Tag: World War One

Wings (1927)

Charles Rogers, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen are in a wartime love triangle of sorts in the first ever Best Picture winner Wings

Director: William A Wellman

Cast: Clara Bow (Mary Preston), Charles Rogers (Jack Powell), Richard Arlen (David Armstrong), Jobyna Ralston (Sylvia Lewis), El Brendel (Herman Schwipf), Richard Tucker (Air Commander), Gary Cooper (Cadet White), Gunboat Smith (Sergeant), Henry B Walthall (Mr Armstrong), Roscoe Karns (Lt Cameron)

As the first ever Best Picture winner – and the only silent winner (until The Artist almost 85 years later) – Wings will always have a place in history. Is it the greatest silent film ever made? Of course not. In fact, it’s odd looking at Wings as a ‘Best Picture’ winner: with its rollicking action sequences, odd slap-stick comedy and slightly sentimental romance, it’s far more of a crowd-pleaser than the sort of film we think of as an Oscar winner. But it’s also filmed with an invention and verve that looks light years ahead of many other early winners – and a very enjoyable piece of story-telling.

It’s the First World War and Jack Powell (Charles Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) are both rivals for the affections of the beautiful Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Sylvia actually prefers David – but both she and David are too noble to let disappoint Jack when both men enlist as pilots. Jack has also failed to notice that his delightful neighbour (literally the “girl next door”) Mary Preston (Clara Bow) is in love with him, and that she is perfect for him. Jack and David train as pilots – a dangerous profession – and head for the front and become best friends and comrades in arms. Mary follows them to serve as a nurse – but Jack is still convinced he is in love with Sylvia, completely ignorant of the fact she is engaged to David. Will these romantic problems solve themselves, while the two men fly into dog fights in the skies?

Wings is a fabulous reminder of how dynamite and dynamic Hollywood could be before the Talkies and those years of reduced camera movement to capture live sound, with more stately editing and composition that continued to hold influence over film-making for much of the next fifteen years. I loved the visual invention of this film. Wellman pushes the camera into unusual positions and uses some truly unique shots. In an early scene Wellman straps the camera to a swing David and Sylvia are sitting in. We swing and sway with the swing, in an advance feel for what it’s going to be like in the dogfights to come. When Jack runs into frame, he actually looks wild rather than the characters on the swing (fitting considering his personality).

Wings is full of invention like this. It has a hugely influential tracking shot, which zooms across a number of tables and couples in a Parisian restaurant, getting closer and closer towards and intoxicated Jack and finally zooming in on his champagne glass. This is the sort of stuff you wouldn’t see in a Hollywood movie again for decades to come.

It all carries across into the dog-fighting scenes that will come. Wellman shot the film among the skies, with cameras following the action, others strapped to the planes to capture the actors faces (who are really up there!). Clouds are frequently used to communicate the speed the planes were moving at. Hundreds of stunt and military pilots took part in these re-staged battles which are still, despite the advances since, hugely impressive. Wellman, a former WW1 pilot, even took to the skies himself briefly when a pilot fell ill. Planes swoop, dive into clouds and plummet to the ground trailing smoke. It’s all shot with a boy’s own adventure and makes for gripping action.

The film is also a realistic look at the horrors of war, something Wellman was extremely aware of. When the action gets down into the trenches it doesn’t shirk in showing the costs of warfare, close-ups and tracking shots capturing the violence and human cost. Bodies slump in death. A tank looms over the camera. There are moments of realism: a sergeant, marching along the road, nudges a resting private only to discover (as his body slumps forward) that the man is dead. At first the sergeant marches on then he turns back, salutes and gently puts out the man’s cigarette. It’s a thoughtful little moment of human reaction in a film full of them.

