LEH 353: World War I in Film and Poetry

(Note: This class is fully on-line. Films and/or TV episodes will be provided to you in advance, as will the reading assignments, and post-film/poetry analysis questionnaires. You can learn how to access the readings and media for this class in the following sections.) 

 "The best kind of art or writing holds up a mirror to society."
– Liam Cunningham

Art has a way of succinctly capturing human society at any point in its history: the incredible cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet demonstrate that our paleolithic ancestors were actually more like us than we could have ever imagined; just as photography became omnipresent in our lives with its promise to demystify time and space, Impressionism emerged to convey our almost mystical relationship with the aesthetic essence of color and light; and the irrational urges of abstract jazz, expressionism, and beat poetry perfectly crystallized the Western world at the end of World War II, just at the beginning of the atomic age, when humanity first obtained the power to destroy itself en masse.

This course is going to explore the role of art – specifically film and poetry – in capturing and clarifying an incredibly important moment of change in human history: World War I (1914–1918). Let's first discuss film.  

Film

The First World War is aptly named: it was certainly the first war to involve nations from all over the world (Europe, Western Asia, North Africa, Great Britain, USA, Russia, Japan); it was the first war to see the use of two very new classes of weapons (chemical weapons like mustard gas, and machine-driven weapons such as planes, tanks, and – most notably – the machine gun) to deliver exponentially greater levels of carnage and human suffering; but WWI was also the first war to be ‘sold' to the public with the relatively brand new medium of motion picture film, as the various governments involved in conflict methodically produced propaganda to shape public opinion. That being the case, WWI was the first war to have actual combat filmed and distributed to the world.

Battle of the Somme - CoventryLive

Above: a scene from Battle of the Somme (1916)

And with its many firsts, WWI changed the world, its reverberations still being felt to this day. The manner in which humans not only wage but view war has never been the same. Given the massive and unnecessary death tolls of WWI, nations are understandably more skeptical about calls to engage in war. But it’s important to remember that, unlike the future wars of the 20th and 21st century, WWI began like most wars before it: the drums began to beat, the call to war rang out, and many young men gleefully joined this call to serve their respective nations honorably, as their friends and family cheered them on. You'll see this sentiment mirrored somewhat melodramatically in Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front (1931) in Module 4 of this course.

Up until World War I, wars between nations were seen as honorable and exciting adventures that made young boys into heroes. Likewise, it couldn't be argued that war often greatly increased the fortunes of the nations taking part. Leading up to the start of WWI, few questioned that this war would be any different. By the time the Archduke Ferninand was shot in the streets of Sarajevo in June of 1914, kicking off the beginning stages of war mobilization, few in Europe, Asia, or the United States had any doubts that war was already inevitable, and indeed preferable. The assassination of the Archduke was merely the spark that lit a powder keg slowly growing in the Balkan states.

But as the war raged on and atrocities unfolded that threatened to damage the resolve and willingness of the public to go along with total war, we'll see that film began to play an important role in the process of inuring them to an inhuman and intractable series of events. As young men came home horribly disfigured, damaged, and unable to speak, it was film that served to make these sacrifices somewhat more palatable.

 

Poetry

An inscripton from "For the Fallen" by Laurence Binyon on the Stirling War Memorial (Scotland)

Another form of art that has a long history in describing, responding to, and elevating war is poetry. Unlike other forms of writing, poetry’s unique musicality and radiance has had a profound effect on how humans view war as a past-time. Indeed, it has often helped to embolden us for future conflicts; in effect, poetry has allowed us to view war not as some last resort or as debasement of human life, but as a rare opportunity to achieve the kind of fame and notoriety that only heroes of the past have achieved. Poetry has made war into legend, and ordinary men into heroes.

Consider Homer:

“My doom has come upon me; let me not then die ingloriously and without a struggle, but let me first do some great thing that shall be told among men hereafter."

– from Homer’s Iliad, scroll 22

Even before the time of Homer’s epic war poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, there has been poetry dedicated to war, possibly the earliest known being the Babylonian epic of the Sumerian king, Gilgamesh (ca 2000 BCE). But the above quote from the Iliad sums up the purpose of most epic war poetry: it describes a scene where the famous Trojan soldier Hector has just thrown a spear at mighty Achilles...and missed. Having no other spear, and no friends to help him in his one-on-one battle with the greatest Greek warrior of all time, Hector realizes that he is about to die. His only wish as death approaches? To die with honor and become legendary.

