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

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Great War -- Out of Modern Memory

MrsDarwin and I have become quite curious to see Flyboys. The Great War and aviation have always been interests of mine, and since the great accusations I've seen leveled against it so far are essentially "sure it's well made and great looking, but it's just some sweet innocent movie that could have been made 50 years ago" I've become more interested in it rather than less.

To whit, I was reading an article about the making of the movie in Friday's WSJ, where it was said:

Another thing militating against World War I movies is that few people are still alive with first-hand memories of the war, and it isn't a big part of public consciousness. "Even among people who live and breathe aviation, there are very few who can tell you much about the planes or the flying experiences of World War I," said Jay Miller, an Arlington, Texas, aviation author.
I don't know that this is actually one of the things that the authors was thinking of, but it seems to me that the greatest difficulty for any modern author writing about the Great War is that the world changed so much during the course of the war, that it's very difficult to portray how it was that people went into the war. Films like All Quiet On The Western Front and Paths of Glory view the war so much through the lens of what it did to the world, that they tell us little about how the world got itself into such a place.

Change is always the driver of drama, and thus the change that turned the Edwardian world into the nightmare of the trenches seems like the most interesting story about World War I. And yet, to our modern post-Great-War eyes, the Edwardian era is far more alien than the 20s and 30s. The Great War created sea change in Western Civilization, and it is only with a certain degree of effort that we can push ourselves back into the mentality of a world that had never yet entered a World War.


Anonymous said...

I am reminded of the Flander & Swan song about World War I and excerpt of which is below:

"There were the wars against all those Louis,
There were Caesar's wars in Gaul,
The was Britain's war in Suez, which wasn't a war at all,
There was the war of the Spanish succession,
Many other wars in between,
But they none of them made an impression like the war of 14-18,
They didn't make the same inpression as the war of 14-18.

. . .

"Every war has it's own attraction from total war to border rage,
Call it rebellion, police action,
War of containment or crusade,
I don't underrate the late war we see so often on the screen,
But that wasn't the really great war like the war of 14-18,
No, the late war wasn't the great war like the war of 14-18."

The contrast of the subject matter with the bouncy tinkly music is disorienting. The complete lyrics are here:

I guess World War II gets all the big press because of Hitler, etc. But without disparaging the gravity of WWII's atrocities, I can't help thinking that WWI was greater in the sense of how it changed the world and the people who fought in the trenches. I think you're right that Edwardian society is somewhat alien to the average modern mind.

Fidei Defensor said...

I remember last year watching a French TV station and there was a parade on featuring a car of World War I veterens, anyone who fught in the war would hav to be over 100 years old now.

In 2003 I recall reading about the death of the last WWI fighter piliot, a Canadian man. I think my dad knew a few veterns of the Great War into the mid 1990's.

It can't be long until the last World War I vetern passes on, I wonder if the world will even notice?

As for Flyboys, I do not share your excitment. I have a feeling this movie is going to play very fast and lose with the history, ala Heath Fletcher in "A Knight's Tale."

Anonymous said...

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth at the Royal Air Force Museum this summer when this trailer was shown in our office... and not just because there was an Inexplicably Mean British Guy in it. It seems they share a complaint with most of the classicists I come into contact with: why make implausible stuff up when the real thing is so cool already?

Darwin said...

It seems they share a complaint with most of the classicists I come into contact with: why make implausible stuff up when the real thing is so cool already?

Ah, too true... (And I'm guessing this was the zeplin explosion that was triggering that most of all? Definately a bad call...)

That has been my consistent disappointment with all 18th century sea battle movies. You get the incredible silliness of things like Cut-throat Island and Pirates of the Caribean (and not nearly as much good stuff as one could have wished in Master and Commander) when real ship to ship combat in the Napolianic period was so much more interesting than anything they've come up with in hollywood.

I guess we'll have to see. I'd heard a couple people say that Flyboys was mostly good rather than silly, and that its heart was in the right place. I'd be disappointed to find out to the contrary.

Darwin said...

After a bit of hunting around, I found a blogger who seems to know a bit about WWI air combat who's seen the film. Verdict: mostly good but with a few definate liberties.

Definately an interesting read.

Anonymous said...

A movie with airplanes and a war? Count me in, unless there is a sappy romantic twist to it a la Top Gun or Pearl Harbor. Some history to boot should make it quite enjoyable.

Rick Lugari said...

Amen, Big Tex.

Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

The trailer has sucked me in, and I will be catching this movie.

I know from too many movies about the middle ages not to expect historical accuracy, but the special effects look un-missable!

Unknown said...

Two of the most popular writers in English of the 20th century were Great War vets - J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Neither was very articulate about the war itself though...
Tolkien said that the Shire was based, to a certain extent, on his memories of living in the Edwardian-era English countryside as a child.
Has anyone here read "Tolkien and the Great War" ? It's an interesting look at the Professor's early life, concentrating on his time in the trenches.

Darwin said...

Indeed, I read the book and strongly agree with your recommendation.

Another interesting element of the book, for those interested in the period and its literature, is reading Tolkien's critiques of the war poetry made popular by Sigfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. While I admire both poet's work, I realized Tolkien had a good point that their poetry tends to cast the soldiers strictly in a passive light -- making them victims of the situation.

Vitae Scrutator said...

I'm not sure I fully agree with the WSJ's assessment of things here. Nobody's left who lived through the Civil War, and yet Civil War Buffs and Civil War Reenactors abound. WWI, as another commenter pointed out, is overshadowed to a certain extent by WWII, but I've seen some professional historians who suggest that the two wars were really just the endpoints of a much longer conflict, something like the Thirty Years War, where skirmishes and major battles were punctuated by long periods of relative peace. Perhaps WWI and WWII should be classified as the opening and closing acts of The Second Thirty Years' War? Or we could include the Cold War, and call it The Eighty Years' War. If we include the War on Terror as part of this long trend, we'd have to call it The Second Hundred Years' War. The principle difficulty would lie in trying to determine what specific chain of historical events really unites the long line of seemingly disparate military conflicts.

Anonymous said...

Though it doesn't have airplanes in it, I recommend Massie's Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War as a place with a good feel for both the Victorian and Edwardian worlds.