-Dr. Sudeshna Chakravorty
It was supposed to be “the war to end all wars” – but, of course, it didn’t. Yet World War I and its aftermath changed history in any number of ways: Empires were shattered, Communism arrived in Russia, the Nazi Party rose out of the ashes of Germany’s defeat. Nearly everyone expected the war to last a few months, but it dragged on for four years, eventually killing more than 8 million soldiers. Jay Winter, a Yale University history professor and author of Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History and Remembering War: The Great War between History and Memory in the 20th Century, calls the conflict “the first catastrophe of the 20th century”. “We’re still dealing with the consequences of it,” says Winter. It was the “first industrialized war run by states with modern communications and transportation systems. No one was safe, no one was free from war. Not so before 1914.”
And World War I helped jump-start a relatively new art form. The film industry grew when war became a mainstay of film, and war has been a mainstay ever since. The French filmmaker Marcel L’Herbier, for instance, never came near the trenches and yet felt himself “face to face with the awful reality” of war. Posted to the Army Cinematographic Service, the young L’Herbier spent each day at work during that time viewing war footage, and found his life ”turned upside down,” just as surely as if he had been in battle.
Leslie Midkiff DeBauche in his book Reel Patriotism: The Movies and World War I (Wisconsin Studies in Film), is mostly correct when he asserts that “there is a dearth of historical and critical writing linking World War I and the movies” (35). Certainly, there exists nothing comparable to the vast literature on the Second World War and film. But hundreds of movies have been made about the war, including classics like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Grand Illusion (1937) and Paths of Glory (1957). And World War I still fascinates filmmakers: Steven Spielberg’s new film, War Horse, is set during the conflict, and in 2005, Joyeux Noel, based on the true story of enemy soldiers who fraternized during an unofficial 1914 Christmas truce, was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign language film.
On a more fundamental level, to a remarkable degree, today’s American film industry retains the shape it was given by the war – which means that every movie we see is in some sense a World War I movie. During the war, many of the features that would characterize American film for several decades appeared, including the dominance of the great Hollywood studios, the star system, the national distribution agencies, and the theater chains. The First World War occurred at a time of great corporate and technological development in the film industry, changing the conditions of filmmaking, in France, Germany, Russia and the United States.
The United States’ belated entry into the bloodbath in April, 1917 meant far less casualties—only about 100,000 of the 8 million dead were American. But for the common people that was 100,000 deaths too many. The dynamic expansion of US capitalism and its increasing dependence on the global economy meant it could no longer afford to observe from the sidelines the conflicts between the great powers. But, the challenge facing the Woodrow Wilson administration actually was to selling its imperialist agenda to the general public.
Public support for the war could be garnered only by asserting that this military intervention was governed by the most pious and democratic motives. And this the US ruling elite achieved by promoting the war with assistance from a conveniently available propaganda machine: the American Film Industry. The German supreme command had initiated the consolidation of the film industry of its own nation, so that cinema might be ”put to work with the highest priority.” However, as Stuart Klawans, author of Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order, points out, the great victor of World War I in cinema, as in all else, was the United States. America was alone among the combatants, to emerge with its society and economy largely intact. The tremendous wealth, resources and economic potential still possessed by American capitalism towards the end of the war made it possible for Wilson’s Democratic administration to preach magnanimity towards those suffering overseas. One immediate consequence was Hollywood’s domination of screens around the world. It took over the markets from which France had withdrawn; it hired away (or provided refuge to) the best talent that UFA developed.
Thus, what occurred during 1917-1918 (the period of US intervention) was an aggressive pro-war, film-driven public relations campaign unlike any yet undertaken.
