Friday, 18 Jan 2019

Recollections of World War I was fading away, but books, movies and TV

One hundred years ago this month, the guns finally fell silent over Flanders and the powers of Europe declared an armistice to end the First World War. This solemn occasion is remembered with two minutes of silence, a practice begun in South Africa. It's a Frenchwoman, Anna Guérin, and American Professor Michael Moina, who is always on the job.

In Canada, we repeat the words of John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields": "If ye break faith with us who die. . . "

But a century later, we have no one left who was there. Florence Green, the last World War I veteran, died in 2012; Claude Choules, the last fight veteran, in 2011; and Harry Patch, the last fight in the trenches, in 2009. All we have left the dry, impersonal facts of history class – the decay of the balance of powers and an assassinated archduke. Absent those who were there, is it inevitable that we break faith with them?

We turn to literature for that emotional connection, and World War I left a wealth of literary legacy in the verse of the war poets. From Rupert Brooke, we had dreams of noble sacrifice; from Wilfred Owen, the bitterness of suffering; from Alan Seeger, a number of expectations of the inevitable; from Siegfried Sassoon, the continuing struggle of haunted minds; from many other voices, many other perspectives.

In prose, we had Hemingway and Note.

In the decades immediately after the war, these voices gave powerful witness to their experiences. They made a face on the statistics and made tragedies of them. But serious literature turns over time, we need to know, rather than something we wanted to know.

And as Armistice Day became the Veterans Day in the United States, later wars overshadowed our relationship with World War I, nowhere more than in film and television. Great war movies tend to be Great War movies. Instead, our popular war stories: "The Great Escape," "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Band of Brothers," to name just a few. Their characters impress themselves and their experiences on our consciousness. We feel that we know this war because we know Private Ryan and Major Winters. It's a broader and more deeply felt than we do with World War I.

But distance read enchantment, they say, and perspective, too. Today, a resurgence of storytelling in books, television and movies has brought up the torch, bringing to life again the themes of World War I and its impact on soldiers and civilians.

Last year's "Wonder Woman" surprised by first World War rather than the Second. Doing so abandoned the "good vs. evil "narrative common to World War II stories in favor of an exploration, through the eyes of the underdog Diana, of humanity's capacity for evil. World War I left an estimated 10 million military personnel dead and 21 million wounded. Related civil deaths were estimated at another 10 million. The use of mustard gas and other poison gases would be considered a war crime today. None of this can be justified by a worthy or ugly at the door of a conveniently villainous "other."

But the World War I is about the aftermath of the hostilities. I'm in the mood for something new I'm going to have a glamorous world of postwar London. The marks of war have been raised on these faces with trembling hands.

Steven Knight's "Peaky Blinders." Here, too, we see the lingering effects of the war, including shell shock, which might be described as an extreme form of post-traumatic stress disorder. About 80,000 cases of shell shock were handled by the British army, which were performed for desertion. The facts come alive when – minutes into the pilot – a shell-shocked man explodes into a bar like an artillery shell. It is only because of their shared military experience that the protagonist series, Tommy Shelby, is able to calm the man, a connection that draws out compassion from Tommy's hardened criminal soul.

The German television series "Babylon Berlin," based on novels by Volker Kutscher, tells a similar story from the German side. Inspector Gereon Rath, who has his own PTSD-induced trembling in a suspicious, has to listen to the chief inspector, himself a war veteran, sneer at the "cowardice" of "tremblers." If the 1920s were roaring in Germany, it was from hunger: The war left Germany deeply in debt and with massive reparations to pay. German Marks for U.S. dollar in 1919 to 4 trillion per U.S. dollar in 1923. The squalor in which we meet the female lead, Charlotte Ritter, is not atypical. Even after landing has a temporary clerical job, she has to prostitute herself to make a living with her family.

One hundred years after Armistice, as the memory of the First World War seems set to fade away, these stories remind us of its realities. The original soldier-poets are gone, but we carry on. We must not forget. In the words of John McCrae:

. . . To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Christopher Huangis the author of "A Gentleman's Murder" (Inkshares), which is now in development for television.


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