This vaingloriousness is extremely common in epic war poetry, even long after the age Homer. The Mahabharata (ca. 300 BCE - 300 CE), the Aeneid (19 BCE Rome), Pharsalia (61 CE, also Rome), Shahnameh (11th century Persia), Paradise Lost (1667, England), and many others, represent succeeding touchstones of humanity’s poetic glorification and heroification or war.

As we will discover in this course, early poetry during the start and initial months of the First World War did not depart from this tradition. In fact, it is often replete with references to honor, duty, love of country, romance, and adventure. But as the war itself devolved into inhumane acts of chemical warfare, anonymous machine-gun perches mowing down thousands of young men every few minutes, the shameful bungling of military leaders, and of course the impenetrable gridlock of trench warfare, this poetry likewise becomes more critical, skeptical, and cynical.

Syllabus

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Click on the image above to download the course syllabus. 

 

Texts1

There is no textbook for this class. Rather, selected readings, watchings, and listenings will be made available to you within each of the course modules.   

 

Software Requirements and a Note On The Media

With a few exceptions, most time-based media for this class is running off of my personal server. That being the case, there are just a few things you need to know, and few steps to complete, to access this media and begin the course modules.

Plex

plex mac icon 100634511 largeI host films and episodes for you on my server using a client/server application entitled Plex. Think of it as my own personal Netflix... or Daveflix!  To access the media, you will need to download Plex, install it, and log in with user credentials. I shared a library of films with each of you via the email accounts provided in CUNYFirst (If you wish to use a different email account, please let me know and I will make the switch). You should have received an email from Plex inviting you to begin using Plex and accept the shared media (if not, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.). Once you have successfully created your account and opened the shared library – entitled "LEH 353 - WWI in Film" – you will be able to watch the media. I will be able to monitor what you’ve watched, when you’ve watched it, and how much of it you have completed...so no skipping movies or skimming thru them!

 

Getting Plex: The good news is that, because Plex is cross-platform and web-accessible, you can watch the media for this class in any browser, on your desktop, laptop, mobile device (iOS, Android), streaming device (e.g. Apple TV, Roku, Fire TV, etc), even on your gaming consoles.
Plex Accounts: As I said above, you should have received an invite email from Plex at whatever email account you have listed in CUNYFirst. Follow the instructions for this email, activate your Plex account, and download the appropriate Plex Media Player software to begin watching. I myself have Plex Media Player running on my laptop, iPhone, iPad, and my Apple TV…it’s pretty incredible.

 

A quick note about watching the media

As the films and episodes for this class are running on my own personal server, there is the possibility of server slowdowns. If everyone in the class is trying to access media at the same time, it could cause pretty considerable slowdowns. So please keep in mind that if you’re experiencing playback stuttering and buffering errors, you may want to check back later on.

 

Course Structure

This course is dedicated into four simple modules and one final project. Each module is loosely organized around a specific theme. Generally, you complete each module by doing the following:

  1. Reading from the assigned readings
  2. Watching the Assigned Media
  3. Answering Analysis Questions

A Note and Asynchronous Online Courses: This course is asynchronous, meaning you don’t need to complete the various modules on any particular schedule, and you may complete them in any order at any time before or during the course dates (i.e. June thru July 31, 2020) . You could, for example, complete three modules in one day, assuming you had nothing else to do! Or you could take three days off, doing no work at all, and then resume. As long as the movies have been viewed by you and the questionnaires have been answered before July 31, you'll be fine!

This class incorporates extensive film viewing with poetry readings and written pieces. Reflection questionnaires will be posted here on Schwittek.com and the Blackboard site, to complement the readings and film and TV episodes viewed in a given week.

 

The first module of this course will focus on the rhetoric of propaganda to sell the 'Great War' to an unwitting population. We'll begin with some readings:


Before we dive into poetry, and in preparation for watching the films in this course, begin by reading pages 1-5 in this entry for Film and Video from the International Encyclopaedia of the First World War. This excellent website is a great resource for all kinds of information about the Great War. Then you will be reading three short poems for this module: 

On Receiving News of the War (1914) By Isaac Rosenberg

Snow is a strange white word;
No ice or frost
Have asked of bud or bird
For Winter's cost.

Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know,
No man knows why.

In all men's hearts it is.
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.

Red fangs have torn His face.
God's blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.

O! ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.

(Cape Town, 1914)

 

Men Who March Away (1914) By Thomas Hardy

What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing gray,
Leaving all that here can win us;
What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away?

Is it a purblind prank, O think you,
Friend with the musing eye,
Who watch us stepping by
With doubt and dolorous sigh?
Can much pondering so hoodwink you!
Is it a purblind prank, O think you,
Friend with the musing eye?

