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Director: Steven Spielberg

By Roderick Heath

There’s something oddly enigmatic about Spielberg’s War Horse as a project—enigmatic because it seems so obvious. It’s an epic, old-fashioned weepie from Steven Spielberg, what needs explaining about that? Therein lies some of the confusion: hasn’t Spielberg spent much of the last decade or so running away from that big glutinous showman with a lethal grasp on storytelling and broadly appealing sentiment he used to be? Spielberg’s most striking recent films, like Saving Private Ryan (1998), AI: Artificial Intelligence (2000), Catch Me If You Can (2002), War of the Worlds and Munich (both 2005), have often displayed schizoid impulses, torn between cosy affirmation and near-nihilistic patches, usually purposefully fighting to a draw in conclusions that play like slow exhalations. The badly underrated, if spotty, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was both a paean to, and example of, the problems of trying to recapture lost youth, whilst War Horse is Spielberg’s most fervent attempt to recreate an Old Hollywood aesthetic since the uneven and now near-forgotten Always (1989). The first 15 minutes of War Horse aren’t that promising either, unfolding a vision of rural Devon life in the early 20th century that seems like a broad fusion of the stylised mystique of Powell and Pressburger’s Gone to Earth (1950) with the twee picturesqueness of Babe (1995), complete with a nuisance goose terrorising visitors. You can practically hear the creaking of old machinery, as some antique canards and too-cute clichés are put into play, and stiff dialogue lays out the dramatic stakes.

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War Horse, based on Michael Morpugo’s novel for younger readers, and the subsequent much-loved stage adaptation, is the sort of material a lot of filmmakers might feel obligated to tone down and render in muted tones to offset its essential improbability and abundant corn. It’s a tall tale in the old sense. Telling tall tales is something of a lost art: in Shakespeare’s time, pulling one off was considered a worthy challenge for any serious dramatist, and Shakespeare took it on a few times with the likes of Cymbeline, a play full of the same breathtaking conceits, roving characters, unlikely convergences, and gushing emotion as War Horse. War Horse is constructed less of realities of the past than the past’s idea of itself, leftover scraps of Victorian kitsch, Dickensian humanistic drama, loose pages out of old and mouldy rural romances and Boy’s Own magazines, and the silent cinema of D. W. Griffith, all hurled into the great, gruesome shredder of ideals that was the Great War.

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Spielberg, for his part, jumps in to the fray boots and all, and it’s this complete lack of embarrassment or anxious moderation on his part that makes War Horse both an inevitably divisive experience between those who will roll with the tale or resist it entirely. For me, the experience was a refreshing one: it’s the unabashed quality of War Horse, with its landscape of sneering squires, fair French farm girls, lovable grandfathers, hard-scrabble mothers, jolly momentary fellowships between soldiers of different sides, and a reunion between a blinded hero and a hobbled horse, blended with a peculiar faith in the intrinsic seriousness of the emotional underpinnings of it all and a gruelling sense of physical danger and horror implicit in war, that elevates War Horse from potential polite insipidness to something rich and compelling.

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Spielberg’s film commences with Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), an alcoholic Boer War veteran who’s taken to eking out a living on a rock farm he’s leasing from patronising landlord Lyons (David Thewlis). He purchases Joey, a young steed he helped raise, at an auction purely for the sake of winning a contest against Lyons and fuelled by a distinct note of class rage at the rich hoarding all the finer things in the world. The exorbitant 30-guinea price tag for this victory, however, endangers the Narracott’s capacity to make rent, much to the anger of Narracott’s wife Rose (Emily Watson): Narracott holds off Lyons with a promise he’ll make up the shortfall by ploughing a rocky unused field and plant turnips using Joey, in spite of the fact he’s still young, jumpy, and hardly a plough horse. But Ted’s son Albert, himself a new matured stripling, having trained Joey and formed an intimate bond with him, undertakes to put Joey under the yoke and get the field ploughed.

