Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, June 12, 2017

1918 in History and Wonder Woman

Over the weekend MrsDarwin and I had a chance to catch the Wonder Woman movie, which the eldest three children had already watched and enjoyed on opening weekend. I enjoyed it a good deal as superhero movies go. It's not a genre that I'm deeply into, but I do enjoy light hearted action spectaculars, and super hero movies are where a lot of that acting, directing, and writing talent are directing their energies these days.

Within the range of superhero movies I thought this was better written, acted, and directed than most. Gal Gadot is not only visually striking brings an innocence and warmth to the Diana/Wonder Woman character which really carried the movie. While Diana learns during the course of the movie that saving humanity from self destruction is not as easy as she initially thought, her idealism becomes deeper rather than jaded as she gains a clearer view of what people outside of the isolated island of the Amazons are like. There's a key way in which I think the ending could have been more interesting in that regard, rather than sticking with the traditional battle-between-gods ending of a superhero movie (in this case, literally, since the world of Wonder Woman is one in which a modified Greek pantheon actually exists) but I'll address that in the spoiler section after the break. Overall, a good movie and I'd recommend it.

One of the interesting things about this Wonder Woman is the choice to set it in 1918. The comic book character originated in 1941 and her early adventures apparently involved fighting the Nazis as well as various criminals. The movie's creators explained the decision as follows:

When Heinberg and producer Zack Snyder were first breaking down the story structure for the film, WWI was appealing for a few reasons. “It’s the first time we had an automated war,” Heinberg says. “The machine gun was a new invention. Gas was used for the first time. New horrors were unleashed every day.”
“World War I is the first time that civilization as we know it was finding its roots, but it’s not something that we really know the history of,” [director Patty Jenkins] adds. “Even the way that it was unclear who was in the right of WWI is a really interesting parallel to this time. Then you take a god with a moral compass and a moral belief system, and you drop them into this world, there are questions about women’s rights, about a mechanized war where you don’t see who you are killing. It’s such a cool time.”

It's also obvious that it was visually interesting to the film makers, letting them use a steam-punk palette blending the Edwardian and the modern that contrasts strikingly with the fantasy-Hellenic ethic of the island of the Amazons. 1918 is a year short of a hundred years ago, and as such it's edging into the mythic past of popular memory. World War II, by contrast, is still "grandpa's war" to a lot of people, and as such still has a prosaic quality to its appearance. And the Great War famously stood on the threshold of modernity. When Diana visits a department store in London, she's shown clothing that wouldn't be much out of place in the stories of Sherlock Holmes. (Actually, one of the later Holmes stories, "His Last Bow", involves Holmes catching a German agent as the war is beginning in 1914.)
And yet we also see airplanes, tanks, poison gas, and a fairly fanciful version of one of the German heavy bombers which were used in the latter part of the war.
Yet I wish that the filmmakers had incorporated a bit more of the actual historical dynamics of 1918 into the movie. It would have fit well, and perhaps even helped round out a final scene which was one of the few somewhat weak writing choices in an otherwise well done movie.

First the history:

By the spring of 1918 the major powers had been at war for nearly four years. The mobile and incredibly bloody months of fighting in 1914 had brought both sides of an exhausted standstill and the troops had dug defensive position, the trenches which are the primary visual impression that we have of World War One. During 1915-1917, both sides took turns trying to break the stalemate through building up their industrial capacity to allow attacks using hitherto undreamed of quantities of munitions, new battlefield tactics, and new weapons such as poison gas and tanks. But each new development by one side was met by new counters by the other, and so rather than the hoped-for breakthrough both sides had been forced to content themselves with waging a campaign of human and material attrition, hoping the other side would run out of men, munitions, and food first.

In 1917 two potentially game-changing things happened. Imperial Russia fell to a series of revolutions, the last of which delivered the communist Bolsheviks to power. The communist leaders negotiated a separate peace with German, taking one of the key Entente powers out of the war and giving German vast swaths of Ukraine and Poland from which to draw food. However, the United States also joined the war, declaring war on German in April 1917. While peace on the Eastern Front meant that Germany could shift many of its troops from the East to the West (potentially giving them a large enough numerical advantage to stage a war-ending offensive) the entry of the US into the war promised that over the next 1-3 years millions more troops could be added to the Entente side, shifting the balance of power distinctly in their favor.

To try to end the war before the US became a major factor, Germany staged a massive offensive on the Western Front beginning in March 1918. These smashed through the French and British lines, advancing up to thirty miles and putting Paris under serious threat of occupation for the first time since 1914. However, the battered French and British troops still had enough fight left in them to inflict massive casualties on the attacking Germans, who also suffered huge difficulties keeping their troops supplied as they advanced over the broken landscape of the Western Front. The Germans suffered nearly a million causalities during the attacks, and ended them an exhausted force. With fresh (if inexperienced) American troops pouring in, the Entente began their own offensive in August 1918 and during the next three months retook all the German gains from the spring offensives, then drove them back another fifty miles, ejecting them from virtually all of France and from parts of Belgium.