DeBauche argues that Hollywood’s response to the war was not a simple one and cannot be understood merely by examining the war films. The topicality of the war was only one influence on film production. The makers and distributors of film were practical patriots, who made decisions that took the war effort and morale into consideration along with artistic and corporate factors. At the time of the US entry into World War I, Paramount, Fox, Universal, Vitagraph (the basis for Warner Bros.) and the studios of Metro and Goldwyn (the nucleus of MGM) were already in full swing. But they were bound by the capabilities of the actors and directors they had under contract and were obliged to assess the preferences of audiences and to guard their positions vis-a-vis competitors.
For my discussion today, however, I have limited myself to only those films which explicitly used WWI as a backdrop. Striking, lyrical achievements were commonplace during the 1910s. This was the era of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance and Lois Weber’s The Hypocrites (both 1916). But In 1917, D. W. Griffith went to the front, having received the encouragement of Lloyd George to make a picture for the war effort. And the very fact that the director of the pacifist Intolerance could turn around and make the pro-war Hearts of the World two years later illustrates the political and economic pressures facing US filmmakers and their corporate subsidizers after 1916.
In fairness, many of the studio chiefs felt vulnerable because they were immigrants. The German president of Universal Film Manufacturing Company (later Universal Pictures), Carl Laemmle, for instance, had to work fast to dispel accusations by several British newspapers that Hollywood films were being backed by German capital. Laemmle moved quickly to distance himself from any German alliances by taking his lead from the Wilson administration. Immediately after President Wilson declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Universal announced Universal Preparedness Productions, whose offerings included serials, shorts and features with such titles as Uncle Sam at Work, The War Waif, The Birth of Patriotism and Uncle Sam’s Gun Shops. The studio scored additional propaganda points by releasing Rupert Julian’s The Kaiser, The Beast of Berlin (1918) and a satire, The Geezer of Berlin (1918).
Laemmle was only one of many moguls reaching out to the government. In early 1917, executives from Vitagraph, Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount’s official name at the time), Mutual, Fox and several trade magazines, joined Universal in sending President Wilson a telegram pledging “combined support for the defense of our country and its interests.” Personal appearances by stars were essential in promoting the war. Film stars Pickford, Chaplin and Fairbanks jointly addressed huge crowds in Manhattan to sell Liberty war bonds and subsequently toured the country individually.
The beleaguered public of the World War I years, however, could not be fooled for long. As soon as the war came to an end, the pro-war cult collapsed. Hollywood writers and directors scarred by the impact of the devastating war, responded with artistic rage. The full potential of World War I as a Hollywood subject did not become apparent until 1925, with the making of The Big Parade, produced by Irving Thalberg and directed by King Vidor (starring John Gilbert) which was the story of a bland young fool who is caught up in patriotic fervor, only to return home maimed and disillusioned but also deepened in spirit. With the coming of sound, this film’s fame was eclipsed by that of ”All Quiet on the Western Front.
But much earlier, only 27 months after the Armistice, Metro Pictures had released Rex Ingram’s harrowing masterpiece The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). That such a downbeat pacifist drama could go on to become a bigger success than Chaplin’s The Kid (which released around the same time), is a testament to public backlash against the government’s 1917-1918 propaganda campaign.
And it is this silent film, which made a star of Rudolph Valentino, that I want to focus on in some detail.
Based on the Spanish novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, it was adapted for the screen by June Mathis. The film stars Pomeroy Cannon, Josef Swickard, Bridgetta Clark, Rudolph Valentino, Wallace Beery, and Alice Terry.
Madariaga “The Centaur” (Pomeroy Cannon), a harsh but popular Argentine landowner, has a German son-in-law whom he dislikes and a French one, Marcelo Desnoyers, whose family he openly favors. He is particularly fond of his grandson Julio (played by Valentino), with whom he often carouses at seedy dives in the Boca district of Buenos Aires. In one of these bars, the movie’s famous tango sequence occurs, where Julio mesmerizes everyone with his moves and charm.(from 8 min 45 sec to 10 min 54 sec) A man and a woman are dancing the tango. Julio strides up and asks to cut in. The woman stares at Julio alluringly. The man brushes him off, and they resume dancing. Julio then challenges the man and strikes him, knocking him into some tables and out of the scene. Julio and the woman then dance a dramatic version of the tango that brings cheers from the people in the establishment. Following the dance, the woman sits on Julio’s lap. Madariaga then slides to the floor, drunk. The woman laughs at Madariaga. Julio casts her aside in scorn and helps his grandfather home.