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The very opening of War Horse strains to offer up as classically English a landscape as can be imagined, with roving landscape shots of muted sunsets over pastoral perfection and a John Williams score that clearly takes cues from that specific sonic poet of the British landscape, Ralph Vaughan Williams. There’s a moment about 15 minutes into War Horse where suddenly Spielberg’s sense of technique snaps into focus and with it, the film’s emotional urgency: Ted, infuriated by Lyons’ goading assurance and his own foolishness, goes to shoot Joey, and Rose and Albert give chase to dissuade him. Spielberg sets up a frame behind Ted where he aims the gun at the animal, and swings the camera with the rifle; Rose tries to grab Ted’s arm and draws it left, Ted shakes her off and swings right again, now with Albert standing firmly between the weapon and the animal. It’s the sort of simple yet almost physically affecting shot that Spielberg is a past master of, dramatizing Ted’s frantic dissolution, Rose’s place as counterbalance, and Albert’s resolution and blithely self-sacrificing concern.

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Later, Spielberg attaches his camera to the plough as Albert finally gets Joey to draw the implement, a moment filled with an oddly titanic and apt import. Joey’s acceptance of labour is necessary to save the Narracotts’ lives, and the film’s stressing of the interrelationship between man and beast takes on practically ontological proportions. The film’s first “movement” on the Narracott’s farm betrays a long and sturdy prehistory in cinema, evoking to my mind most specifically the testing of the anthrax inoculation in William Dieterle’s The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) as people flock from far and wide to watch Albert defy logic and nature and the Narracotts try to ignore Lyons’ stream of patronisation, and the early scenes of Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941), a powerful model for the film as a whole, in which the eponymous hero similarly laboured to nearly his failing breath to triumph against financial ruin by ploughing his fields, only to be cruelly undercut, as the Narracotts are. I’ve pointed out in my review of Amistad (1997) the specific imprint of Spielberg’s love of some of Old Hollywood’s esteemed masters, but in the case of War Horse, that esteem at last becomes akin to a dramatic companion piece for the free-ranging compendium of pulp tropes found in the Indiana Jones films.

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War Horse’s narrative and stylistic lexicon incorporates shades of King Vidor and The Big Parade (1926), George Cukor, Mervyn Le Roy’s Random Harvest (1942), David Selznick, Lewis Milestone, William Wyler, Michael Curtiz, John Huston, Hawks, John Ford, and Dieterle—all those guys who used to create a kind of cinema that seemed at once dynamically mythic and highly stylised within the nominally realistic templates of mainstream cinema. Morpugo’s tale suggests an updated, more urgent transplanting of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, where the titular animal finished up in the Crimean War, into a war even more inimical to the natural and the individual. For Spielberg, it’s a film that stands at an interesting and ironic remove from both his adult films about such matters, like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and also from his iconic early films based in pure emotional longing, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). It stands instead with Empire of the Sun (1987) in a place where the boundaries are blurred, narrativewise, almost a portmanteau movie, with Joey’s progress through the landscape of fin de siècle/belle époque Europe and World War I bringing him into contact with characters from different nations who suggest unexpected similarities, as well as contrasts, between nominal enemies and the plain people caught between the nascent clash of civilisations.

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After the rain destroys the turnip crop the Narracotts and their horse laboured so hard to plant, the announcement of war gives Ted a lucky escape clause, as he sells Joey to a young cavalry officer, Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), whose sensitive and artistic nature partly mollifies Albert’s fractured heart at being forced to give up his friend. Nicholls, riding Joey, can best his superior officer Maj. Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his mount, the great black charger Topthorn, during regimental drills that double as playful tests of mettle. But Nicholls is killed when Stewart leads a charge into a German encampment, which seems for a moment to be a coup of daring but proves instead a dreadful massacre. Joey and Topthorn are captured, and two pathetically young German soldiers, Michael (David Kross) and Gunther (Matt Milne), take the horses in an attempt to desert. They’re found and shot, leaving the horses to be discovered by frail, but determined French farm girl Emilie (Celine Buckens). She lives with her pacific, jam-making grandfather (Niels Arestrup), but the ever-hovering presence of larcenous, potentially dangerous soldiers around the farm soon sees Emilie robbed of her beloved animals. Finally, the horses come under the charge of a decent German horse lover, who is nonetheless saddled with the odious responsibility of feeding horses into the merciless and cumulatively fatal task of hauling ordnance around.