Nay. We well see what we are doing,
Though some may not see—
Dalliers as they be—
England’s need are we;
Her distress would leave us rueing:
Nay. We well see what we are doing,
Though some may not see!

In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just,
And that braggarts must
Surely bite the dust,
Press we to the field ungrieving,
In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just.

Hence the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing gray,
Leaving all that here can win us;
Hence the faith and fire within us
Men who march away.

 

Lastly, you'll read The Soldier (1914), By Rupert Brooke. This poem carries with it a somewhat solemn distinction: it is often recited at military memorials, even to this day. This poem was written in 1914, just at the start of the war, and before many soldiers began to return their home countries, either disfigured or in body bags. Be sure to not only read the poem itself, but also the very brief article about this poem and its author.


Battle of the Somme (1916) by Geoffrey H. Malins and J.B. McDowell

(Note: You don’t need to watch the entirety of this film as, admittedly, it’s poorly edited, has zero storyline, and is therefore pretty boring to our 21st century eyes. This precise issue is actually discussed in the reading for this module. Case in point, you should watch this scene, as it is the only staged scene in the entire film, owing to the relatively lackluster appeal of actual combat footage shot by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell. There will be more discussion of this important touchstone in propaganda film at the end of this module).

This film was released about halfway through the course of WW1, as public opinion about the war was beginning to wain, and months before the US joined the war. The film contains a somewhat disconnected montage of various scenes, including infantry marches, life in the trenches, artillery teams attacking German positions, wounded British and German soldiers receiving medical treatment, war dead, and captured German equipment.

Within six weeks of its release, The Battle of the Somme was seen by some 20 million people in England alone, and it was distributed all over the world to help support the British and Allied cause. Due to its relatively anodyne treatment of a particularly devastating battle, The Battle of the Somme (the film, that is) is clearly propaganda, and one of the earliest examples employing the medium of film. That said, it is also a significant historical record of the titular Battle of the Somme, and has been used many times as a source of footage illustrating the First World War.

Bei unseren Helden an der Somme (With Our Hero’s on the Somme, 1917) – UFA

Far less popular than The Battle of the Somme was Germany’s own answer to this propaganda film, Bei unseren Helden an der Somme (With Our Hero’s on the Somme), produced by the Universum-Film-Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa), Germany’s newly organized and official propaganda office. As with The Battle of the Somme above, you are not required to watch this film in its entirety. Do make note, however, any differences in quality or tone, as this film was produced to counter the effects of The Battle of the Somme, and shore up support for the German cause.

 

The Bond (2018) by Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin made this 1918 propaganda short film with his own money to help the Liberty Loan Committee, an institution that sold war bonds. As one of the most famous personalities in the world at the time, his supports for the war was significant. It would be as if Robin Williams had come out publicly and not only supported the 2003 war in Iraq, but then produced his own film to raise money for the war (Note: Williams, though he was a staunch supporter of the troops and participated in numerous USO events, was an ardent critic of the Iraq War and former President George W Bush).

Hearts of the World (1918) by D.W. Griffith

This film was written, produced, and directed by the one of the most important filmmakers of all-time, D.W. Griffith. It is also a shameless piece of war propaganda, designed to shift America's opinion of the British cause in WWI, which was up until 2018, decidedly neutral. Aware that the British and her allies would likely not be able to defeat the Germans without help from America’s vast military complex, the British government commissioned Griffith – sort of the Michael Bay or Jon Favreau of his time – to produce a movie that would convince less discerning American audiences to join the war effort.

Although he was given unprecedented access to film in areas that even the British and allied media wasn’t allowed in, Griffith and his team wound up recreating battle scenes in Los Angeles, finding the actual front too boring. In Griffith’s own words:

"viewed as drama, the war is in some ways disappointing, everyone is hidden away in ditches. As you look out over No Man’s Land there is literally nothing that meets the eye but an aching desolation of nothingness."

Griffith eventually regretted the making of Hearts of the World, as it only served to vilify the enemy, rather than tell the truth: that the war itself was ill conceived and bungled from the start, and that millions of innocent people died for no good purpose.


After completing the film, complete the following questionnaire:

 

Before we dive into poetry, and in preparation for watching the films in this course, begin by reading pages 6 to the end of this entry for Film and Video from the International Encyclopaedia of the First World War. Continuing from the reading in Module 1, the remainder of this excellent article discusses news reels, propaganda, and even more recent films about World War I that we will be watching in this class.

