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.  


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.



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.


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Click on the image above to download the course syllabus. 



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 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.