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War Horse feels like a conscientious attempt by Spielberg both to return to his roots and hang being so sophisticated, apparent not only in its unapologetic yarn-spinning, but also in the physical production that largely eschews the now-common adornments of CGI, for which Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in particular, was rejected by many fans. War Horse, with increasing confidence, flaunts its firm and retrograde stolidity. Spielberg’s sense of storytelling rhythm is crucial throughout to pulling off this sort of yarn, and whilst aspects of War Horse’s drama work in some hoary and obvious ways, it also contains a series of dramatic ellipses that tie together a sprawling tale. For instance, after the drama of the ploughing scenes, Albert and Joey are let off the leash as Albert rides his animal across the verdant hills, racing the motorcar of Lyons’ son David (Robert Emms) in a momentary spurt of glory that ends ignominiously when Joey won’t take a jump over a stone fence, spilling Albert and undercutting the sense of release. It’s a seemingly throwaway bit of slapstick humour that actually sets up a recurring story element—Joey’s need to overcome his aversion to jumping—and also stymieing the film’s sense of flyaway visual movement, not to be released again properly until Joey’s mad dash across no man’s land.

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Basing a film around an animal protagonist is always a tall order, far easier on the page, a la Jack London’s Call of the Wild, than in movies, without overly literal or fantastic conceits, or making the animal in question a nonentity or an outright symbol. Joey clearly has a symbolic aspect to him, as throughout the film he adapts to become a maxim for everyone who encounters him. He’s a creature of selfless and noble labour for the farmers. He’s a thing of superlative beauty for Nicholls. He’s a vehicle of physical empowerment for Emilie. He’s a beset and tortured exemplar of a natural order at the mercy of a new age of technological monstrosities, and finally, in his epic flight across no man’s land that is the film’s singular set-piece, he embodies everything panicky, terrified, blind, outmatched, determined, and heart-rending in the spectacle of natural innocence entrapped by Conradian horror. He clearly resembles at such a moment the equally iconic horse in Picasso’s “Guernica.” Spielberg resists many of the usual tricks for anthropomorphising animals in movies, but Joey displays a constant human quality in far greater and consistent measure than many of the humans he encounters, a ready empathy for those he meets. He and Topthorn become, fittingly, the equine equivalent of one of those doomed buddy pairings in adventure dramas where one will finally collapse and beg the other to go on without him.

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War Horse sustains, with surprising seriousness, the essential concept of Joey as an exemplar of something doomed to be tortured within an inch of extermination again and again by the cruelties of humans to each other, expressed first in economic terms in the struggle between Lyons and Ted, and then throughout the war, where the huge artillery pieces he and Topthorn haul invoke the similar horned juggernauts of extermination in Duel (1973), Saving Private Ryan, and War of the Worlds, whilst his encounter with a tank also invokes these (and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989) as he’s nearly caught in a cul-de-sac and to save his life has to take an opportunity to jump onto the tank’s back and escape. Perhaps the film’s most powerful sequence comes when the two horses are joined to the hordes of animals arduously dragging the colossal war machines up a hill, the peak of which, when reached, in one of Spielberg’s most familiar, yet eternally effective visual motifs, reveals an epic vista being pulverised into nothingness. Joey is constantly in danger in the meantime of being shot simply to get him out of the way either before he can be a nuisance or after he’s served his purpose.

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It’s not the first time Spielberg’s essayed this sort of “shadow of the gun” motif—it powers, after all, both Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan, and to a certain extent Munich too, if with a reversed focus. Whilst it’s not the most intricate variation, it’s the most unremitting in refusing to balance with any real heroism, befitting a war where the objectives are near intangible and the cost too hideous to bear. Suddenly, the felicity of building a war epic out of a horse’s experience takes on a new singularity in having so clearly detailed the end of the era in which horses are the prized, almost worshipped companions and props for heroes and the backbone of a rural, agricultural society, now only fodder from dragging around cannons, organisms in slavery to machines. Around Joey swirl vignettes of great and terrible import: the massacre of the cavalry unit is carefully shot and edited so that the cost of the foolish charge isn’t revealed until Spielberg manages a crane shot of a field studded with corpses. The two innocent German brothers who joined up because their father marched them to the enlistment station even though they were far too young, are equally meek and accepting of the blind, cold judgment of an authoritarian, patriarchal society—they let themselves be taken, lined up, and shot, viewed from a distance through a windmill’s sails that pass like a fleeting, thankful veil over the grim moment between life and peaceful death.

