A PFA series brings World War I films into focus
FILM "The First World War holds the distinction of being America's most popular conflict while it lasted, and the most hated as soon as it was over," writes Russell Merritt in the intro to his guest-curated Pacific Film Archive series "Over the Top and Into the Wire: WWI on Film." Though World War I is a much less popular cinematic subject than WWII, or even the Vietnam War, its complexities mean that the films it did inspire continue to fascinate.
The PFA series kicks off Sat/2 with Charlie Chaplin's Shoulder Arms (1918), in which the Little Tramp heads "over there" and becomes a most unlikely hero. Included in that same program are Disney short Great Guns (1927), and Winsor McCay's The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), a fiery argument in favor of America going to war, as well as one of the first animated documentaries.
"Over the Top" also includes two silent epics (D.W. Griffith's 1918 Hearts of the World, and Alexander Dovzhenko's 1929 Arsenal); three certified classics (Jean Renoir's 1937 POW saga Grand Illusion; Lewis Milestone's harrowing 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front; and Stanley Kubrick's 1957 Paths of Glory, starring an impeccably furious Kirk Douglas); and a Washington-set oddity: Gregory La Cava's 1933 Gabriel Over the White House.
I spoke with Merritt, an adjunct professor in UC Berkeley's Film and Media Studies Department, just days before the 100-year anniversary of the war's outbreak on July 28, 1914.
SF Bay Guardian How did you become interested in World War I films?
Russell Merritt For me, World War I is the event that shaped the 20th century, more than the Depression or World War II — and to see how films contributed is one of those endlessly interesting kinds of problems. They were mainly part of the war hysteria that gripped the country starting in 1917, and that in itself is of interest, because we were so opposed to the war just a few years before that, and we became even more opposed to the war after it was all over. The movies reflect that. Trying to account for these dramatic mood swings is part of the fascination.
SFBG How did you select the films in the series?
RM I tried to find both classics and some off-center ones. I suspect nobody who does a series on the First World War is going to forget All Quiet on the Western Front, Grand Illusion, or Paths of Glory, but few would think of Dovzhenko's Arsenal or Gabriel Over the White House — though those enable us to get to some hidden aspects, or lesser-known aspects, of the ways in which the war was considered.
Of the war films that were made during the war, the only two that anybody remembers are a cartoon [The Sinking of the Lusitania] and a comedy featurette [Shoulder Arms]. Meanwhile, the most popular war film made during the war, D.W. Griffith's Hearts of the World, with Lillian Gish, is all but forgotten.
SFBG World War I coincided with the early days of cinema. What bearing do you think the two had on each other?
RM In the case of Hearts of the World, it has a direct bearing. This production was unique in that Griffith is the only filmmaker — the only American filmmaker, the only fiction filmmaker — to be allowed onto battlefields, and onto the training grounds in England, to use the armies more or less as extras. It represents this great effort at trying to use motion picture fiction films as what would have been called "informational films" back then — today, we would call them war propaganda films. It reflects this fascination with movies as the latest medium with which to try to influence public opinion.