It sits alongside an almost Pearl Harbor-esque plotline of romantic entanglements and confusion. Charles Rogers’ Jack is an enthusiastic, passionate but almost wilfully blind, bowled along with passion for anything that takes his interest from Sylvia to flying to his friendship with David. There is something quite sweetly old-fashioned – almost a fairy tale – about David and Sylvia keeping quiet about their love, so as to give Jack something to survive for. Richard Arlen is more restrained, but gives a decent performance. There is more than a hint of the homoerotic between Jack and David, the more exhibitionist acting style of the silent movies lending itself to an idea that the real love affair here is between these two rugged pilots (who wrestle, cuddle and even kiss), but that’s probably wishful thinking. Saying that though, the film is surprisingly daring: that French restaurant clearly has gay couples among its clientele (not to mention later a brief pre-code nude scene for Clara Bow).

But it’s still a straight-laced action film, where men are men with a key sub-plot of Mary’s unrequited love for Jack. Clara Bow, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, landed top billing as Mary and you can almost feel her physical pain at her obvious devotion going unnoticed time and time again. Mary is basically a saint – and the film misses a chance to really explore her experiences as a Nurse on the Western Front – and to be honest her plot line is rather shoe-horned in to give a bit of feminine interest to an otherwise male-heavy plot.

It’s part of what makes Wings at times overlong. There is a slimmer two hour or so film about wartime flyers waiting in here, but Wellman’s film tries to do so much (war is hell, love, romance and rivals turned friends) that the run time balloons up to fit it all in. That stunning restaurant shot is part of an otherwise rather pointless extended “comic” sequence, involving Jack getting pissed and gleefully watching champagne bubbles (that fill the screen) before being saved from a French floozy by Mary, that outstays its welcome. The sequence largely exists to give Clara Bow something to do, but is neither particularly funny or memorable.

Certainly not compared to the action, or the moments of sadness and melancholia from the war. Gary Cooper, in one of his first roles, supplies a one-scene turn as an ace pilot who immediately dies in a training accident: we are never allowed to forget the dangers and loss of war. When our two heroes leave their lucky charms behind before flying out on one more mission, you know that things won’t go well. Wings ends with a tragic mistake and a sad homeward return coda where we really feel the cost of loss. It’s a film that maybe wrapped up in flag-waving heroics and daring-do, but has lots of genuine heart beneath the action. Sure, it’s overlong with a rather obvious romance, but it’s got more than a little brain among the thrills.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Lew Ayres finds war is hell in All Quiet on the Western Front

Director: Lewis Milestone

Cast: Lew Ayres (Paul Baumer), Louis Wolheim (Stanislaud Katczinsky), John Wray (Himmelstoss), Slim Summerville (Tjaden), Arnold Lucy (Professor Kantorek), Ben Alexander (Franz Kemmerich), Scott Kolk (Leer), Owen Davis Jnr (Peter), William Bakewell (Albert Kropp), Russell Gleason (Muller)

Franklin Roosevelt once said “War is young men dying and old men talking”. Perhaps no film shows that more truly than All Quiet on the Western Front. The first truly great film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, it’s a profoundly influential and unflinching look at the horrific cost of war. Specifically, it looks at how a younger generation buys into dreams of glory and destiny, only to arrive at the front lines and discover they’ve been sold a pup. A sense of glorious purpose collapses into death, mud and misery. War, it turns out, is hell.

All Quiet on the Western Front follows a company of German soldiers during the First World War, plucked from their college to lay down life and limb for the Kaiser. Their unofficial leader is Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres), an intelligent and thoughtful young man. They soon find the frontline is a world away from what they expected, and death moves through the boys like a flu. Over time Paul, with the mentorship of experienced soldier Stanislaud Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), finds his naïve view of the world torn away with each bullet and failed attack.

In many ways it was brave to make such a large-scale Hollywood epic that placed the side America had actually fought against in the sympathetic role (on the other hand, much easier to look at the losing side and say “you’re fighting for a hopeless cause”). But that makes the film’s message even stronger: it doesn’t matter about sides, war claims young men regardless. The deaths come thick and fast on the Western front – and the gains are negligent. While the boys’ Professor (a pompous Arnold Lacy) sings a familiar hymn of glory and success by Christmas, life on the front line is actually continual terror. Mud, rats, debris and the constant chance the next step you take could be your last. Shelling is non-stop and every inch of the rickety, ramshackle trenches shakes with each explosion. Never mind going over the top, just being there shreds the nerves.

