In the English-speaking world, there is a consensus about how to depict the First World War in film. It is grotty. It is dark. It is miserable. It is madness. It is absolutely, positively pointless, a tragic waste of human life from which the modern world emerged. This magazine has reviewed several films like that. None of them tried to be funny about it.
The 1976 French-Ivorian coproduction Black and White in Color (originally titled La Victoire en chantant, for a famous French war song) is different. Perhaps only the country most victimized by the war could satirize it so savagely; Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick’s antiwar film, wasn’t shown in France due to backlash from veterans.
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When the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, it gave various nations a taste of freedom they hadn’t enjoyed in decades or even centuries.
One such nation was the Ukrainian People’s Republic, which existed only a few years before the Red Army came to reinstate Russian rule, this time under the hammer and sickle. It is in this brief interlude that the 2018 film Kruty 1918, directed by Aleksey Shaparev, takes place.
The film is clearly a metaphor for the Russian invasion of Ukraine in our own century. It begins and ends with a veteran of the ongoing war at a monument to the dead at the Battle of Kruty. It is a film that is in its own way deeply nationalistic, for good and for ill.
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It’s not exactly insightful to say that historical fiction, alternate history included, is obsessed with war, and there are good reasons for that. War is both common, being able to live through a lifetime without ever directly experiencing combat is a privilege that most of humanity didn’t have, and incredibly dramatic, nations and ideals can fall and rise based on a single gunshot.
But every genre needs variety. If all alternate-history stories are war stories, then the genre can appear, as Arturo Serrano put it, as of only interest to war gamers. All about tanks and bullets with little interest in the cultures and societies that wars defended, formed and destroyed.
This article, while originally written before our panel discussion on “Guns or Butter,” will go out sandwiched on either side by that discussion which was about the question, “What has alternate history lost by focusing on military fiction instead?”
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As an American, I remember being surprised to learn how impactful Westerns have been outside my homeland. It’s a genre that is quintessentially based on American history, but one that has gained currency abroad, particularly in Italy. Quasi-Westerns have also been made in Australia, China and South Africa.
Here I’d like to discuss a “Red Western”: Vladimir Motyl’s 1970 White Sun in the Desert. It’s a film much like American Westerns, but set in what is now Turkmenistan during the Russian Civil War.
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Our image of the First World War is dominated by Europeans and their descendants. Trench warfare, as portrayed in books like All Quiet on the Western Front, is shown as fought by Americans, British, French and Germans.
Those European countries, however, were also imperial powers, with many subject peoples made to contribute thousands of men to the war effort. One recent novel does not overlook them: David Diop’s At Night All Blood Is Black, translated into English by Anna Moschovakis.
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Matthew Yglesias is worth reading for his political commentary but occasionally dabbles in (alternate) history as well. This week, he has a neat little alternate history in which Franz Ferdinand survives an assassination attempt in Sarajevo in 1914 and turns the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a liberal democracy.
Franz Ferdinand was a liberal who wanted to transform his empire into something of a federation. The Compromise of 1867 had given the Hungarians autonomy, but not the Croats, Czechs and other peoples of the Dual Monarchy.
Franz Ferdinand had less sympathy for the Hungarians, which actually works out in favor of the liberal outcome Yglesias envisages. Too strong a Hungary could have dominated a federation. What it needs to survive is balance.
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Americans have a love, perhaps an obsession, with the Irish that sometimes goes to the point of irritating the actual Irish (the term “plastic paddy” exists for a reason). Some of it is that Irish revolutionary writing, especially their songs, are in a language Americans can understand. More is due to the influence of Irish migrants who traveled across the Atlantic, some fleeing the Great Famine, to escape British oppression.
It is that history, of the Irish in America, that James D. Nealon, former American ambassador to Honduras, plays with in his novel Confederacy of Fenians. It involves an old and honored alternate-history scenario, of the British intervening in the American Civil War, and adds an Irish twist to it. His point of divergence is that the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish revolutionary group among immigrants in America, has Irish troops in the Union Army defect to the British in hopes that doing so will encourage the British to grant Ireland home rule.
The historically informed reader will notice a number of issues here.
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People have been telling stories about strange and tempting things in the sea since at least the ancient Greeks. Do not Scylla and Charybdis count? In the age of sail, they became stories of krakens and mermaids. Even now, in an age of satellites that have mapped the entirety of the world’s oceans, tales of the sea are enrapturing to us, as the success of Pirates of the Caribbean and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World show.
E.C. Ambrose has written a short novel which is another take on those legends: The King of Next Week.
It is the 1860s, after the end of the American Civil War. A merchant ship under the command of Matthew Percy loaded with ice stops briefly on an island somewhere near the coast of Morocco. He and his crew expect it to be empty, but they find that it is inhabited by jinn, the creatures of Islamic legend. The captain falls in love with one of these jinn, who he ends up marrying within a day of landing.
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Few actions of the British Army are more infamous than the Charge of the Light Brigade, a doomed attack on the wrong Russian artillery emplacement during the Battle of Balaclava of the Crimean War. For the men under the command of Louis Nolan, it was “theirs but to do and die,” to quote Alfred Tennyson’s famous poem. It is an example of what the rich and powerful do to the poor and powerless in war: the former command and negotiate, the latter die ingloriously.
Tony Richardson brought this contrast to the silver screen in 1968 with his film The Charge of the Light Brigade. Befitting its time — it was made at a time of rising anger over America’s savage war in Vietnam — it is a bleak, cynical movie, similar to Peter Watkins’ 1964 Culloden and John Guillermin’s 1969 The Bridge at Remagen.
Britain at the time of the Crimean War is a country obsessed with class. This is made excruciatingly clear in the film, as it follows Nolan (David Hemmings) navigate the arcane structures of the British Army. He is the rare officer who earned his commission in India, rather than having bought it. (This was before the Cardwell Reforms of 1874, which abolished the sale of commissions.) Despite this, he is snubbed again and again and again, for reasons that are silly at best and incomprehensible at worst.
When it gets to the fateful battle at Balaclava, it is perhaps too peaceful. The battlefield is a simple valley between hills, with the Russians only visible in parts. That battle isn’t thrilling. Nolan dies, and it cuts away to his superiors. There is a distance to the fight that makes you think of it in a manner not unlike those noblemen, until you remember how horrible the thing really is.
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The most known example of handing out white feathers to those accused of cowardice was during the First World War, when British men who didn’t enlist were handed the plumes by women who supported the war effort. The tradition, however, is older. It has its roots in the eighteenth century.
In 1902, A.E.W. Mason wrote his novel The Four Feathers about a man who does not want to fight but is made to by his compatriots. It is a novel about what war does to the unwilling and the nature of societal pressure.
Harry Feversham never wanted to be in the British Army. This is inconvenient for him, for he is from a military family. He serves unhappily for a time, then resigns his commission. Unfortunately for him, it is a day before the British Army is deployed to Sudan. Three of his friends send him a white feather each, and a fourth comes from his fiancée, who breaks off the engagement. To restore his honor, Harry disguises himself to go to Sudan to prove himself worthy.
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