Tag Archives: WWI

The Gay Sisters (1942)

“Let that be a lesson to you not to go driving around the county deceiving strange men.”

After the death of his wife on the Lusitania, wealthy New-Yorker Penn Sutherland Gaylord (Donald Woods) decides to ‘do’ something and goes off to fight and subsequently die on the fields of France. This leaves his three small children, Fiona, Evelyn, and Susanna orphaned. Before Gaylord leaves to fight in WWI, he imagines that he’s taking care of his children’s future by leaving an iron-cast will which includes a vast fortune and the splendid Gaylord mansion to his three daughters. Early scenes show Gaylord with his eldest daughter, Fiona–a proud, imperious child who hides her emotions in front of the servants.

The film then flashes forward. The Gay sisters (as they are now known) are all adult. Fiona (Barbara Stanwyck) and Susie (Nancy Coleman) still live in the Gaylord mansion while Evelyn (Geraldine Fitizgerald) is married and living in England. The Gaylord estate has been tied up in litigation for years, and has gradually been bled dry with multiple versions of the will, various lawsuits and a series of  lawyers. Think Jarndyce vs Jarndyce in Bleak House and you get the picture. Fiona–the oldest girl and the backbone of the family is the tough one of the bunch–the most vocal and the one who’ll fight to the death to keep the mansion.

The Gaylord mansion is, apparently, in the crosshairs of Charles Barclay (George Brent), one of the will’s contestants. He wants to demolish the Gaylord house and build some monstrosity (according to Fiona) to be known as Barclay Square. It looks as though the litigation will continue when sister Susie who’s in love with artist Gig Young (played by Byron Barr before he changed his name to Gig Young) secretly goes to Barclay on a mission to persuade him to drop the suit. Her action causes a chain of events to take place….

The Gay Sisters, directed by Irving Rapper, certainly has the feel of a novel, so it should come as no surprise that it’s based on a book written by Stephen Longstreet. While the film isn’t bad (I actually rather enjoyed it), it never quite reaches the heights it strains to touch. It’s not quite soap opera, not quite drama and not quite romance, and yet at the same time, I suspect that the novel was a grand mixture of these elements. As it is, the film develops some intriguing asides but then wraps them up all too implausibly as the plot dashes to the final scenes.

The sisters are a mixed bunch with Evelyn (back on a visit) the bitchy pretentious one who sports a monocle, and Susie is the most human of the litter. That leaves Fiona played with Stanwyck’s usual backbone. It’s difficult to feel much sympathy for the sisters who collectively moan about how poor they are, and yet none of them work and there’s more than one fur coat flapping in the breeze. At one point, Fiona mentions she inherited a cool $100,000 dollars from an aunt–quite a fortune in those days. It might as well be $100 from the way it’s mentioned almost as an aside–while today, sixty years later, $100,000 is still a large amount of money to the average working stiff. But that’s just the money issue; when it comes to character, Evelyn is nasty, and the way Fiona used Charles isn’t exactly charming either. That leaves Susie, but there’s dirt in her past too. Perhaps the novel managed to be a grand tear-jerker, but somehow that’s lost in the film version. That said, the sympathy that does come to the sisters comes courtesy of understanding the burden of responsibility of having a great house, and a great name and two dead parents. The weight of this burden taints all three sisters in different ways, but the film makes the point that they certainly haven’t had a normal life (whatever that is).

If you’re a Stanwyck fan, you won’t be able to resist watching the film just to see her in this role.


“We’re all little people trying to find and grab what happiness we can . We fight back and love each other, work a while and die still little people. But once in a while one of us has a chance to do something . Life hands it to us on a platter.” (Gig Young to Evelyn)

“Love is something you cut out of yourself or it moves in and cuts you apart.” (Fiona to Susie)


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Today We Live (1933)

“It’s worth a World War to get a uniform like that.”

today we live 1Today We Live is a weepy melodrama set in WWI–notable for its cast: Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, and Robert Young. Directed by Howard Hawks and based on a William Faulkner novel, it’s the story of four characters and one love triangle set against the backdrop of WWI bravado.