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The film’s one standard warfare sequence comes when Albert and his pal Andrew (Matt Milne), both serving under David Lyons, are part of a bloodcurdling charge across no man’s land in a sequence that clearly channels the similar head-long hells of The Big Parade, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Andrew is left behind with orders to shoot any men who come back, but he can’t do that, so he instead runs after his friends, who make it into the deserted, carnage-clogged German trenches, only for both lads to be engulfed in a gas attack: Andrew dies and Albert comes out temporarily blinded. The irony of a film that expresses a deep humanism by concentrating on an animal culminates in a scene that plays as both a variation on All Quiet’s famous shell hole scene and also as a meta-commentary on that narrative conceit: Joey’s flight finishes up with him entwined in barbed wire like some metallic ivy, his agonised state creating a momentary bridge for the opposing camps of soldiers to express their care and distress over physical suffering and innocence, an expression that can only be given to an animal.

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There’s something strangely apt about Spielberg’s War Horse and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo being released in near-tandem and both largely getting passed over and patronised during the recent Academy Awards. Both films are near-great, deliberately backward-looking works that reveal how the two directors often mirror each other’s lacks and talents. Where Scorsese’s cinematic lexicon of a film finally remains something of a glorious pile of parts for a mechanism that doesn’t entirely snap into full working order on a plot and emotional level, by inflating an essentially modest tale to gargantuan scale, Spielberg grasps the emotive heart of his epic story and rides it for all it’s worth, at the expense of subtlety and thinking of new twists on his deliberately hoary tale. He doesn’t entirely escape the diffuseness that often marks portmanteau films, and the film’s curious blend of the artificial and romantic and the bitterly realistic doesn’t entirely conceal it. Empire of the Sun (1987) pulled that mixture off, finally, with more indelible results, partly because of a more controlled viewpoint: that was the horrors of war, as seen and transformed by a boy’s perspective. War Horse, to its credit, doesn’t shy away from some of the cruellest aspects of its drama, like the shooting of the young Germans and the massacres of the war, but it does get frustratingly coy when the subplot of the Grandfather’s determination to buy Joey as a memorial to the now deceased Emilie after war’s end: what happened to Emilie is something the film should state but doesn’t. Given that it’s hard to get away from the sensation  that Emilie was doomed to be raped and murdered at some point, it’s not surprising that would be elided, but it does point to a basic lack of a Lillian Gish-sized central tragic figure and scene to tether the film together, as the innocent nature boy Albert is offscreen too much.

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Still, the climactic moment of sustained suspense as an overburdened army doctor (Liam Cunningham) prepares to have Joey shot after he’s saved from the wire, sets up with gleeful lack of shame the most cornball of gimmicks, where Joey will respond to Albert’s Indian bird call and no one else, is marked by a depth of staging that imbues the scene with an aura of the near-otherworldly. Muddy, bewildered soldiers look on with fascination at the animal that provokes near-depleted emotions in them as Albert, gas-seared eyes wrapped in bandages and evoking Tom Courtenay in King & Country (1964), pleads for his animal’s life, hovering between the firelight of camp and the bleak blues and greys of a stormy war-torn night, that’s not entirely unworthy of Frank Borzage or William Dieterle at their best. Like a picture postcard ripped out of a race memory.

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It’s interesting to note that coscreenwriter Richard Curtis had a hand in penning Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), a blend of absurdist comedy tropes with one of the most acutely internalised depictions of the Great War ever, as a war not just between sides but between individuals and societies, propaganda and private cynicism, harsh reality and romanticisation. At first glance, that scabrous TV show and War Horse’s earnestness have little in common, but it comes out in how both capture the way the epoch’s blend of bludgeoning sentimentalities and underlying reality as an atrocious, aggrieving bloodbath finally fight each other to a draw: one is necessary to comprehend and survive the other. Albert and Joey’s final homecoming is played out not in a golden halo, but in a blood-red twilight, evoking John Wayne’s graveside scenes of John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), lending the upbeat conclusion an overtone of dark reckonings only temporarily staved off.

Standard
1960s, British cinema, War

King & Country (1964)

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Director: Joseph Losey

By Roderick Heath

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a major tonal shift manifested in cinematic approaches to tales of conflict and warfare. This is especially discernable in those films made in Britain, where the film industry had been sustained through much of the ’50s by high-flying entertainments celebrating the victories of World War II in fairly unequivocal terms. Even the likes of Charles Frend’s severe The Cruel Sea (1953) and Guy Green’s existential Sea of Sand (1958) hardly argued with the moral exigencies of “the bloody war,” only the pains of waging it. Two films of 1957, David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, initiated a distinct new phase in war movies. My father, then ten years old, saw River Kwai with his own ex-professional soldier father, who had seen and done some stuff that would stand your hair on end in places like Palestine, Burma, Libya and Crete, on a trip to London: my grandfather still had the shrapnel of mortar bombs in his flesh to the end of his days. They also happened to witness Bertrand Russell’s famous ban-the-bomb march on the very same weekend, and the coincidence of protest and art revealed the curdling attitude of the post-war community which had been living with not only the social fallout of the war but the threat of more literal fallout ever since.