When the attacks come, the film is striking in its modernism and visual invention. Milestone frequently uses intriguing angles and long tracking shots to present an uninterrupted vision of hellish conflict. The film is full of crane shots, urgent camera movements and judicious cutting. The horrors are shown clearly – at one point a soldier literally explodes while cutting through barbed wire, his hands left clinging to the wire, the rest of his body gone. Milestone intercut shots of machine guns firing an arc with the camera moving in a smooth tracking shot as men run towards it and collapse in death. The film is literally shredding its soldiers.

The debris filled, fox-hole spotted no-man’s land the film presents is hellish. It’s a literal minefield of death, with bodies charging backwards and forwards depending on the tide of battle, the camera moving alongside them. For hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches, Milestone shoots the action with a tracking crane shot above the trenches, which stretch like a jagged flesh wound in nature, overflowing with people trying desperately to kill each other. During one charge, Paul lands in a fox hole with a French soldier, who he mercilessly wounds with his bayonet – then spends a dreadful night watching him slowly die. There isn’t any glory here and attack and retreat are both equally pointless. All that really happens is the body count ticking slowly up.

Most of the company are dead well before the film hits the half-way point. After the first big attack, the company goes behind the lines for a meal. Their meal is almost denied them as it was made for a company twice the size of the one that actually reports. It’s a sign of the suffering and hardening to death, that the reaction of the survivors is joy at the unexpected double rations. Later Milestone follows the fate of a single pair of boots, in a beautifully edited sequence that constantly visually focuses on a pair of good boots, while their successive owners meet their deaths.

It’s all so different from how we started, with an Eisenstein-inspired series of cuts to cheering faces as the students sign up. The horseplay at the training camp – where they deal with an officious postman turned corporal Himmelstoss (a puffed up and preening John Wray), overly aware of his own rank and determined to rub the boys faces in it – in no way prepares them for what is to come. This is all too clear from their confused faces at the staging post, a chaos of mud, soldiers and shelling. No wonder no one at home understands what’s happening here – as Paul discovers on leave, when he is repeatedly shocked and disgusted by the casual triumphalism of old-armchair-Generals utterly ignorant of the realities at the front.

All Quiet on the Western Front is so beautifully shot and edited – you can see its influence on so many war films to come – that it’s a shame some of its dialogue and ‘acting’ scenes are now either a little too on-the-nose or overstay their welcome. There are some big themes handled in the dialogue: why are we fighting, what is the point of war, how do we live our lives when they could end at any time – but the dialogue is sometimes a little stilted. It’s also where the film reverts to something more stagey and theatrical and less cinematic and visual. It’s also a slightly overlong film – already a sign that Hollywood had a tendency to equate “important” with “long”. Most of the films’ points are well made by the first hour, and the second hour or so often repeats them.

However, those concerns are outweighed by how much there is admire. Lew Ayres is very good as the noble Paul – the film had such a profound effect on him he became a life-long pacifist, a conscientious objector in WW2 who served as a front-line medic. Louis Wolheim is superb as the rough-edged but decent and kind Kat, a senior soldier taking the new company members under his wing and teaching them nothing is more important than the next meal and no unnecessary risks.

All Quiet on the Western Front takes place in a naturalistic quiet, with no hint of music to interrupt the mood. It is an overwhelmingly powerful movie about the pointlessness and cruelty of war – and the lies that young men are told to fight it. When Paul returns to the homefront – and sees another class of boys being inspired to die for their country by his Professor – he denounces the whole thing (and is promptly branded a coward). War is a cycle that eats everyone it comes into contact with and has no logic behind it. Directed with verve and imaginative modernism by Milestone, this is a brilliant picture, one of the first sound masterpieces – and still one of the greatest war films ever made.