The film begins with an American, Bogard (Gary Cooper) arriving in Britain. It’s 1916 and it’s the middle of WWI, but Bogard declares himself “neutral.” He plans to rent a country home in Kent from a British family, and he travels to the house just as Diana (Joan Crawford) the daughter of the house discovers that her father, a British army captain, has been killed in action. Bogard moves in and Diana moves into the gardener’s cottage.

Diana’s brother, Ronnie (Franchot Tone) and their life-long friend, Claude (Robert Young) arrive with just a few hours to spare before shipping out. This interlude confirms Diana’s romance with Claude and she agrees to wait for him. That leaves her alone with Bogard, and they fall in love.

Today We Live is a peculiar film. For a start, three of the main characters: Diana (Joan Crawford), her brother Ronnie (Franchot Tone), and their childhood friend, Claude (Robert Young) are supposed to be British but of course, they are all American. This leaves Crawford hard-pressed to deliver the fake accent, and as a result, her voice seems to come from somewhere at the back of her throat, and the lines with their long vowels are accompanied by little facial expression (apart from tears)–it’s as though Crawford puts all of her effort into the accent.

While it’s supposed to be 1916, some of Crawford’s costumes (before she runs off to join the war) are much too ‘modern’–take the number she wears when she first meets Bogard. It looks like something Lt. Uhura would wear. But frankly, all these quibbles aside, it’s the horrible script that sinks this film.

Today We Live is a tearjerker based on the premise that war is noble, calls for great sacrifices and that the best way to approach the war is to pretend it isn’t happening. This works for some scenes but not others. For example, when Ronnie and Claude visit Diana for a few hours before they ship out, the atmosphere is deliberately gay and carefree. It works. But when Ronnie and Claude visit the WWI memorial to the dead, look at the names, and see Ronnie’s father’s name as the latest addition, they are positively glowing. 

Diana and Bogard fall in love–it seems–after a short bike ride–another problem. If a film is a tearjerker, it should allow the audience to wallow in it, and this film doesn’t. There’s another scene with Claude acting as a turret gunner and mouthing “sorry” as he shoots Germans down.

But ultimately it’s the film’s dialogue that drove me around the bend. In what seems to be an attempt to show suppressed emotion, the film’s clipped dialogue is absurd:

“Wasn’t killed. Mistake. Met him in the hospital.”

“Been waiting. Getting worried.”

“Can’t help it. Tried. Tried terribly.”

Now while perhaps we could argue that it’s a brother-sister language (and the film indicates that Ronnie drives the ‘no emotion’ stance), Claude speaks it too: 

“See. See better now. See lots of things.”

With dialogue like that, the characters begin to seem like foreigners who haven’t yet mastered things like pronouns and articles. Makes me think of those Hollywood films where they have Americans dressed up as Chinese, let’s say, and the authenticity is supposed to come from perfectly pronounced words that are delivered in clipped sentences.

On the positive side, Roscoe Karns as Bogard’s sidekick McGinnis steals the film. McGinnis is the only sensible character in the bunch. And it is great to see the dewy-eyed Crawford before she developed that hard look that carried her through Mildred Pierce. Crawford met Franchot Tone on the set of Today We Live and they later married in 1935. Tone, of course, had a real-life love triangle of his own involving Barbara Payton and Tom Neal.

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Black and White in Colour (1976)

“The conviction we hold of our own superiority.”

At a remote outpost in Africa, a handful of French expatriates receive the news that WWI has begun. By the time the news arrives, the war is already well underway. News of the war affects the French citizens in a peculiar way–amid rabid, patriotic cries of “Vive La France”, they decide that it is their duty to attack the German compound a few miles away. Up to this point, the two groups have enjoyed a profitable relationship–with the Germans buying all their supplies from the French. During business transactions, the French merchants and their plump, semi-dressed wives shake their heads at the Germans and their serious approach to life. The French don’t understand the Germans, but they are content to do business together. But news of a distant war alters friendships ….