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By the early ’60s, dark antiwar fables and bleak satires on militarism were increasingly common on screen. Joseph Losey, the expatriate American director, had already contributed one such fable with his impressive scifi chiller The Damned (1962), and, with the unexpected success of the class satire The Servant (1963), had been elevated to a new level of importance as an art film director. His immediate follow-up, King & Country, was something of the solemn antithesis to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove of the same year, as well as echoing Paths of Glory (1957) in portraying a lowly serviceman’s politically dictated execution for cowardice. King & Country, was adapted by Evan Jones from the play by John Wilson, which itself was adapted from a story by James Lansdale Hodson. Indeed, several British films of the ’60s with acerbic things to say about the war came out of the Angry Young Man-inflected stage, including Leslie Norman’s The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961), Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965), and Richard Attenborough’s version of Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). Such works offered an antiwar sentiment through the relatively tangential revival of the WWI-era genre that, before WWII, had been a vehicle for similar sentiments regarding that remarkably pointless calamity.

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King & Country, unlike many of those other films, spurns an urgent, innately hysterical note, but is instead a resolutely sober, low-key chamber piece. Most immediately striking is Losey’s unflinching evocation of the physical environs of the trenches of the Passchendaele campaign, utilising real-life photographs of the devastated landscape and rotting corpses to flesh out the otherwise tight focus on a particular army company over the course of 24 hours. It’s a world of wet, rot, rats, and constant cannon fire in the distance: dead horses and dead men riddled with vermin lie around barely noticed. Young Private Hamp (Tom Courtenay, British cinema’s anointed victim-hero before John Hurt supplanted him) has been apprehended by a patrol close to Calais after having strolled out of the lines wearing his battle kit in an apparent attempt to walk home. Capt. Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde) is his assigned defence in the court martial, so hastily arranged the company’s Colonel (Peter Copley), the convening officer, also has to serve as the president of the court.

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Hargreaves, a conscientious but firmly upper-class type, is initially wary of his task and dismissive of his prospective client. When he listens to Hamp’s story and absorbs his demeanour, and in spite of his misgivings, Hargreaves believes the young man guileless. Hamp is the only survivor of his entire original unit, recently received a Dear John letter from his wife, and seems to have experienced a spell of dissociation before which he was an effective soldier without a blemish on his character. In the trial proceedings held in a ramshackle dugout, Hargreaves attempts to make a case for Hamp’s suffering from incipient shell shock brought about when a mate was blown up next to him and when he himself almost drowned in a shell crater. Hargreaves takes on the blustering, contemptuous, but anxious unit doctor, Capt. O’Sullivan (Leo McKern), who holds firm to his opinion the Hamp was only suffering cold feet, and examines Hamp’s sympathetic immediate superior, Lt. Webb (Barry Foster). Meanwhile, Hamp’s unit buddies enact a mockery of the proceedings when one of them, Pvt. Sparrow (Jeremy Spencer), is bitten by a rat, prompting him and his fellows to go out, catch any old rat, and put it on trial. Hargreaves can’t mount an entirely effective defence, and the court decides to declare Hamp guilty with a recommendation for clemency. The recommendation is, however, rejected by HQ, and Hamp is sentenced to die in the morning.

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Jones’ script does little to open up the play, but Losey still stages some effective cinema in his intimate recording of the scenes. Losey begins with his camera prowling about the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with the agony of the Great War embodied in neatly stylised forms and quotes from Shakespeare. As Hamp recounts his story to Hargreaves, Losey superimposes images of blasted landscapes and the sound of omnipresent rain to inform us that the men are united by their common, despairing sense of the world just above the relatively sane, safe confines of the trenches. Later, when Hargreaves confronts the Colonel about the decision to execute a man because he “went for a walk,” Losey has the Colonel holding the centre of the room and looming large in the frame, seated and becalmed, whilst Hargreaves skirts the peripheral shadows, ducking under beams and glancing into mirrors, eyes burning accusatory as he revolves around his superior. The most strikingly visualised sequence sees Hamp’s fellow soldiers sneak into his cell. Sparrow embraces the increasingly catatonic Hamp and reassures him in fatherly fashion that there’s no shame in his upcoming fate, one most of them will certainly soon share, and then, in a moment of drunken play, the men flock around Hamp in a teasing game whilst he stumbles around with a blindfold on, evoking the icon of blind justice embodied in its most pathetic and degraded state.