Paths of Glory (1957)

Kirk Douglas leads men into pointless battle in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Kirk Douglas (Colonel Dax), Ralph Meeker (Cpl Philippe Paris), Adolphe Menjou (Major General Georges Broulard), George Macready (Brigadier General Paul Mireau), Wayne Morris (Lt Roget), Richard Anderson (Major Saint-Auban), Joe Turkel (Pvt Pierre Arnaud), Timothy Carey (Pvt  Maurice Ferol), Emile Meyer (Father Duprée), Bert Freed (Sgt Boulanger), Susanne Christian (German singer)

Kubrick’s fourth film is one that often gets overlooked when running over his CV – and it’s had less cultural impact than, say, A Clockwork Orange, 2001 or The Shining – but out of all of his films (except maybe The Shining) it’s the one I’ve come back to the most often, and is certainly his first stone-cold classic. This Word War One tragedy simmers with anti-war sentiment, and it’s so beautifully made and assembled you can see its influence in films right up to 1917.

In 1916 the war is bogged down into trench warfare. Command wants results, an action they can point to, so General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) is sent by the General Staff to instruct General Mireau (George Macready) to launch an attack on a well defended German position called “the Anthill”. Mireau says any attack would be suicide – until the prospect of his promotion being directly linked to it is mentioned, at which point he becomes the attack’s most passionate advocate. Mireau passes the order onto regiment commander Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who protests that the attack is pointless, but is ordered to lead it or be relieved of his command. The attack is a costly farce, and the humiliated Mireau (with Broulard’s tacit agreement) demands a blood sacrifice – one man from each company will be placed on trial for cowardice and shot as an example for the whole French army. Dax deplores this injustice – but with the administrative meat-grinder as deadly as the one on the front, what hope does he have?

Kubrick believed passionately in the project but also needed a commercial hit in order to bolster his career. So he recruited Kirk Douglas to get the funding – Douglas took a third of the film’s budget as his salary, so it wasn’t all charity – and he rewrote the ending of the book to allow Dax to come up with a last minute solution to get the soldiers off. Douglas, to his credit, was having none of that and demanded a rewrite that restored the book’s original bleak ending. 

So it’s largely thanks to Douglas we get the shape of the film that we end up with – but it’s clear that it’s Kubrick’s genius that makes it the film it is. Actor and director were a perfect combination here, so much so that Douglas got Kubrick on board to direct Spartacus (an unhappy experience for them both). But Paths of Glory was where both actor and director were working in perfect partnership, both pushing the other to give of their very best. Dax is the perfect Douglas role – decent, intelligent, well-spoken, passionate, a natural leader, but the film undermines all this with his ineffectiveness. Each of his crusades goes wrong, and he fails at every goal he sets himself. Douglas brilliantly captures both sides of this in his generously low-key but committed performance.

He has a great framework of a film around him from Kubrick. The director uses several longs shots, extended takes and tracking shots to throw us into the world. The opening sequences at the military HQ, taking in the palatial setting of Mireau’s campaign office, have a stately construction and technical formality which then contrasts superbly with the lower angle, tracking shot-laden, POV sequences set in the trenches. Kubrick’s camera glides through these trenches, low angles seeming to make them tower over the viewer, the mud and filth only worse in the body-strewn no-man’s land that stands between the French and the Germans.

It culminates in the attack sequence, one of the greatest battle sequences ever placed on film. Following the doomed advance at a methodical pace, matching the speed of the soldiers, the camera tracks over no man’s land as explosions rend the ground and bodies are thrown to the mud under a hail of bullets. At the front is Dax, vainly blowing on his whistle and encouraging the men forward, while all around him devastation and slaughter win out. Any thought that this wasn’t a pointless enterprise from start to finish is completely dispelled, and our sympathies are completely with Dax and the soldiers, whose lives are superfluous to the ambitions of the generals.