As mentioned in the Course Description, there were concerted efforts on the part of the British, French, US, and other allies to make the war seem honorable, heroic, and an adventurous endeavor: in other words, to romanticize the war and digest it down into an appealing narrative that would influence young men eager to embark on the hero’s journey, or at least give them some hope of leaving their boring lives behind them and be a part of something bigger than themselves. Not surprisingly, these efforts were coupled with wide-ranging rhetoric and propaganda to make the enemy look evil and inhuman. We can see this in Module 01 with D.W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World, and also in the recruitment poster below.

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This urge to romanticize the war can also be found in some of the more notable poetry written during WWI. Let’s start with Siegfried Sassoon, who himself voluntarily joined the British Army to fight in the war, and wrote this poem still early into the war, in 1915:

Absolution (1915) By Siegfried Sassoon

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.

Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time's but a golden wind that shakes the grass.

There was an hour when we were loth to part
From life we longed to share no less than others.
Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?

From The Old Huntsman and Other Poems (1917)

Notice the positive spin Sassoon attempts to place on death, as if there were no greater honor than to die for the English cause. The line “War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,” in particular seems addressed to young, inexperienced boys looking for their entree into manhood.

Or consider this poem by then-prominent and infamously pro-war poetess Jessie Pope: 

War Girls (1915) By Jessie Pope 

There's the girl who clips your ticket for the train,
  And the girl who speeds the lift from floor to floor,
There's the girl who does a milk-round in the rain,
  And the girl who calls for orders at your door.
      Strong, sensible, and fit,
      They're out to show their grit,
    And tackle jobs with energy and knack.
      No longer caged and penned up,
      They're going to keep their end up
    Till the khaki soldier boys come marching back.

There's the motor girl who drives a heavy van,
  There's the butcher girl who brings your joint of meat,
There's the girl who cries 'All fares, please!' like a man,
  And the girl who whistles taxis up the street.
      Beneath each uniform
      Beats a heart that's soft and warm,
    Though of canny mother-wit they show no lack;
      But a solemn statement this is,
      They've no time for love and kisses
    Till the khaki soldier-boys come marching back.

Wilfred Owen, who actualy fought and was wounded in the Great War alongside Siegfried Sassoon, originally wrote and dedicated his poem Dulce et Decorum Est to "Jessie Pope etc.,” so vile did he regard her stance and writings on the war. Notably, Owen's poem, which you will listen to in Module 4, still stands as perhaps the most famous antiwar poem emerging from World War I.

Lastly, let us turn to American poet Alan Seeger who in 1914 moved from NYC's Greenwich Village to the Latin Corner of Paris, France. While living there, France declared war on Germany, at which time Seeger early joined the French Foreign Legion, believing it to be the morally correct thing to do. Seeing as Seeger was heavily influenced by the Romantic poetry movement, it shouldn't be that surprising that his poetry became increasingly enamored with death, often associating it with celebration, happiness, love, and honor. And though the US military didn't join the Allied cause in World War I until 1917, Seeger sadly died in 1916 at none other than the Battle of the Somme, discussed in Module 1.

The following poem by Alan Seeger, entitled I Have A Rendezvous With Death – a perfect example of his romantic obsession with death as an idyllic state – was written a month before his death, and is perhaps his most famous poem. John F Kennedy regarded this poem as one of his favorites and even asked his wife Jacqueline Kennedy to recite it to him often. Most recently, in 2018, French president Emmanuel Moran recently gave a speech that quoted this poem.

I Have A Rendezvous With Death (1916) by Alan Seeger

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear ...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Source: A Treasury of War Poetry (1917)


Wings (1927) by William A. Wellman

Wings poster.jpgThis film is notable because it's director, William Wellman, was himself a combat pilot during World War I. It's also notable because of the sheer number of extras and actual pilots that were hired to help rehearse and film the flying scenes. Lastly, it is perhaps most notable in the film industry as the very first picture to win the Academy Award for Best Picture at the very first Oscars in 1929, and remains the only silent film to ever receive this honor. And though it might seem tame by today's standards, Wings was incidentally one of the first widely released films to feature both a.)two men kissing and b.)nudity.

Most importantly thougn, this is an incredible war film, and it really set a standard for how future aviation-based films – especially those with dogfights – should look and feel. Films like Top Gun, Pearl Harbor, Behind Enemy Lines, The Red Baron, The Memphis Belle, Empire Of The Sun, The Dawn Patrol, and Dunkirk must each give credit to Wings due to its technical ingenuity, groundbreaking cinematography, and masteful visual storytelling.

And though this film came out almost a decade after the end of World War I, it eschews any antiwar sentiment in favor of a far more accessible romantic comedy trope: the messy love triangle. Make note of this film's relatively lighthearted tone, especially given that the decidedly antiwar All Quiet on the Western Front was released only three years later: what a difference a few years can make. (Note: We will be watching All Quiet On The Western Front in Module 4).