The French number 9 people–various merchants, a studious young man, Socialist Hubert Fresnoy (Jacques Spiesser), and two grasping, self-serving priests. Meanwhile there are only three Germans–and most of their days are spent marching around and disciplining the natives. The French have a different approach to the natives–this varies from lackadaisical to exploitive–they evidently don’t approve of the manner in which the Germans act. But when the stakes change, and the French expatriates declare war on the German compound, then the French suddenly have no compunctions whatsoever in exploiting the natives as “recruits” in the most brutal ways.

Black and White in Colour is a fierce anti-war film wrapped up in a critique of Western colonialism (note the words of the songs the natives sing). From director Jean Annaud, the film’s dark humour and nihilistic approach make for great entertainment. The story shifts from foreigners sharing space on a distant continent, through the insanity of plunging into war, and then even covers the beginnings of a petty despot. This is a blistering examination of the madness, destruction and utter waste of war, and it’s delivered deftly enough to make this one of the most enjoyable anti-war films you’ll probably ever see. The parallels to the insanity of WWI are inescapable–complete with the misery of rain-drenched trenches. This is war and human nature in a nutshell.

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My Boy Jack (2007)

 “If our brief is to tell the truth but a truth that is bearable to the British people, do we dilute the figures?”

Whenever I watch films concerning WWI, I always find myself wondering what sort of madness gripped the world for this period of time. Not that wars have become more acceptable or less absurd, but the depictions of trench warfare of WWI always bring out the sheer insanity of war, and then, of course, there’s the death toll of around 20 million.

my-boy-jackThe film My Boy Jack is the story of one soldier who was killed in WWI. The soldier is 18-year old Jack, the only son of Nobel Prize winning British writer Rudyard Kipling (David Haig). Directed by Brian Kirk (who also plays the role of Kipling), the film centers on the Kipling family dynamic. Father Rudyard Kipling hobnobber with the King can’t wait for the shooting party to begin in France. His attitude spreads to his only son, Jack (Daniel Radcliffe), and the two of them agree that Jack can’t miss the action.

Jack, however, is rejected by the military for his extremely poor eyesight. While some families would use their position and influence to excuse their children from war, Rudyard Kipling pressures the army to take his son. Jack is as blind as a bat without his spectacles, and military personnel grasp the inherent danger of placing Jack in charge of enlisted men, but Kipling, who was never a military man, coerces and bamboozles his acquaintances until he gets what he wants–his son in a uniform.

My Boy Jack illustrates the peer pressure afoot in wartime. There’s one scene of Kipling speaking and inciting his audience at a war rally, and there’s one great scene when Jack is drinking in a pub with his best friend, Ralph. Although the subject of Jack’s lack of uniform is not addressed directly, Jack obviously feels very uncomfortable and out-of-place surrounded by soldiers while he’s in civilian clothes.

Thanks to his father’s determination and influence, Jack is commissioned in the Irish Guards. There’s a firm hierarchy afoot with 17 year-old Jack in charge of a platoon of Irish volunteers, and we see that ever-popular tradition of the upper classes herding the peasants into war and slaughter. One segment of the film focuses on Jack’s determination to improve his marksmanship, and of course, there’s a bitter irony here as the training these military schools provide (his friend Ralph attends Sandhurst) implies that there’s some special skill required for being a target on the fields of France.

Even though Rudyard Kipling was privy to the horrendous casualties lists (one day leaves 458 officers and 11,161 enlisted dead), he still urges his son on. This, of course, raises the question why do parents feel it’s their ‘duty’ to pressure their beloved children to enlist? What is it about a flag and rabid patriotism that casts the normal aspects of responsible parenting aside as children are urged and pressured to cast sanity to the winds and throw their young lives at hopeless lost causes? The film does an excellent job of portraying Kipling as a saber-rattling, bastion of the British Empire–an armchair warrior who lives subliminally through the imagined future heroic exploits of his son, and of course, Jack, conditioned to live up to his father’s notions of the glories of Empire, doesn’t struggle against his father’s illusions, but instead buys all the patriotic notions of war hook, line and sinker.