Both generals cut appalling figures for different reasons. Mireau, played with a trumpeting, vain bombast by Macready, is a “blood and guts” soldier who never places his own blood and guts anywhere near the line. Proudly bragging about the skills of his soldiers, then furiously denouncing their cowardice, one telling shot has him in the trenches staring through binoculars at the German positions, oblivious to the wounded men filing past him. Later he orders the shelling of these very trenches in fury at their failure to advance far enough. Broulard is hardly better, Menjou’s “hail well met” bluster hiding a chilling lack of empathy.

The Germans are never seen, because the real enemies here are war itself (and we are kidding ourselves if the same thing wasn’t happening on the other side) and the authorities who push us into it. The film is almost like some sort of black satire, with the generals confidently telling their soldiers they are right behind them, before retreating several miles to the rear to watch the battle unfold. Dax is middle-management, caught between trying his best to deliver orders he knows are impossible, and protecting men he knows are doomed, and failing at both tasks.

The system demands blood sacrifices from the lowest possible rungs, so the hierarchy can reassure themselves they are not blamed (Dax’s offer to take all the blame is promptly rejected by Broulard – no question of any of the officers being at fault!), so the men are chosen by their company commanders. One is chosen by lottery (he of course is a decorated war hero, but that cuts no ice), one because he’s an “undesirable” and the third because he has witnessed his own commanding officer’s cowardice. None of them deserve it, but their guilt is “proved” in a kangaroo court that lasts less than 15 minutes, and in which Dax is barely allowed to put a defence case.

Kubrick’s film becomes a surprisingly fast (it’s less than 90 minutes) but inexorable march towards those three stakes in the ground and the firing squad. Questions of justice and courage are completely pointless – any brave acts in the film are pointless, two of the victims are cited for their courage and the most cowardly character in the film, Wayne Morris’ snivelling Lt Rouget, ends up commanding the firing squad – and the message we are left with is that the institution of war and man are the real villains here.

War has no heroes, only survivors. Victories are important to the generals only in the sense of being tools to jockey for position, and the common soldier is an expendable puppet who can be killed on a whim to fill any political reason. It’s a harsh and chilling view of the military – and leaves very little hope – but it’s superbly made and controlled by Kubrick, in a film surprisingly with more heart in it than any film he ever made before or since. It’s a film that leaks with sorrow and disgust at the victims of the military machine, a film with emotion as well as a technical marvel. It might be Kubrick’s most complete film.

1917 (2019)

George MacKay is lost in the horrors of war in Sam Mendes’ one-shot 1917

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: George MacKay (Lance Corporal Will Schofield), Dean-Charles Chapman (Lance Corporal Tom Blake), Benedict Cumberbatch (Colonel Mackenzie), Colin Firth (General Erinmore), Richard Madden (Captain Blake), Andrew Scott (Lt. Leslie), Mark Strong (Captain Smith), Claire Duburcq (Lauri), Daniel Mays (Sgt Saunders), Adrian Scarborough (Major Hepburn), Jamie Parker (Lt Richards), Michael Jibson (Lt Hutton), Richard McCabe (Colonel Collins)

No film can even begin to capture the unspeakable horror of war, and those of us who have never been in the middle of it can only imagine what it must have been like for those who have. Based on the experiences of his grandfather Alfred, Sam Mendes’ World War I story tries to immerse the viewers in the experience by staging a film designed to play out in real time, in two epic takes (actually a series of very long takes seamlessly spliced together). It’s a technical accomplishment, but also a film partly dominated by the precision of its construction rather than the emotion of its telling.

One day in April 1917, two young Lance-Corporals, brave and selfless Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and more war-weary Will Schofield (George MacKay) are tasked with a desperate mission by General Erinmore (Colin Firth). The next morning, a British regiment will walk into a trap set by German forces. Blake and Schofield must take a message through no-man’s land, cancelling the regiment’s planned attack, or 1,600 men will die – including Blake’s brother who is serving with the regiment. 