Some time later, Madariaga dies. The extended family breaks up, one half returning to Germany and the other to France.
In Paris, Julio enjoys the life of a wastrel as a would-be artist and a ladies-man who frequents the local tea dances. He falls in love with Marguerite Laurier (Alice Terry), the unhappy and much younger wife of Etienne Laurier, a friend of Julio’s father. The affair is discovered, and Marguerite’s husband agrees to give her a divorce. It seems as though Julio and Marguerite will be able to marry, but both end up getting caught up in the Great War. Initially Marguerite comes across as an airy butterfly whose only complaint with war is that there will be no parties or pretty clothes (clip 2—54m 17s). But the irony and pathos become heightened when as the true horrors of war begin to unfold, she becomes a nurse in Lourdes. Etienne is blinded in battle and happens to end up at the hospital where she is working. Marguerite attends to him there. Julio travels to Lourdes to see Marguerite. He urges her to come away with him, but she refuses to abandon her duty towards Etienne. Julio, ashamed of his shiftless life, enlists in the French Army, even though being a foreigner he did not really have to (at 1hr 38mins).
Meanwhile, the German Army overruns Julio’s father Marcelo’s Marne Valley castle in the First Battle of the Marne. In a few brief scenes, the horror and senselessness of the whole enterprise is made clear (from 1 hr 23 min to 1 hr 25 mins). Marcelo is forced to host a German general and staff in the castle who wreck havoc in it, plundering and destroying at will. Marcelo’s German nephew is amongst the staff and tries to protect him, but Marcelo is arrested after a melee involving an officer’s assault of the housekeeper’s daughter. Marcello is to be executed in the morning, but his life is spared when the French Army counterattacks in the “Miracle of the Marne”.
Julio becomes renowned for his bravery in the trenches on the front. During a mission in no man’s land, he recognizes his German cousin. Moments later, they are both killed by a shell. This makes for a very compelling statement, by emphasizing how in war no side is ultimately righteous and truly triumphant (from 2 hrs 4 m to 2 hrs 4 m 40 secs). Back in Paris, Marguerite considers abandoning the blinded Etienne, but Julio’s ghost guides her to continue her care for him. Both families mourn for their fallen sons as the film ends.
The film is quite a straightforward, though obviously shortened, adaptation of Charlotte B. Jordan’s 1918 translation of Ibanez’s novel. Many had wanted to bring the book on celluloid, but because of the logistics, nobody actually came forward till June Mathis. The book, which was deservedly a best seller, speaks out against war in very moving prose.
As an illustration, I would like to read this passage recording Marcelo’s observations during the German invasion of his village and castle:
“[He] saw men, many men, men everywhere. They were like gray ants, marching in endless files towards the South, coming out from the woods, filling the roads, crossing the fields.”
Running across the fields with the haste of desperation were shrieking women and children. The animals had escaped from the stables, and driven forth by the flames were racing wildly across the country. The cow and the work horse were dragging their halters broken by their flight. Their flanks were smoking and smelt of burnt hair. The pigs, the sheep and the chickens were all tearing along mingled with the cats and the dogs. All the domestic animals were returning to a brute existence, fleeing from civilized man.
Desnoyers was shocked at the indifference with which these men were stalking around the burning village. They did not appear to see the fire and destruction; it was just an ordinary spectacle, not worth looking at. Ever since they had crossed the frontier, smoldering and blasted villages, fired by the advance guard, had marked their halting places on Belgian and French soil.