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The dominant mood of the film is one of deflated necessity, infused with suppressed despair, particularly welling from Hargreaves: it’s only subtly, allusively noted that another similarity between him and Hamp is that he, too, is the only man left from an original corps of 1914 volunteers. When he grills his Colonel, accusing them all of being complicit in murder, the superior only tiredly, glibly explains the politics behind the verdict, suggesting that any such moral precepts have nothing to do with what they’re there for: nobody’s going home soon, and that point has to be unstintingly recapitulated to all and sundry. Hamp’s execution, rather than a term of imprisonment or detailing to a punishment duty, is necessitated by the fact that the unit will be returning to the front the following day, and all reluctance must be forcefully dispelled. The word “duty” is constantly spoken without any true definition, except in terms of the mutual reliance of the men. No one man can excuse himself if the others remain, and the others remain because no one man can excuse himself. The firm delineations of social power are kept well in place, for Hargreaves is, at least theoretically, friends with both the snotty prosecuting lawyer, Capt. Midgley (James Villiers), Webb, and the Colonel. And yet the film portrays the moment of psychic disintegration of such certainties: after the war, one senses, there will be no reason for any of these people to look each other in the eye again.

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The blasted mood is coolly sustained by a Larry Adler harmonica score, and the visuals beautifully captured by Denys Coop. With their aid, Losey’s maintenance of a frayed, ambivalent, unfussy tone imbues the film with a gravity and convincing rigour it wouldn’t otherwise possess. If King & Country, much lauded at the time of release, is a touch less than overwhelming now, it’s because the novelty of this type of drama has long since worn off. Looking past the fine work of the director and the actors, the material isn’t all that substantial, and finally, the underlying script is merely solid, dark dramaturgy. There’s not much layering or irony to its political cynicism, and even if free of big Stanley Kramer-esque speeches, the points are still communicated through obvious characterisations. Hamp, the garrulous, clueless victim, is too uncomplicatedly and manipulatively offered as a sympathetic sacrificial lamb, whilst his other working-class fellows are barely sketched, Brechtian shit kickers whose elemental mix of casual compassion and thoughtless cruelty is a too-convenient a way of affirming the base duality of humanity and the stalwart status of the common man. Hargreaves is a sensitive bourgeois disappointed by everyone who can’t live up to his standards (he still makes sure to berate both his Colonel and Hamp for such failures), but he’s still the automatic hero of the piece; other characters, like Webb, Midgley, and O’Sullivan, are pretty broad. Very little of substance is said or revealed about any of these people.

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Losey also had a fondness for sloppy symbolism that has also dated badly: the meaning of the mock rat trial is more than a bit hackneyed and only reiterates the obvious animalism underlying the procedural structure, and combined with the later scene when they play with Hamp, comes close to confirming accidentally the officers’ dismissal of their men as coarse, lesser beings requiring severe treatment. In many ways, the drama is rather broader and less affecting than the generic but altogether stranger The Damned, and Losey’s gift for communicating dread through elision more fully realised in the subsequent Accident (1967). The inevitable Christ imagery that collects around Hamp as he takes communion prior to being pumped full of morphine by Webb is equally one-dimensional. The desperate humanity of the soldiers, finally, feels a bit contrived.

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The film, in essence, belongs to Courtenay and Bogarde, particularly the latter: if Hamp’s a slightly too passive and muted a character for an actor of Courtenay’s innate intelligence to really wrap himself around, Bogarde is in his element as Hargreaves—haunted, angry, but dutiful and disciplined beyond a doubt. The final scene is horridly memorable as the stupefied Hamp, not finished off by the firing squad composed of his friends, who all aim away from him, topples into the mud, and Hargreaves takes on the job of delivering the final bullet, cradling the soldier like a baby and shooting him in the mouth, as if fulfilling a contract of care between the two men. Who’s getting off lightest here becomes, at last, a rather moot point. l

Standard
1920s, Silent, War

The Big Parade (1925)

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Director: King Vidor

By Roderick Heath

King Vidor deserves to be held high in the pantheon of American directors, and yet he’s never quite gained the stature he deserved in comparison with the likes of Ford, Hawks, and Wyler. Perhaps this is because his best work was more intermittent and mainly done as a young man, during the silent era. He spent much of the late 1940s and ’50s taking shoddy work for hire, ending his feature film career with his uneven adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1956) and the truly awful Solomon and Sheba (1959).

