The Great War on cinema

The outstanding movies that teach us almost as much about the futility of World War I as a good book

The Great War on cinema

This year the world is commemorating the centenary of World War I -- the war that prompted T. S. Eliot to write one of the greatest poems of the 20th century, The Waste Land, and provided Abdullah Hussain the backdrop for his magnum opus Udas Naslain (The Weary Generations). Apart from literary pieces, wars have usually spawned a plethora of celluloid productions.

One remembers the days when one could bunk classes to watch classics such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) starring William Holden and Alec Guinness, The Guns of Navarone (1961) with Gregory Peck and David Niven and The Great Escape (1963) with Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough in the lead roles. Those were the days when the PTV -- the sole channel led by a stalwart named Aslam Azhar -- used to telecast Weekend Cinema and Midweek Special that quenched the thirst of discerning viewers. Televangelists had still not invaded our homes.

Most of the war movies shown in the Pakistani cinemas in 1960s and 1970s had a heroic motif; portraying either daredevil heroes or military officers who could galvanise soldiers to mortal combats. Just as it took a while for the Pakistani generation growing up in 1970s and 1980s to realise that there had been a better James Bond than Roger Moore, and his name was Sean Connery; in a similar fashion it required some efforts to transcend the heroics and fathom the true meaning of war by locating and watching films that defied the glorification of war.

One fails to recall -- if ever -- a good movie on World War I was shown in Pakistani cinemas.

Talking about The Great War -- as it was dubbed by journalists and historians alike -- three outstanding movies deserve a special mention: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), La Grande Illusion (1937), and Paths of Glory (1957). These movies can teach us almost as much as a good book on the futility of war. Of the three films, Paths of Glory is arguably the best but before discussing it, a few words are in order for the first two.

All Quiet on the Western Front was directed by Lewis Milestone (1895-1980), a Jew from Moldova who was barely 35 when he gave direction to this cinematic masterpiece. Later on he would give us such classics as Of Mice and Men (1939), Ocean’s 11 (1960), and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).

Based on a novel written by Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970), a German author who had served in the Great War and had witnessed most of the events delineated in the novel All Quiet shows a group of schoolboys inspired to join up by their chauvinistic schoolmaster. The boys become victims of a patriotic fervour that throws them into the horrors of trench warfare; one by one, the boys are maimed or killed in action.

Till then, probably no other movie had portrayed the disillusionment and devastation of an entire generation of young people --the so called weary generation of Abdullah Hussain that inherited "the waste land" of T S Eliot. All Quiet -- an American movie seen from the German side -- is considered a milestone in anti-war movies particularly for its skilful use of early sound system, crane shots, music, and photography.

La Grande Illusion was directed by Jean Renoir (1894-1979) who within a span of two years would give us another classic of the French cinema -- The Rules of the Game (1939). Probably it is pertinent to mention here that his father Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 – 1919) was one of the famous Impressionist painters. La Grande Illusion focused on three French soldiers from different social classes: Jean Gabin, a prominent French actor of his time, played a working class soldier who, after attempting to escape from various German POW camps, finds himself with a middle class Jew and an aristocratic officer; the aristocrat dies and a German war widow shelters the other two.

This film is also based on a true story and without showing any battle scenes establishes a moving anti-war statement by rich exploration of class loyalties, making it one of cinema’s most enduring masterpieces.

But, as mentioned earlier, probably the most devastating attack on war mentality came in the shape of Paths of Glory directed in 1957 by Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). Born of Jewish parents, Kubrick was less than 30 when he directed this gem of a movie; his social consciousness can be gauged from the fact that almost all of his movies have a strong message for social justice and evoke loathing for war such as Spartacus (1960), Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), and Full Metal Jacket (1987).

Paths of Glory too is based on an actual incident in World War I in 1916. The incident was so foolish and lacked all concerns for human life and dignity that the French military authorities tried to hush it up to avoid embarrassment and accountability. There are two scheming generals who want their colonel -- played by Kirk Douglas (again a Jew; one wonders about the contributions Jews have made to world cinema, arts, and sciences) -- to lead his soldiers from the trenches to attack and occupy a nearby German post called Anthill. The chances are grim and the colonel tries to dissuade the generals from this futile attempt but the morons are so engrossed in their own dreams of grandeur that they order shooting of their own soldiers when some of them refuse to go over the top to a certain death.

For defying the orders, three soldiers are culled at random to be executed for cowardice after a sham court martial where the colonel tries to defend his soldiers but his pleas fall on deaf ears. The film so brilliantly portrayed the hollowness of military thinking behind the sheen of boots and uniforms that it was banned in many countries of Europe including France and in the US military theatres for some years.

That was the time when America was reeling under the pressure of McCarthyism and the aftermath of the Korean War was still felt. The bitter irony and graphic description of trench warfare presented a savage view of the officers who pretended to be oblivious of the harshness of the deaths foretold.

Those who cherish in attributing sound questions to conspiracy theories might derive some pleasure in the fact that this extraordinary anti-war movie never won a major award. It will be dubbed as ‘conspiracy theory’ if we question the merit of the Bridge on the River Kwai that in the same year won as many as eight Academy Awards including for the best picture, best actor, and best director.

Paths of Glory was not even nominated probably because it had no brave heroes that were ready to become the ‘fodder of the cannon’, so to say.

It remains, above all, a scathing and angry attack on the military mentality; it encourages us to question the concept of ‘cowardice’ and goads us into denouncing wars with ‘scapegoats’ chosen to be sacrificed at the altar of bloody failures and cynically ill-conceived wars.

The crux of the three movies lies in the virtually unbridgeable class distinction between the officers and men; while officers jockey for promotion behind the lines, soldiers are slaughtered in trenches.

The pitiless attitude of the higher military echelons to protect themselves is a phenomenon not entirely unknown to countries such as Pakistan.

The Great War on cinema