Again Dona Luisa, Julio’s mother’s thoughts are thus captured in the book:
“When passing through the streets, she trembled with emotion at sight of the invalid soldiers. The convalescents of energetic appearance, filled her with the greatest pity. They made her think of a certain trip with her husband to San Sebastian where a bull fight had made her cry out with indignation and compassion, pitying the fate of the poor, gored horses. With entrails hanging, they were taken to the corrals, and submitted to a hurried adjustment in order that they might return to the arena stimulated by a false energy. Again and again they were reduced to this makeshift cobbling until finally a fatal goring finished them. . . . These recently cured men continually brought to her mind those poor beasts. Some had been wounded three times since the beginning of the war, and were returning surgically patched together and re-galvanized to take another chance in the lottery of Fate, always in the expectation of the supreme blow… Ay, her son!”
The very fact that a book which spoke so harshly and plainly against war got made into a film, bears out my point that the propagandist machinery was slowly breaking down. Again the myth (which gives the movie its name), of the four horsemen of the apocalypse—Conquest, War, Pestilence and Death who plague humanity, has been used as a very obvious symbol—in the book, and even more so in the film. In Ibanez’s book, at the end of Part I, as the Russian intellectual Tchernoff, Julio, and their friend Argensola watch the French soldiers leave for battle, the inebriated Tchernoff begins a wild monologue:
“And when the sun arises in a few hours, the world will see coursing through its fields the four horsemen, enemies of mankind. . . . Already their wild steeds are pawing the ground with impatience; already the ill-omened riders have come together and are exchanging the last words before leaping into the saddle.”
In the film, the horsemen are first described in the 1st hour by Tchernoff (from 1hr 9mins), and then they continue to appear recurrently throughout the film, at particularly violent and horrifying moments, adding to the poignancy. Both the novel and the film end with these mythical figures too— when Marcelo s is at the grave of his son Julio, he realises “there was no justice; the world was ruled by blind chance,” and he has a vision of the four horsemen, threatening to trample the earth once more: “All the rest was a dream. The four horsemen were the reality. . . .”
The element of propaganda so prevalent in war movies of the time could not be totally done away with even here. (from 1hr 53min for 17 sec) Here we see how the Old World’s cry for deliverance, to a just God is said to be answered by the brothers from the New World. (That is a trend which is still on, though, isn’t it? All Hollywood disaster movies would have us believe—dinosaurs or futuristic aliens, only they are the saviours).
However, the crux of the movie’s sentiment is spoken by Tchernoff when looking at flag bearing French soldiers, singing patriotic songs—he ironically points out that in the enemy land this same jingoistic celebration is on, for they too believe they are right and that god is on their side. (from 1hr 5min for 28 secs).
This all too brief period of humanistic reflection on imperialist warfare regrettably gave way to more intense rounds of Hollywood’s political capitulation. There was a high price to pay for such capitulation. Film industry support for US government actions during World War II surpassed anything Hollywood had done during 1917 and 1918. After that war ended in 1945, the government showed its gratitude by carrying out, with studio cooperation, “anticommunist” purges from which US filmmaking has yet to recover.
Meanwhile, the fact that it touched so many millions of families; ranks WWI as a horror of the first order. And it is this horror that makes this war, and the artistic depictions of it, still relevant. The war universalized bereavement and provided a literature for people in mourning. It didn’t matter who won or lost; everyone was a survivor.
Beale, Lewis. “How World War I Affected Films.” 29 12 2011. http://www.newsobserver.com. 17 February 2015 <http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/12/29/1739020_how-world-war-i-affected-films.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy>.
DeBauche, Leslie Midkiff. Reel Patriotism: The Movies and World War I (Wisconsin Studies in Film). Madison, Wisconsin: U of Wisconsin P, 1997.
Ibáñez, Vicente Blasco. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Trans. Charlotte B. Jordan. e-book #1484. Project Gutenberg, 2006 .
Klawans, Stuart. Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1999.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Dir. Rex Ingram. Perf. Alice Terry, Rudolph Valentino. Metro Pictures. 1921.