The Great War as seen by popular culture
This Sunday those Canadians who have served in the armed forces will pay tribute to their fallen comrades in arms. The occasion will have a particular resonance this year as well: it is a century since the end of World War I, the armistice ending all hostilities “at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” The Great War, as it was then called or “the war to end all wars,” which in fact it didn’t. However, it marked instead the end of what Europeans called “La Belle Époque,” the period of relative peace and prosperity, between the end of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the beginning of the 1914 conflict. During that period new forms of spreading cultural products were born: in 1895 “The New York World” owned by Joseph Pulitzer started publishing “The Yellow Kid,” created by Richard Outcault, the first comic strip as a regular feature in a newspaper. In 1896, the first movie was shown by the Lumière brothers in Paris, marking the beginning of cinema, which in turn would become a mass phenomenon just at the time when the European countries started to deploy their troops for combat.
Unlike World War II that became a popular subject for comic strip writers and artists, the First World War was not much documented in this pop culture form until much later. According to a BBC essay, at least in Britain “No-one had really done the First World War before writer Pat Mills, and artist Joe Colquhoun did ‘Charley’s War.’ “Battle,” a British comic published in the 1970s and 80s, carried the anti-war strip.”
The film industry was more prolific in portraying the Great War subject. In fact, this was the first major conflict documented on celluloid. A few feature films were also made on this war, one of them was Charlie Chaplin’s “Shoulder Arms” (1918) set in France in the middle of the trench war. It has the funny tone of Chaplin’s movies, but at the same time, more subtly, it reveals some of the darkest and cruelest aspects of the conflict.
Of the films made after and on the subject of that war, I should mention “King and Country” (1964) directed by Joseph Losey. This is a film that illustrates the absurdity of the war by working on the corresponding absurdity of the situation in which the protagonist is involved: a private who after being the only survivor of his original company, decides to leave the war and return home. Simply he was tired of the conflict, the noise, and the death of his comrades. He would be arrested for desertion and court-martialed.
And then television made significant inroads into the subject of the First World War. Here there are many examples, but I would distinguish that ambivalent British humour by naming Blackadder. The series set during the Great War is one of the best black comedies of all times, and again, it conveys a sense of the war’s darkness and absurdity. Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) commands a small company isolated in the trenches, their commander (Stephen Fry) however enjoys a quiet time far from the front. The last episode of the series when the company is ordered to leave the trenches and attack –knowing what awaits to them– is one of the most eloquent commentaries on the war, and the social inequities involved in the soldiers’ lives too.
Yes, the Great War was also a great tragedy. Popular culture, carried its message to the masses, both, the remarkable acts of heroism and duty, but also, sometimes in an ironic way, all its misery, including the uncomfortable question of who sent these young men to die and why.
Feature image: Pat Mills and artist Joe Colquhoun did “Charley’s War” in the 1970s –World War I in a British comic strip