"Wings" can be found in the LEH 353 - WWI in Film library on Plex.

 

The Little American (1917) by Cecil B. DeMille

Cecil B. DeMille essentially made Hollywood, having rented a barn there in 1914, as opposed to nearby Edendale, another superb of Los Angeles where other studios had already found a home. There he created his first feature film, The Squaw Man (1914), which was a rousing success, thereby putting Hollywood on the map. Known for the epic nature of his films and their over-the-top action, it's perhaps no surprise that one of DeMille’s most successful and well-known WWI films was a melodramatic romance thriller that features a woman torn between both a French and a German soldier: I’m sure we can all relate. 

Though it was met with some resistance here in the States, fearing that its treatment of Germans may cause a riot, it became quite popular upon release. . 

 


After reading the above poems and watching these two films, complete the following questionnaire. You will only need to answer these questions once, commenting on – and sometimes comparing – both films in your answers. You can access the questionnaire for Module 02 in another window here.

 
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Otto Dix The Trench

Otto Dix – Der Schützengraben (The Trench) (1920-23)

As I mentioned in the course description, one of the more regrettable ‘firsts’ resulting from the First World War was the use of trench warfare. Shortly after the Allied power stopped the German march through Belgium and France at the Battle of the Marne, each party took their positions at the front and began digging the first trenches on September 15, 1914. Soldiers spent days, weeks, and even months digging 7 foot deep by about 6 feet wide trenches on the Western Front to hold off their respective enemies. These trenches stretched all along the front lines on either side of the conflict, from the northern coast of Belgium, all the way down to Alsace, a mountainous region on the border between France and Switzerland (which remained neutral in this conflict).

trench raider

If you imagine yourself to be a soldier standing in the trenches, a few hundred meters in front of you would lay the faint line of enemy trenches. Stretching out between you and the enemy laid ’No Man’s Land,' so-called because no one person or country could lay claim to it. If you entered No Man’s Land without any adequate cover, you almost certainly died. If you stuck your head above the seven feet of trench wall, you died. Enemy marksmen, perched evenly along the front, were constantly watching your trench parapet for just such an event.

Mirroring the very gridlock and obstinance of the combatant countries involved in the war, soldiers would spend days and months waiting in the trenches, going slowly insane, until they were commanded to go into No Man’s Land on perilous reconnoissance missions, or occasionally ordered to make a run at the enemy line, or: in either case, death was incredibly likely, and progress was nearly non-existent from 1914 all the way to 1918.

That said, for this module, I would really like us to consider the symbolism of 'the trench.’ In the various poems and films we’re going to watch, what is the trench a metaphor for? A division or separation? Or obstinance; boredom; A grave; a cancer; Death itself? Think about the many ways the trench is invoked here, both in the poetry and in the films.


So for the reading, I thought we would begin with a poem by Isaac Rosenberg – considered to be one of the finest 'trench poets' in England. He also died in WW1, fighting in the trenches of France. His poem below makes direct reference to life in the trenches:

Break of Day in the Trenches by Isaac Rosenberg

The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver—what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe—
Just a little white with the dust.

Source: The Norton Anthology of Poetry Third Edition (1983)

Note the reference to the poppy plant, which grew freely in the fields of France and Belgium when Spring came, in spite the war and its trenches. In fact, it was the disruption in the soil from the digging of trenches and explosion of artillery that allowed poppy plants to thrive in the soil of the Western Front, owing to their ubiquity. This is one reason why the poppy is such an enduring symbol of remembrance for World War I, especially on Armistice Day.

John McCrae makes a reference to the poppy in his famous poem, In Flanders Fields, written while he was languishing in the trenches at Ypres:

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

And lastly, Attack, again by Siegfried Sassoon. Pay careful attention to Sassoon’s tone in this poem, written much later into the war than Absolution (2015, from Module 1).

Attack (1918) by Siegfried Sassoon

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow'ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to, meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!


soliders in trench

Above: Men of the Seaforth Highlanders resting with a dog in a trench, near La Gorgue, France in August 1915

 

For the past two modules, we’ve been watching films that came out during, or within a decade of the Great War. As we know from the reading, at the start of the war, film wasn’t really all that respected, and was seen as more of a novelty that would be found at fairs or carnivals. After the war, however, film gained new respect as not only a powerful propaganda tool, but also a critical art form, capable of beauty, emotion, and expression. As the newly minted Russian ruler Vladimir Lenin said, "of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important.”