The film juxtaposes some great scenes of Kipling’s gorgeous country home in Burwash, East Sussex with the muddy trenches in France along with Jack Kipling’s inglorious death at the Battle of Loos the day after his 18th birthday. When the Kipling family first learn that Jack is missing, they begin an exhaustive search to find him.

With its tight focus on the Kipling family, many issues raised by the film pass unchallenged. While the Kipling family suffered a devastating tragedy, this tragedy was shared by millions of families who did not have the means to search for their lost sons. In light of his son’s death, Kipling doesn’t analyze or confront his role in the War Office where he helped craft propaganda and was indirectly and collectively responsible for sending millions of men–sons, brothers, husbands to their deaths. Kipling’s guilt largely rests on the idea that he facilitated his son’s death by using his influence to get Jack a commission, but then the family veers away from that notion by emphasizing that this was what Jack wanted. However, given his father’s rabid patriotism and thwarted military ambitions, just how much was 17-year old Jack’s choice and how much was conditioning?

While the film treats all of its subjects with poignant sensitivity, the film ends with Kipling reciting his poem, My Boy Jack written for his dead son, and there’s no argument that Kipling loved his only son (at one point he asks: “How could I condemn my son to oblivion?”). But in spite of Kipling’s grief, there’s the idea that he still didn’t really get it. A few accusations fly from Jack’s mother and sister, but they are buried under the poem’s line “Except he did not shame his kind” and the idea remains that Kipling shoved aside the utter senselessness of his son’s death and grieved ultimately with the consolations of ‘noble’ sacrifice and duty to king and country. From director Brian Kirk.

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Return of the Soldier (1982)

 “If only knowing were the same as feeling.”

return of the soldierBased on the novel by Rebecca West, the film The Return of the Soldier is the story of a man who returns from WWI with severe shell shock resulting in memory loss. When the film begins, Chris’s wife Kitty (Julie Christie) and cousin Jenny (Ann Margret) are in the splendid Baldry home when they receive a visitor, Mrs. Margaret Grey (Glenda Jackson). The visitor is clearly uncomfortable, and at first it seems that perhaps this can be blamed on her poverty. But then Mrs. Grey breaks the news that Captain Chris Baldry is ill in hospital. Naturally Kitty and Jenny both wonder why the war office didn’t inform them, and Kitty takes her skepticism one step further by accusing Mrs. Grey of possessing ulterior motives.

Some of the mystery is solved when Kitty and Jenny travel to London to collect Captain Baldry (Alan Bates). He’s shell-shocked, and has lost the memory of the past 20 years of his life. He has no recollection of his wife or his marriage, and instead thinks he’s still in the throes of a mad passionate love affair with Margaret Grey–or Margaret Allington as he knew her 20 years ago when she was the daughter of an inn-keeper.

The Return of the Soldier is a stunningly beautiful, sad novel, and it’s translated to the screen very well in this film version with most of the book’s dialogue remaining intact. Cousin Jenny narrates the novel, so her insights and observations are gone for the film, and the script wisely enhances Kitty’s character slightly in recompense. Kitty is portrayed as a shallow woman who is humiliated by her husband’s rejection of their relationship. A few bitter moments show both Kitty’s anger (directed at her husband and Margaret) and snobbery (spitefully directed towards Margaret). The prejudice against shell shock is shown in others’ treatment of Baldry, and even Kitty in frustration argues that “if he just made an effort,” he’d remember. When a psychologist (Ian Holm) is called to the scene, he gently argues against a cure. Why bring Captain Baldry’s mind back across the abyss of time and memory when so much he has to remember will simply make him unhappy?

The Return of the Soldier is a marvelously realized film–the contrast of Baldry’s peaceful, magnificent estate against the horrors and ugliness of WWI are seen in powerful opposition to one another. The film sensibly concentrates on the visual–Baldry’s shock when looking in a mirror, and the way in which a train whistle startles him. The main characters are well cast, and although I imagined Margaret physically quite different, Glenda Jackson’s steely presence and moral courage capture the essence of the character. Alan Bates’ quietly restrained performance accentuates the pain of a kind, good-hearted man managing to drift through his daily obligations with just the vaguest recollection of who everyone is. Fans of the novel will not be disappointed. From director Alan Bridges.