Mendes’ film is a triumph whenever it is in motion. The time-limited race to travel across miles of hostile land – through no-man’s land, booby-trapped abandoned trenches, hazardous open fields and ruined towns that have become battlegrounds – works a treat whenever our heroes are constantly moving forward. Drawing a strange inspiration from Lord of the Rings, with its quest structure and Schofield as a Samwise to Blake’s Bilbo, the film is compellingly completed with the over-the-shoulder, walking-alongside intimacy of the camera work that follows every step of this journey, that never pulls ahead or shows us something that the soldiers can’t see and keeps us nearly constantly (bar one stunning shot of a ruined town lit only by firelight and early dawn) at the level of the soldiers.

It’s an epic experience film, and Mendes’ camerawork and ingenuity in the shooting create the impression of a one-take film – some shots seem to travel at least a mile, through winding trenches, with our heroes. The effect is justified by the desire of the film to throw us into the experience of the soldiers and to create the impression that we are sharing a journey with them – and hammers home the time pressure these men are operating under as we experience everything first hand, including the only undisguised cut (and time jump) in the film. The horrors of the war are superbly shown – dead bodies, many bloated or deformed by exposure, litter the frame but tellingly bring little comment from the soldiers, demonstrating how accustomed they have become to such sights. Each frame seems covered with muddy surfaces, and sharp freezing chills. Technically it’s a marvel, and you have to admire Mendes’ ambition in even attempting such a thing. 

Perhaps, though, that is one problem with the film. You are so impressed with the showy intelligence and grace of the camera movements, the ingenuity needed to keep the camera rolling through takes lasting ten minutes or more and travelling miles at a time, that move in and around confined rooms and trenches, that you at time spend as much (if not more) time marvelling at the brilliance of the film making as you do feeling the emotion of the story. While the long takes add immeasurably to the many moments of peril, dread and terror that the characters go through (helped also by Thomas Newman’s eerily unsettling score), they also become as much about admiring the technical brilliance as they are investing in the story.

Of course, the story has been boiled down to something very simple and elemental – and it avoids many clichés you half-expect from the start. But the film itself gets slightly less interesting when the relentless march forward stops, when the characters slow down or take moments of reflection. A section in the middle of the film where the action pauses around a young French woman hiding in a bombed out French town doesn’t quite work, and has a slight air of spinning plates – you could have allowed a longer break in the single take effect to take us from one event to another. In fact you wonder if a film that had more of a time jump or had been constructed around 3-4 clear long takes with time jumps might have worked better.

This is not to criticise the two actors who embody the leads. George MacKay is superb as a soldier who experiences immense suffering and torment on a journey he is less than willing to undertake from the first, and finds himself opening up his emotions and feelings more and more as the film progresses. Dean-Charles Chapman is a good match as a slightly more naïve youngster, desperate to do the right thing and selfless in his courage. These two move on a journey that essentially sees them handed over from one big-star cameo to another (something that is sometimes a little distracting, if necessary to allow these brief appearances to have character impact) with Firth, Strong, Cumberbatch, Madden et al all delivering terrific work in a few short minutes on screen.

Mendes’ direction technically is faultless, and the style chosen really adds huge and unrepeatable visual benefits, all superbly caught by Roger Deakins’ sublimely beautiful photography. At one moment a flare is fired – and we see it arch out of shot and then repair behind us in real time as the characters move forward. At another, an aerial dogfight goes from distant to alarmingly close. The countryside recedes hauntingly as a ride is hitched from a motorised regiment. 

The single-take effect does make it far easier to relate in these moments to the soldiers. It works less well at smaller moments – and arguably could have been replaced by a more conventional style here to give even more impact to the rest – but its execution is perfect. Maybe too perfect, as it doesn’t always make room for the heart. Hollywood’s directors seem more and more drawn to the long take for the immersive, big-screen quality they carry – four of the last five Oscars have gone to directors whose films are almost entirely made up with them. But they create – as is sometimes the case with 1917 – something that is a product for the largest screen, immersive experiences that perhaps lack rewarding depth on later revisits.