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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Germany has the Thirty Years’ War. Britain has the Somme. America has Vietnam. Israel has Lebanon. Many countries have their battles or wars that forever imprint within the minds of their populations that armed conflict is a putrid slaughterhouse where nothing is gained but a pile of bones.
Australia has Gallipoli, that peninsula on the north of the Dardanelles, guarding the way to Istanbul (or Constantinople) where so many of its young men were sent to die in the name of an island thousands of miles away from their home.
This human tragedy is chronicled in Gallipoli, the 1981 film directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson and Mark Lee. It is a film that retreads many films about World War I: that war is a pointless, bloody mess not worth fighting. It’s an understandable position, given how little it seemed to accomplish and how it set the stage for the unrestrained carnage after what Ferdinand Foch called “not a peace, but an armistice for twenty years.”
But Gallipoli does not aspire to be so grand. History is not just the story of kings and presidents and prime ministers. It is also a story of little people who have, for good reasons or bad, been thrown into the maelstrom that kings and presidents and prime ministers created.
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Germany’s World War I-era government collapsed on November 10, 1918. The armistice ending World War I quickly followed. From November 1918 through May 1919, Germany’s new civilian government fought a series of small-scale civil wars against German Communists.
Meanwhile, the victorious Allies were hammering out the terms of German surrender. They were harsh. The Allies presented those terms to German negotiators on April 29, 1919. The terms were published in Berlin on May 7, 1919. The Germans were furious, but by that time they didn’t feel that they had much choice but to sign. They signed the treaty a few hours before the deadline on June 24, 1919.
As Allied terms for Germany’s eastern borders became more apparent, some circles in Germany seriously considered going back to war, at least in the east. Cooler heads prevailed, and Germany’s border with Poland was temporarily settled through a mixture of plebiscites in some areas and small-scale wars between unofficial forces supported by the two countries in others. Germany actually didn’t do too badly in the border disputes. Some mixed areas went to Poland, but others went to Germany. Interwar Germany had quite a few Poles.
What might have happened if Germany had gone back to war?
Continue reading “What If Germany Had Returned to War in 1919?”
Many a what-if has been written about a German victory in World War II. Alternate histories of a German victory in World War I are less popular, but they exist. Indeed, people started thinking about the consequences of a German victory during the war itself and feared it might give way to a German empire spanning nearly the whole of Europe.
Here is a look at some of the maps that were produced to show the consequences of a German victory in what was at the time called simply “the Great War”.
Continue reading “What If Germany Had Won the First World War?”
Zack Snyder’s 2011 movie Sucker Punch is a bit of a mess (read our review here), but it has a very cool steampunk World War I scene in it, full of biplanes, zeppelins and undead German soldiers. You can watch parts of it on YouTube.
Continue reading “Sucker Punch Concept Art”
Battlefield 1 is a 2016 video game that takes place in a steampunk’ed World War I. There are battlecruisers, the first tanks, biplanes and zeppelins — all pretty historically accurate, from the looks of it, although these technologies were super modern at the time and not used as spectacularly as in the game.
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The golden age of the airship began around the turn of the last century, when the first Luftschiff Zeppelin — named after the German Count von Zeppelin who pioneered the construction of rigid airships — was launched.
The possibility that airships might be used in war was quickly recognized. George Griffith’s The Angel of the Revolution (1893, our review here) has airship bombing Russia’s major cities. H.G. Wells’ The War in the Air (1908) describes the obliteration of entire fleets by aerial attack.
Continue reading “Airships in War: Not So Successful in the Real World”
Referred to as Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, or Veteran’s Day, November 11 has a special meaning for dieselpunks. The “diesel era” (1920s-40s) arose out a meaningless war (World War I), saw one of the epic wars of history (World War II) and died a slow death in another meaningless war (Korean War). One could say that dieselpunk is born in blood, lives in blood and dies in blood.
Continue reading “Adversity and the Human Spirit”