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Capitaine Conan (1996)

“There’s no one I admire more than you, but there’s a limit.”

The film Capitaine Conan begins in the final days of WWI on the bloody battlefields of Bulgaria. Conan (Philipe Torreton) leads a particularly aggressive and successful rabble band of men. Unlike many other officers, he mingles with the lower ranks, and he’s seen by his men as one of them. Consequently, they’re fiercely loyal to Conan, and the loyalty goes both ways.

When WWI ends, Conan and his men are assigned to Bucharest. The men are restless and eager to go home, and left to their own devices in Bucharest, they soon push the boundaries with some of the locals. With the restless army stationed in Bucharest, most of the men are guilty of violating some military code or another. But some are selected for punishment while others are not–there’s no particular rhyme or reason to the selection, and this violates Conan’s sense of justice. In an effort to crack down and reinstitute military discipline, the upper echelons of officers decide to prosecute a handful of the lower ranks for various petty crimes, but when a violent crime is committed by some of his soldiers, Conan is compelled to cover for them. The officer selected to investigate and prosecute is Conan’s friend Lt Norbert (Samuel Le Bihan). While Conan feels betrayed by Norbert, Norbert feels that he’s in a moral vice. He’s reluctant to investigate Conan’s men, but he also believes he can do the job humanely.

Conan’s loyalty to his men surpasses any loyalty he is supposed to feel for his fellow officers. He clearly doesn’t fit in–and this is evident at the officer dinners he’s forced to attend. He’s risen in the ranks due to his skills as a warrior and as a leader of men, but he has no tolerance for the airs of superiority of the officer class. He sees his handful of men–decimated by the war–as almost single-handedly responsible for victory. Furthermore, now that his restless band is stuck in Bucharest, Conan doesn’t see why they should be forced to humour the natives. In his mind the men are justified in taking what they want.

Like most of Bertrand Tavernier’s films, Capitaine Conan is long and could benefit from some skillful editing. As a film concentrating on WWI, Capitaine Conan doesn’t take the usual tack–instead this is a film set primarily after the war. The film’s focus is what remains after the conflict, and how warriors make the moral adjustments from military life to civilian life. What was acceptable for the conduct of a soldier is suddenly not acceptable for a civilian–and yet these men are still bound by the military and still in uniform. This unusual examination of the violations committed by Conan’s men effectively addresses the larger question of the morality of war in general. Based on Roger Vercel’s semi-autobiographical novel, Capitaine Conan is in French with English subtitles. The DVD includes a documentary about the director and the making of the film.

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Joyeux Noel (2005)

“Something odd is afoot.”

Joyeux Noel is based on a series of real life-incidents that occurred during WWI on Xmas Eve 1914. According to many sources, on several locations along the front, soldiers from opposing sides put down their arms and mingled. Joyeux Noel takes true incidents that took place and then blends them into a story–focusing on just one tiny area where French, Scottish and German troops are involved in the brutal war from the filth and squalor of their trenches.

The film begins with very brief sketches of exactly how some of the film’s major protagonists found themselves wallowing in the blood and gore of WWI. There are two Scottish brothers who eagerly embraced war–with one brother welcoming volunteering with the phrase, “At last, something’s happening in our lives.” And there’s the German opera singer Sprink (Benno Furmann) who leaves his career and his beautiful lover and singing partner Anna Sorenson (Diane Kruger) in order to enlist.

The worlds the soldiers left behind are soon replaced with the horrors of the trenches. A senseless, suicidal assault led by the French and the Scots on the Germans results in mangled bodies of the dead lying in the snow. Some men die and some men survive. And then it’s Xmas Eve in the trenches, and each side attempts to eek out a meager sense of celebration for a few hours at least. The Germans, led by Horstmayer (Daniel Bruhl) have received a number of Xmas trees, and they attempt to decorate their trench. A spontaneous event takes place, and the three sides declare a truce and mingle.

