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Remembering World War I: through Cinema

By Ananya Pandey

Edited by Namitha Sadanand

This August marks the 100th anniversary of World War I, or the ‘Great War’.  Among the many media used for its commemoration, one of the most popular sources is cinema. Cinema is one such medium that reshapes history, and implants itself so strongly in our psyche that it over-powers all other methods of reconstructing history.

History has never been fact-based; the story of history is shaped by the person writing it. Generally, discourse on the World Wars has revolved around 3 basic questions: what were the reasons, course and consequences of the war. Rarelyhas there ever been a focus on the lives of the people who were actually involved in the war-the people at the grassroot level.

A very well-known World War I film, ‘All Quiet On TheWestern Front’portrays history from down below. It starts on a rather innocent note; as war is declared, a class teacher in Germany tries to stimulate the feeling of patriotism in the young hearts and is quite successful in doing so. This very scene shows the transformation of a nation, and how education comes second as people become blinded by the aura of patriotism. Gradually, the story unfolds with the rather gruesome realities of war which the young minds hadn’t quite expected. One of the most crucial scenes is when the soldiers in between their casual talks, discover the hollowness of the war, which is quite beautifully depicted. The conversation starts on a simple note: “How do they start a war?” One says,“Well,one country offends another’. Another replies by saying, “You mean there is a mountain over in Germany that gets mad at a field overin France?” .The former retaliates by saying, “One people offends another”. “Well I shouldn’t be here at all. I don’t feel offended”.They are unable to really comprehend the reason as to why the war is being fought. In my opinion, this scene very well brings out the truth of every war fought in human history- the very people involved seem to be unaware of the motives for the war.

The US Army General George S. Patton(1909-1945), very well reveals the naked truth that lies beneath the glorious war when he says, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” The film‘Paths of Glory’ brings this out bluntly. The title itself suggests a great amount of irony as war never leads to a path of glory for a country. In the film, it is rather a path of glory for General Paul Mireau, who is the protagonist; this character takes a complete U-turn, from being one who cares for the well-being of the soldiers of his division, to a power-hungry animal. In the process, many French lives are lost; 3 soldiers are court-marshalled in order to teach alesson to the rest of the division. It also shows how the war is a forgotten end, and infact becomes secondary to the plot towards the end of the movie.

Another aspect that texts generally fail to capture is how wars affect not just those involved in it, but also those related to them. The French film ‘A Very Long Engagement’ is based on this foundation. It shows how unlike most soldiers who get caught up in a bloody war, some look for alternatives. Some soldierswounded themselves to get a pass to a field hospital, but if this treachery was suspected, the sentence was death. They did so in order to get back home, to their loved ones. It very well portrays the misery of women whose husbands and lovers are caught in the war. One of the dialogue translates as, “Since the death notice, she stubbornly holds on to her intuition, like to a flimsy wire. If that wire doesn’t lead her to her lover, never mind; she can always use it as a noose.”

These films are just a miniscule part of the array of films and documentaries that deal with World WarI. Even so, they do serve the purpose of breaking down and cutting open the Great War to pieces which only remotely relate to the whole.

More important than any complex diplomatic lesson which the World Wars teach us, are the simple lessons that we learn from these films. It is the presence or absence of humanity and other human emotions which determine larger events and leave deep impacts on society. Therefore, we can remember World War I not just through what happened back then, but also through the minds it influenced, which in turn produced such beautiful cinema.

Ananya is a graduate of history from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University. Her passion lies in history and politics. She will soon be pursuing her Masters in International Relations from the London School of  Economics and Political Science. She is a true feminist at heart and loves reading about Marxism, though she never found herself inclined to any of the extremes ideologies. She is discovering herself each day and likes to extract the most out of every opportunity that comes her way.


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