Keep in mind that the films we are going to watching for this module were made some time after the war and, therefore, the artistry of film has – in some cases – many decades to develop into its own. This is why I’m excited to present the three films for this module: they are some of the most incredible movies I’ve ever seen, period.

Note: the following three movies can be found in the LEH 353 - WWI in Film library on Plex.

 

Paths of Glory (1957) by Stanley Kubrick

If you’re anything like me, then you love Stanley Kubrick. I’m a child of the Eighties and my dad was a total nerd (which makes me a nerd), so I was raised on 2001 A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, etc. All amazing classic of cinema that are often referenced and emulated, but never quite duplicated.

paths of glory theatrical poster number one 1957 color added 2016 david lee guss

I was just like you – still in college – when Stanley Kubrick passed away. That’s when I first really started exploring his earlier films and came across the incredible – and somewhat overshadowed – Paths of Glory. Based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb, and starring the incredible Kirk Douglas, this antiwar film tells the story of a French battalion who refused to leave the trenches during an ordered attack, and the subsequent military court proceedings that followed.

During WWI, you could be court-marshalled and shot for refusing to leave the trenches when ordered to – what the French called 'cowardice in the face of the enemy.' The problem is, were you to leave the trench, you would almost certainly be shot. From the perspective of the French army, who wallowed in these trenches for four years, as wave after wave of attacks just led to more bodies being piled up with little change in the shape of the front, the war had become nonsensical and a paradoxical; the feckless military leadership remaining obstinate, uncaring, and obsessed with protecting their own careers, as they sent millions of young men to die. Aside from being a classic war film, Paths of Glory perfectly sums up this paradox, with all its frustrations and humility.

Lastly, the title of this movie, or more correctly of the book from which it was adapted, actually comes from a famous 18th century poem by Thomas Gray entitled Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751):

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th'inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

 

this dude loves his horse

War Horse (2011) by Steven Spielberg

This epic war film by the American master of epic war films, Steven Spielberg, is an emotional roller-coaster that will bring us from Devon, England, to the trenches of Flanders. It is a beautiful film, based on a novel and a play. Pay special attention to the horses in the film, as they are important symbols, in addition to being characters in and of themselves.

 

A Scene from 1917

1917 (2019) by Sam Mendes

Lastly, we’re going to watch the most recent film you’ll be watching in this course: 2019’s feat of cinematography, 2017. This amazing film follows two soldiers as they complete a very critical mission: to deliver orders to a colonel on the front line that he must call off his planned attack before it’s too late, and 1600 men are senselessly killed. The film, written, produced, and directed by Sam Mendes, was based on his grandfather’s autobiography entitled ‘Autobiography of Alfred H Mendes 1897-1991.’

The film itself makes use of a technique called ‘continuous camera,’ appearing to have been shot in just two long takes. This incredible achiecement won Roger Deakins the 2020 Oscar for Best Cinematography. Among this film’s many other awards, it also took home the 2020 Golden Globe for Best Picture.

And though the cinematography certainly sets a new standard for how war films will be shot, do pay special attention to the set design in this movie: the trenches, No Man’s Land, the German positions, and even the Northern French countryside…their accuracy, and the behavior of troop movements, is all made possible because of films like 1916’s Battle of the Somme.

Lastly, this film has received a good amount of well-deserved critique for how it, in some ways, glorifies war. Whereas Paths of Glory casts its gaze on how deeply ineffectual and self-serving those in charge were, 1917 regards that as mostly an afterthought in favor of highlighting the epic the adventure of war. Though the story itself is rooted in truth – there was a Battle of Poelcappelle, which this events in this movie preceded; during Operation Alberich, the Germans did in fact move back and shorten their line to free up their ranks for a major push elsewhere; and these events did in fact happen in 1917, shortly before the Battle of Passchendaele.

Unfortunately, that battle resulted in the deaths that range from 500,000 to 800,000 soldiers alone. This makes the heroic sparing of 1600 British soldiers admirable, but certainly does tarnish the overall picture. Herein lies that danger with inspiring epics like War Horse and 1917 – by threading dramatic narratives and epic heroism into an incredibly sad and regrettable historical event, the truth of the Great War can easily be overlooked.  


After reading the above poems and watching these two films, complete the following questionnaire. You will only need to answer these questions once, commenting on – and sometimes comparing – both films in your answers. You can access the questionnaire for Module 03 in another window here.