The film’s strong pacifist message resonates long after the story concludes, and the plot makes it clear that the officers who are later held accountable feel a strong sense of camaraderie with their fellow soldiers–while they feel remote from the higher-ups who issue orders from the comfort of palaces well behind the lines. Naturally, the military hierarchy will not tolerate fraternization between opposing forces–after all it threatens their war and may even lead to humanization of the enemy. And the film does an excellent job of conveying the fact that the Xmas Eve incidents are viewed with horror and are seen as threats to the continuance of hostilities. Soldiers ‘contaminated’ by the event must be isolated, removed and punished.

The film’s subplot romance between the opera singers unfortunately lessens the film’s power. The story here of the spontaneous connections created by the soldiers who are in theory engaged in a battle to the death–but see themselves as fellow victims of tyrannical decisions–is so fantastic it almost seems too hard to believe. The element of the romance spoilt the story and lessened the film’s power by pulling away the focus from the men and the commonality of their experience. Directed by Christian Carion, the film is in French, German and English.

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Testament of Youth (1979)

“In the last 4 years, my god, my king and my country have stripped me of everything I ever cared for.”

testament of youthThis eloquent BBC version of the stirring memoir, Testament of Youth chronicles the years 1913-1925 in the life of Vera Brittain–a feminist, a writer and also one of the 20th Century’s greatest pacifists. When the film begins, Vera (Cheryl Campbell) the daughter of a merchant lives in Northern England. Her brother, Edward (Rupert Frazer) is at school and he will soon attend Oxford. Vera also longs to attend university, but her parents consider that education is not a proper choice for females as it tends to make them mannish and unmarriageable. Encouraged by Edward, Vera begins attending local lectures while desperately nursing her ambition to attend Oxford.

Just as she manages to gain her parents’ permission to attend Somerville College, Oxford, WWI interrupts Vera’s life. At first she sees the war as a terrible inconvenience–a bother that looms distantly on the horizon, and a nuisance that has little to do with her. She is, therefore, shocked to learn that her brother and his best friend Roland (Peter Woodward) intend to volunteer. It’s beyond her comprehension that they should sacrifice a university education for vague notions of patriotism. But both Roland and Edward make it clear that war is an unassailable territory exclusively for males, and they express the feeling that they don’t want to left out of the ‘action’. To them–and their intimate inner circle–to not participate would mean they carry a “stain” for the rest of their lives.

Vera finds herself swept up in WWI. As the fiance of Roland Leighton, she sees him shipped to the front in France, and she also waves her brother goodbye when he too is shipped overseas. Vera finds herself unable to continue with her university education, and instead she volunteers as a nurse and is eventually transferred to the front lines. Here, she nurses wounded and dying Germans under the most horrendous conditions.

Scenes at the front and in the havoc of makeshift, overcrowded hospitals contrast with the time Vera spends at home on leave where her parents live stubbornly in a world of their own–complaining about the lack of good servants, the parsimonious food supply, and demanding that she return home to ‘help out’. But the film treats all its characters with generosity, and in time, it’s clear that Vera’s parents’ stance is just another coping mechanism. The film does an excellent job of showing how Vera is torn by conflicting demands in an era when women’s roles were severely dictated by society and yet also rapidly changing. Peppered with marvelously strong characterizations–including Winfred Holtby, Vera’s dearest friend, the powerful drama is accompanied by excerpts of Leighton’s letters and poetry.

This beautifully acted, brilliant adaptation directed by Moira Armstrong captures the raw power of Brittain’s memoir, and the fact that Vera’s story is true, makes the film (and the book) exactly as the title suggests–a powerful “testament” against war. Gradually, over time, Vera’s belief system is shaken to its foundations as her illusions of patriotism and the nobility of war are stripped away and replaced with anger, loss and grief. Vera struggles with futility and anguish as those she loves best become statistics in a senseless bloodbath.

Testament of Youth is a 4 VHS set, and in spite of the fact this is a production from the late 70s, the film is remarkably good quality. Details on this boxed set state that it’s 200 minutes long with each tape 50 minutes. But, this is a 5 part series with two episodes on the first tape, so in reality the film is about 250 minutes long. If you are at all interested in WWI, feminist figures or pacifism, then this first class BBC drama is well worth watching.

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