At the end of September, General Ludendorff (the quartermaster general of the Imperial Army and the right hand man of supreme commander General Hindenburg, and recrafted into a villain in the Wonder Woman movie) declared that a collapse of the line might be only hours away and the army's general staff encouraged the civilian government to seek an armistice with the Entente. The civilian government proceeded to open negotiations, but these were made slow by the fact that Wilson wanted the Kaiser to abdicate and be replaced by a fully democratic government while the British and French wanted a peace that looked a lot more like a German surrender than the high minded phrases of Wilson's fourteen points had suggested. In this sense, the British and French were simply noting what the German high command had also seen: that the German army was increasingly a beaten force. They knew they could crush the German empire militarily fairly soon if there was no armistice, and though there was eagerness to end the war (and the horrifically high casualty rates which the resumption of mobile warfare had caused) sooner if possible, they wanted to make sure that the fangs of their enemy were fully pulled if they were to lay down arms.

Throughout October the allied armies continued to advance and the negotiations continued. At the last minute, objecting to what he saw as the harsh terms of the armistice, Ludendorff changed his mind in late October and insisted the German army should fight on. However, by this time it was clear that the German Empire was in a state of near collapse and revolution. On November 8th a delegation of German officials crossed the lines to negotiate the final terms, though they were in little position to push back against allied demands. On November 9th the Kaiser abdicated and a republic was declared. At 5:00AM on November 11th, they agreed to the armistice, which was to be effective as of 11:00AM that same day (deemed to be as soon as word could be got to all positions on both sides.)

The Wonder Woman movie is set in these final days of the war and involves an attempt by the movies villains to prolong the war just as it is coming to an end. However, aside from the fact that an armistice is being discussed an a character named General Ludendorff is trying to prolong the war and achieve a German victory, the setting is more of a generic WW1 than the particular moment of fall 1918. When Wonder Woman encounters the trenches of the front line, her guide tells her that despite heavy fighting these lines have moved only inches in the last year of fighting. The negotiations for an armistice are ongoing, but in the movie world it seems to be a general agreement of both sides to stop fighting, rather than an allied victory. I think there are some interesting choices the writers could have made to incorporate more history and at the same moment strengthen a weakness of the ending.

Spoilers to follow:

One of the things I found most interesting about the writing of Wonder Woman is that Diana starts out with a naive but idealistic conviction about how she can help the world: The got Ares must be the cause of this Great War afflicting the world, and if she can defeat Ares (as the Amazons were intended by Zeus to do) then people will wake up from their madness and the suffering will end. This conviction drives her through the first three quarters of the movie, and she eventually decides that General Ludendorff (who is seeking to prolong the war and achieve a German victory with a new super poison gas) must be Ares. She at last kills him and is shocked and disillusioned to discover that the soldiers on both sides are still fighting. Killing the man she thought was Ares has not ended the war and brought back peace and love.

In a great exchange, Steve Trevor (the American spy and pilot with whom she has fallen in love) tells her that, "Maybe it's us." Perhaps those who have been fighting the war have been changed by it. Perhaps it is mankind, not Ares, that is responsible. Diana is horrified, at first too much so to want to join Trevor in his efforts to foil the Ludendorff's plot, which is still lumbering forward despite his death, to bomb London with the new poison gas.

As all this is going on, the real Ares shows up to fight a major showdown with Diana. She defeats the god and at the same time Trevor defeats Ludendorff's entirely human plot to bomb London. Ares's temptation of Diana plays to her weaknesses. He tells her that humanity is hopelessly corrupt and the only way to bring peace to earth with by wiping out humanity which has become a blight upon it. He points to the fact that people are still fighting even after she killed Ludendorff, arguing that the humans want to keep fighting. Diana rejects this line of thinking, believing that humanity is worth saving even if it is partially corrupt. However, in the wake of her defeat of Ares (and some spectacular destruction of the chemical super-weapons plant) we in some sense see her original illusion play out as German and allied soldiers both put aside their weapons and seem to wake up dazedly from the madness of war.

This seems in some sense to run counter to the important realization which Diana has earlier: that humanity can't be saved simply by getting rid of one bad guy who is corrupting them. People are prone to evil. And yet, they are also capable of love and sacrifice for others, as Steve Trevor's heroic actions at the end show.

The movie is already long at 2:21, but it doesn't feel long while you're watching it and I think there could have been an interesting twist to incorporating history into the movie. It's clearly set in November 1918 anyway, with the final showdown leading to the end of the war. Why not put a count-down aspect into the movie. The two sides were conducting negotiations to end the war from November 8th to 10th. The orders to institute the cease fire started going out at 5:00AM on the 11th. If they'd incorporated that into the movie, they could have had the Ludendorff villain racing against the clock to carry off his massive gas attack against London in time to derail the peace. You could even have a struggle briefly shown within his command structure at the secret base, with one authority wanting to put a hold on things because of the orders that have come in and Ludendorff wanting to get the attack off the ground before the "stab in the back" by the civilian government snatched defeat from the jaws of... well, continued war at any rate.

Then, instead of having the German soldiers at the base seemingly embrace peace for no other reason than that an Amazon and a god have just fought to the finish in their midst for reasons never explained to them, you could have the orders read out that the war is ending and give the German bit players a chance to show some of the greatness of soul Diana believes they can have by choosing to honor those orders early rather than closing in for the kill on the small band of main characters who have ended up in their midst.

A montage of the cease fire order making its way out across the lines, the guns going silent, etc. would also make a really powerful visual moment before the cut to the victory celebrations back in London. However ambiguous the long term legacy of the armistice, the outbreak of peace on a wide scale for actual reasons within the human world would provide a validation of Diana's faith in humanity.

1 comment:

Finicky Cat said...

Can I watch your movie instead of theirs?