 

In 1918, once the Great War had ended, those countries that survived began the slow healing process that defined the period between the wars (1919–1939). During this critical time, one sentiment bubbled to the surface: the Great War was a complete and utter travesty for all those involved. It ruined Germany’s economy (which would lay the groundwork for WW2); 10 million soldiers died and some 7 million innocent civilians were murdered; and finally the worldwide movement of troops and relative lack of resources spurred on the ravages of the Spanish Flu, which killed as many people (17.4 million, per a 2018 study) as the war itself (and possibly as many as 100 million, according to a 2002 study*).

One notable example of this antiwar sentiment was the publication of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, a book that was made into one of the most memorable antiwar films of all time just two years after the relatively ambiguous Wings.

Decades later would see the release of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, the title of which comes from Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen

We’ll be exploring both the poem and these two films in this, the fourth and final module.


In Module 3, I included a stanza from Thomas Gray’s poem entitled Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751), from which the novel and subsequent film Paths of Glory each got their title. As homage to this poem, G. K. Chesterton authored the following poem in 1922, four years after the war.

Elegy in a Country Courtyard (1922) by G. K. Chesterton

The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And birds and bees of England
About the cross can roam.

But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.

And they that rule in England,

In stately conclave met,

Alas, alas for England

They have no graves as yet.

(Source: The Ballad of St. Barbara and Other Poems (1922))

And then another poem by Siegfried Sassoon, again very different than his poem Absolution (in Module 2):

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An early draft of Siegfried Sassoon’s The General

The General (1917) by Siegfried Sassoon

“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He's a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Note the rhythmic structure of this poem. Rather than employing the iambic pentameter common in English poetry since at least the 15th century, this poem is written in anapests. An anapest (or anapaest, if you’re British) is a three syllable metric structure made of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. An easy way to remember this is to look at the word ‘anapest’ itself, for it is also an a-na-PEST. It’s a similar rhythmic structure to the waltz, with is its 3/4 time signature.

Pay attention to the meter here and how it relates to the tone and meaning of the poem.

Dulce Et Decorum Est (posth. 1920) by Wilfred Owen

Lastly, read, watch, and listen to Dulce Et Decorum est by Wilfred Owen. To begin, read the text of the poem to yourself:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Owen wrote this poem while recuperating from shell-shock at the Craiglockhart War Hospital, and it stands as likely the most famous of poems ever written about WWI. The title actually comes from a stanza from an ancient poem written by the Roman poet Horace:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidoque tergo.

– from Ode III.2.13

The translation (my own) is as follows:

It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country
Death follows he who flees
It spares not the backs and limbs
of young soldiers.

See, in the Roman mind, the only true path to amassing and maintaining an empire was to be completely unafraid in the face of the enemy. Show no fear and the battle will already have been won. This attitude is precisely why the Roman army was the most organized and most feared military force in world for nearly a century. It’s the same attitude that the German, French, and British military commanders and government officials – all raised on the classic literature of the Greco-Roman world – had during WWI. That these same individuals weren’t required to fight on the front lines, and likely never visited the front themselves, makes this attitude understandable. But given that the young soldiers sent to the front in WWI had to face devastating weapons that never existed in the Roman world, such as machine guns and mustard gas, it was also despicable.

Now watch this reading of Dulce et Decorum est by Christopher Eccleston:


All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) by Lewis Milestone

Note: the following two movies can be found in the LEH 353 - WWI in Film library on Plex.

MV5BMzg2MWQ4MDEtOGZlNi00MTg0LWIwMjQtYWY5NTQwYmUzMWNmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzg2MzE2OTE. V1 Based on the novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, this film really represents the first shot in a lengthy volley of films that were critical of the Great War and the military command who pushed for four agonizing years. It is one of the most important war films ever made, and has influenced many great films in the genre. When it was released internationally in 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front was met with (nearly) universal praise. I say nearly, because there were places in the world where the film was banned… and I’ll give you one guess where.

If you said Germany, bravo!

Controlled by a nationalist party espousing war and the takeover of Europe (and presumably the whole world), Adolph Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and other members of the Nazi Party (1920 – 1945), took great umbrage with All Quiet on the Western Front, claiming it was anti-German, anti-war, and a Judenfilm, or Jewish film. Milestone was indeed Jewish by heritage, but let’s be real here: the Nazi’s blamed the Jews for ALL the evils of the world, so their antisemitic rants must always be taken for what they were: baseless fascist ramblings. Regardless, this film was also banned in Australia, Italy, and, perhaps not surprisingly, France.