The colossal project that was The Big Parade reputedly sprang from Vidor and his desire to create movies with a longer life span than the almost instantly disposable general cinema product. His idea was shepherded to realisation by Irving Thalberg at a time when films about the Great War were largely considered box office poison. The risk paid off: The Big Parade was an event movies of the 1920s, and is still officially recorded as the highest grossing silent film ever made, making more than $22 million in its worldwide release, a colossal sum for the time. The Big Parade holds up mightily, obviously superior in terms of cinematic construction and dexterity of expression, and a testament to silent-era Hollywood’s sweeping force and openness to innovation in style and story. The film could well have helped invent the basic structure of the modern war movie, and tonal disparities aside, echoes can be seen even in a film like Full Metal Jacket (1987), particularly in the finale in which a wounded soldiers’ buddies are driven to irrational actions in the face of an unseen threat.

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Vidor’s inventive filmmaking is evident from the get-go, depicting various strata of American life called to action by cutting between construction riveter Slim (Karl Dane), bartender Bull O’Brien (Tom O’Brien), and rich layabout James Apperson (John Gilbert) at the fateful moment the U.S. declared war, announced by hooting sirens and marching revellers. Even Gilbert falls for the hypnotic spell of patriotism, which, as a title card puts it, can awaken in a heart in which it has never stirred, and joins several of his pals in the march to the recruiting office. Gilbert returns home to his plutocrat father (Hobart Bosworth), loving mother (Claire McDowell), and ludicrous brother Harry (Robert Ober). Mr. Apperson is proud of Harry, who’s putting his shoulder to the wheel by organising double shifts at their factory, and demands of his other shiftless son that he either pledge some effort to the war or get out of his house. Jim sarcastically asks if he can stay the night before clearing out. But his girlfriend Justyn (Claire Adams) excitedly lets slip the news, which he wants to keep from his worried mother, that he’s already joined up. In basic training, he’s thrust into a unit that includes Slim and Bull, and learns the ropes of soldiering alongside them.

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The first half of The Big Parade is generally played as a romantic comedy laced with serviceman humour, predicting the likes of MASH (1970) in the sardonic contrast of dutiful patriotism and filthy reality. It observes the tawdry and amusing proliferation of petty irritants, deprivations, and perils of military service, and the awakened native guile of the khaki-clad wayfarers in coping with the alienation of distance, language, and an unfamiliar and dangerous situation. Thalberg’s original hope had been to film What Price Glory?, the hit Broadway comedy-drama by Maxwell Anderson and military veteran Laurence Stallings, but the rights to that had already been purchased. Thalberg had Stallings write a new scenario for The Big Parade that has a strong resemblance to Glory. Vidor brilliantly employs Irving Berlin’s sarcastic anthem “You’re in the Army Now” as a motif for tying the early segments together; it becomes an integral part of building their esprit de corps as the recruits sing it when they march, and then its lyrics are quoted repeatedly as the company contends with a filthy bivouac in France that lacks showers and other conveniences.

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Jim soon devises a way to wash—converting an empty wine barrel into a showerhead suspended in a treetop, with the unexpected result of drawing mademoiselle Melisande (Renée Adorée), whom Apperson ran into when transporting the barrel, to entertain herself with the sight of their naked backsides. Soon, Jim’s efforts to strike up a relationship with Melisande—assigning himself to “skirt detail” as the title cards put it—draw him into her farming family’s circle of friends who gather to read letters from relations at the front. In a comic piece, Slim and Bull raid the wine cellar while Jim sits with Melisande and her friends, causing a ruckus that nearly gets Jim arrested by some MPs. Recognising that they got him into trouble they save his hide been starting an even bigger ruckus. Such hijinks could have been buffoonish if not for the intricately observed, nuanced behaviour that is one of the great pleasures of silent films, building hilarious bits of business: for example, Jim’s efforts to break apart a rock-hard cake Justyn has sent him so he can share it with his fellows or introducing Melisande to the pleasures of chewing gum.

