The British Army of World War I was said to have been composed of “lions led by donkeys.” Historians have recently disputed that characterization, arguing that the British general staff consisted of competent men who were out of their depth when faced with the new military technology of the day; they were experts with cavalry but novices with the machine gun. C.S. Forester’s 1936 novel The General is a story of one of the alleged donkeys.
The General follows Herbert Curzon (not the historical figure George Curzon) from his early promise as a junior officer in the Second Boer War to the upper ranks of the British Army. It is both an intimate book and also epic, if you could make a story of about twenty years such.
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War is a force that gives us meaning, and its allure can be intoxicating even as the slugfest devolves into slaughter. It usually kills plenty of men, but women are swept up in it too. In China there is the story of Hua Mulan, in England that of Sweet Polly Oliver, in France Joan of Arc, and in America Mollie Bean.
Here we shall discuss the story of Tatiana Dubinskaya, a woman who dressed as a man to fight in the tsar’s army in World War I. She wrote a semi-autobiographical novel In the Trenches, recently translated into English by Julia Lemberskiy.
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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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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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The Christmas Truces of the First World War have become the stuff of legend. The actual history is frankly poetic: men of different nationalities seeing each other as human, friends even, in what had been no man’s land, where they had slaughtered each other only the day before. It’s great kindness among great horror, a juxtaposition that has inspired great stories.
One such take is the 2005 multinational film Joyeux Noël, directed by Christian Carion. It is a film that takes its time to be humanist, no small thing in today’s cynical culture. It revolves around six characters — one French, two German, two Scottish (not English, they insist) and one Danish — from a variety of backgrounds, with officers, enlisted and civilians represented. They are representations of how total the war was, and how it affected everyone in those countries, and beyond.
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The memory of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in World War I is all too often focused around a single battle, one ignominious defeat. I refer to the Battle of Gallipoli, a botched attempt to capture Istanbul.
But men from those countries were involved in other fronts, such as Iraq and Palestine. In 2010, Jeremy Sims made a movie about Australians serving in Belgium, at the Battle of Ypres: Beneath Hill 60.
One word describes this film superbly: claustrophobic. Many scenes are set underground, deep within the sprawling trenches that pockmarked the countryside of Belgium and France during the First World War. It is a dark movie, both in content and visuals. What little light there is serves to show you mere glimpses of the people and things that drive the war; you see them only as the trenches have cast them. The effect is dehumanizing. The Australians in Beneath Hill 60 might as well have been ants.
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An Internet friend of mine likes to say that the best war movies are essentially horror movies. They thrust you into a living nightmare, one where worms and locusts feast on the shredded cadavers of former comrades. As General Sherman said, “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.”
It is no wonder then that horror movies will use the setting of such mass slaughters for their supernatural thrills. Recent examples include Overlord and Ghosts of War, both of which I have reviewed here. Leo Scherman’s 2017 film Trench 11 is another entry in the military horror subgenre.
Unlike the World War II setting of the two aforementioned films, Trench 11 takes place during World War I, that allegedly “great” war. It reminded me of a comment I saw on a video of Sabaton’s song Attack of the Dead Men, about the namesake event that defies belief but is true. It was about how strange the innovations of that miserable war must have seemed to the young men who were slaughtered in it; men flying, killing other men with bullets fired at speeds that render them invisible, riding in metallic machines, digging tunnels under the earth, and suffocating of toxic air. In that context, men rising from the dead does not seem that implausible.
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More than a century removed from Versailles, where that armistice for twenty years was signed, we in the English-speaking Atlantic world tend to think of World War I as a static conflict. This is because we are mostly presented with the Western Front in fiction, where endless rows of trenches are bombarded with tear gas and brave men and foolhardy officers who go over the top are flayed by machine guns and corroded by poison gas. (Australians and New Zealanders had different experiences.) When the men are not charging and dying, they are languishing in squalor in the mud.
Not so 1917, directed by Sam Mendes, of Skyfall and Spectre fame, and released in 2019. This is a film of rapid movement and brutal battle. It is a film that will never let you forget that these men were not eating plum and apple jam, and the sergeant does not deliver the men breakfast in bed. They were the currency used to match the price of a mile.
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Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) is widely acclaimed as perhaps the finest antiwar novel of all time. It is a book that exudes the despair and hopelessness that we commonly associate with the Great War (if any war can be “great”). It has codified how we think of the War to End All Wars (if any war can end war). It is little wonder, then, that it was adapted to film multiple times.
Here I will discuss the 1979 version produced by ITC entertainment, directed by Delbert Mann, and starring Richard Thomas and Ernest Borgnine. This is a film that absolutely succeeds in bringing Remarque’s vision to life in a manner that takes advantage of the medium of film.
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