Lastly, pay careful attention to the very first scene: there will be a question about it in the survey below.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) by Peter Jackson

they shall not grow old posterThis technical masterpiece by Peter Jackson was produced to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day (what we call Veterens Day here in the States). It provides an unprecedented and eye-opening look at archival footage of WWI, expertly woven with interview audio from the soldiers who fought in the war. To make this film, Jackson and his team first poured over 600 hours of archival footage and audio at the BBC and Imperial War Museum,   Then Jackson's technical team meticulously cleaned up, sharpened, colorized, and used a technique called ‘frame blending’ to take 13 fps (frames per second) footage – rather choppy by today’s standards – and interpolate extra frames into these films to create realistic and, at times, eerily lifelike motion.

As I mention at the beginning of this module, the title of this film comes, by way of a common misquote, from the fourth stanza of Binyon’s famous poem:

For the Fallen (1914) by Laurence Binyon

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

menin gate

The Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium

This fourth and most famous stanza is also known as the "Ode of Remembrance,” and it is read out each day as part of the Last Post ceremony, performed at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, where many Allied soldiers first set out for the front during the war.


 

As with any writing-intensive LEH course, you are required to complete a Culminating Research Document, which is just a fancy way of saying ‘final paper.’ Below you find the requirements for this document, an outline to follow, as well as some suggested topics.  

Please note: you are free to write this paper whenever you wish: i.e. before the course officially begins or during the course beginning and end dates. Choose one of the ideas below.

Final Paper Subjects (Choose One)

1.)The Poet

Choose one of the poets referenced on The Poetry Foundation's excellent The Poetry of World War I article to research, such as Rupert Brooke, Ford Maddox Ford, Wallace Stevens, Siegfried Sassoon, John McCrae, William Butler Yeats, Wilfred Owen... there's plenty to choose from. 

After you have researched this poet thoroughly, produce the following items in a 3-5 page paper:

  1. Introduce us to the poet: who was she/he and why should we care to learn more.
  2. Poet Biography: give us a rundown of this poet's life and work.
  3. Notable war poems: provide us with some notable poems that this poet authored in response to the Great War.
    • Analyze what makes these poems work: meter, rhythm, rhyme scheme, subject matter, authenticity, etc.
  4. Personal Experience with the war: 
    • If this poet fought in the war, tell us more about this experience. How do you think it influenced his poems, and give us examples from the poetry itself to support your claim
    • If this poet didn't fight in the war, then tell us how you think this fact influenced his or her writing? Are their poems aloof, or perhaps bizarrely authentic? Provide examples from the poetry itself to support your claim.
  5. Favorite poem by this poet and why: lastly, provide us with your favorite poem by this poet. Tell us why you like it.  

2.)Your Great War

Many of the generation of young men who were unfortunate enough to be of age when World War I broke out felt that the responsibility foisted upon them was tremendously unfair and ill-fated. For all the novel things it was known for (air battles, chemical warfare, mechanical weaponry, etc.), WWI was an explicit, traditional war, with war declarations, rules of engagement, battle lines, troop movements, training, all carefully regimented and state-sanctioned.

However, not all wars take place on battlefields with tanks, guns, and battalions of soldiers. Sometimes wars are dissipated throughout society and the violence is structural or small scale, as opposed to explicit or of on a massive scale. Therefore, these types of 'wars' are really hard to recognize when you see them. 

I'll give you an example:

Even though we're currently facing a really difficult set of challenges with pandemics, terrorism, and the resurgence of fascism, the cold hard reality is that heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, diabetes, and obesity are by far the amongst the biggest killers in American. This is due in part to our relatively sedentary lifestyles and our broken food system.  

However, we can't very well form an army of soldiers and march them out to the battlefield and shoot at saturated fats or high fructose corn syrup, can we? So how do we fight this war? By putting pressure on Congress, the USDA, and the FDA to enact and enforce measures such as crop sustainability, enrich food education, breaking up ConAgra, and prescribe fruits and vegetables instead of pharmaceuticals.

For this project idea, you will describe your generation’s "Great War." How have the people in charge foisted something wrong-headed or unfair on your generation?

For this subject idea, you will write a 3-5 page paper that covers the following items:

  1. Identify which generation you identify with.
  2. How has your generation been unfairly saddled with a massive burden that you felt you had no choice in? 
  3. Describe who is in 'command?' Who is responsible for putting this burden on you? How do they behave in response to criticism?
  4. In what ways is this 'Great War' different than the actual Great War we've just finished studying? Is your generation in a better or worse position than those who faced WWI to tackle this burden?
  5. What have you personally done to change things and address your concerns with those in command?
  6. What do you plan on doing in the future to fix the situation?

Requirements:

Contact Me

Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments at DAVID dot SCHWITTEK at LEHMAN dot CUNY dot EDU.

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