25 May 2015

To End All Wars: the Great War Still Affects Us

Despite very successful modern portrayals, the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are still popular and well-loved today. I think this is partly because of the friendship and ease between the two characters, who had complete trust in each other whatever danger they faced. Rathbone and Bruce were friends, but there was another reason for the camaraderie between them -- they were both combat veterans of what was then called The Great War. It was a hugely traumatic experience, and they didn't discuss it; but they knew.

Basil Rathbone 1916
This was something they shared with other very familiar faces. The British contingent in Hollywood suffered most; Great Britain entered the war three years before the United States. Ronald Colman was severely injured in combat, as were Claude Rains and Herbert Marshall. Leslie Howard suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, then called shell-shock. Charles Laughton was exposed to poison gas, that war's most horrific weapon. Eric Blore, Reginald Denny, and Cedric Hardwicke served on the Western Front. Director James Whale was a combat officer and a prisoner of war for more than two years. American filmmakers who saw action include director William Wellman and producer Merian C. Cooper; Randolph Scott, despite being underage, Walt Disney, and Adolph Menjou served in the Ambulance Corps. Others who served in the armed forces but were not sent overseas include Pat O'Brien, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Richard Arlen,  and George  O'Brien.

Spencer Tracy 1918
Sometimes we talk about "Hollywood stars" of the classic years as if they weren't really people. We don't want to think about how hard they worked to entertain us -- indeed, they didn't want us to think of it. It's supposed to look easy and natural. It amuses us to think of them as super-people,  happy and rich, beautiful and talented. The sailed onto the silver screen and show us exciting adventures and yearning romances.

But the 1920s and 1930s, to those who lived then, were a struggle to return to normalcy after what was the greatest social upheaval to strike western civilization -- The Great War. The War to End All Wars. And a surprising number of the artists who shaped the films of the classic era, as writers, directors, and actors, had taken part. The reason we don't know this is simple -- they didn't want to talk about it.

Charles Laughton 1917
It was called The Great War because hundreds of thousands of people -- maybe millions -- had their world-view shattered by what eventually was seen as the recklessness and futility of that conflict. Idealistic young men who enlisted in their country's armed forces eager to serve returned home infused with bitter and deep-seated anger at the sheer waste of lives, given, it seemed to them, for nothing.

It's almost impossible to imagine what life was like before the terrible scars of that war, because the change in people's expectations was permanent. The "war of attrition" that WW1 became, particularly trench warfare, led to almost unendurable conditions for men taking part. The death toll was appalling. The Battle of the Somme, from July to December 1916, resulted in one million casualties. (That's right. One Million.) Worse than that was the realization that the respected leaders who had plunged the world into war had no idea how to end it. The trust most people assumed was due to governments would be gone forever.

Walt Disney 1917
When it finally did end, and veterans returned home, for the most part they didn't want to talk about it. Fame and success didn't change that. No one who hadn't been there could possibly understand the horror, and anyone who had been there didn't want to remember.

There's no way to tell how these experiences affected the direction of popular film in the 20s and 30s; but it is surprising how few films were actually made about the war. There are some, and some great ones, but not very many. Unlike World War Two, which was usually remembered with pride (in part because of the lessons learned in the first war), World War One veterans often kept their scars, both physical and emotional, hidden. 

But they deserve respect. Look at those young faces! They did something unimaginably hard, and returned to construct new lives for themselves, and to create new beauty for all of us. 

Some interesting links: Doughboys