The Reading

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.


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)

The Watching

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. . 


The Questions

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.