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Moreover, The Big Parade is cunningly structured. Except for the bookend scenes stateside, the bulk of the film takes place in the course of two or three days, and the comedy and romance gives way soon enough to the grimmer tasks at hand. The film was reportedly expanded after test audiences responded enthusiastically to its fresh, romantic, antiheroic style, but no seams are apparent. The sequence in which the troops are ordered to the front, setting off a storm of frantic activity in the eye of which Jim and Melisande make their despairing goodbyes, was so instantaneously iconic that Vidor lampooned it four years later in his comedy Show People. It’s both vintage Hollywood schmaltz and a startling piece of filmmaking, alive with motion and drama in the smallest details, leaving Melisande finally alone on a desolate road, the big parade having surely gone by. Jim, Bull, and Slim ride off amongst an armada of trucks and tanks to meet their baptism of fire, first in a sniper-riddled forest, and then in a crater-riddled wasteland.

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The way the sequences build is all the more extraordinary for possessing both spectacle and gut-grabbing mystery and threat, in a vividly coherent vision of men in the midst of war. After the grandiose vision of the “big parade” itself, they march first into teeming, shadowy threat in the forest, and then into the midst of a colossal campaign, and finally, finish up lost, alone, isolated, surrounded by darkness, as if they’ve stepped off the end of the earth and ended up in hell. If Stendhal’s vision of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma has a clear cinematic counterpoint in a movie, it’s here. Pinned down by machine gunners, Slim, Bull, and Jim to draw lots to see who will go out and try to knock out one of the enemy emplacements. Slim “wins,” ventures out, and succeeds, but is riddled with bullets on his return and is left to die without a rescue attempt. Jim explodes in outrage when he and Bull are ordered to stay put, demanding “Who’s fighting this war, men or orders?” He goes to find Slim, and Bull pursues. Bull is quickly killed. Jim is wounded in the leg when he finds Slim, also already dead. Jim, flushed with hysteria and adrenalin, takes out another machine gun nest on his own, allowing the rest of the unit to spring from their foxholes and advance.

Jim awakens in hospital and hearing that Melisande’s farmhouse has been the centre of fighting, rises from his bed, sneaks out the window, dragging his crippled leg in search of her. But she’s already been shipped out with her family and other refugees, and all Jim accomplishes—revealed when he returns home—is having his leg amputated. This shocks his mother, and Vidor evokes the sprawl of her thoughts with a montage of her memories of him from infancy to manhood. This brilliant flourish underlines Vidor’s recurring fascination for cycles of mortality and internal struggles between transcendence and nihilism, essayed in works like The Crowd (1928) and Hallelujah! (1929). Vidor could also make a film as idealistic as The Citadel (1938) and as ornery as Beyond the Forest (1949) fit into this fascination, swinging from poles of mystically charged births to ignominious deaths.

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In the end, Jim’ larger quandary at home is that he’s still in love with and haunted by Melisande. But his mother knows that Justyn has fallen in love with Harry, and soon enough Jim is free to return to France and track down Melisande, who is labouring in the fields.

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The storyline no longer has any glint of originality, but The Big Parade retains force and vivacity for a great many reasons, not the least because of its uncluttered simplicity, eye-level humanism, likeable characters, and an unruly mix of then-fresh elements makes it more ambiguous in tone and meaning and less ponderously grave than All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). This contrast is acute in a scene very similar to the one in which All Quiet’s hero was stranded in a foxhole with a dying enemy soldier: where the later film goes all out to establish the common humanity, The Big Parade evokes the idea without declaration, and with a dark sense of the unimportance of that humanity in such a ferocious situation.

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Gilbert, who had been a top matinee star already for several years but for whom this was surely the peak of his career, is a poised and restrained screen presence whose charisma is nonetheless effortless (although he does give into that worst habit of silent actors, waving his arms around in declarative fashion in his climactic foxhole speech). The fate of The Big Parade’s heroes reflects the connivance of classic Hollywood’s bosses, as MGM’s conniving executives went on to help wreck Gilbert’s career and cheat Vidor out of the small fortune that would have come his way—having as he did a percentage of the profits in his contract—by talking him into taking a smaller compensation. As Vidor himself put it, “I thus spared myself from becoming a millionaire instead of a struggling young director trying to do something interesting and better with a camera.” C’est la guerre.

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