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Thursday, June 29, 2017

June 29, 2017: The US and World War I: Representing the War

[On June 26th, 1917, the first 14,000 U.S. soldiers arrived in France to join the Allied effort in The Great War. To commemorate that centennial, this week I’ll be AmericanStudying the U.S. and WWI—share your thoughts and contexts in comments, please!]
On lessons from two compelling American cultural representations of the Great War.
One of the war novels most frequently taught in American high school classrooms emerged from World War I, but not from the American or even the Allied experience of it: German veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). I read Remarque’s novel in a high school English class in Virginia in the early 1990s, and I know that many of my Fitchburg State undergraduates have read it in Massachusetts high school classrooms in the 2010s, to cite at least two specific examples of the book’s enduring presence in those settings. Remarque’s novel is both an immersive, realistic, psychologically nuanced depiction of the war and its effects and a subtle but stirring anti-war statement, and for those and many other reasons (including its status as a too-often banned book) it’s a text well worth continuing to share with young readers (and all other audiences). But at the same time, American literary and popular culture include their own multi-layered collections of Great War representations, and those texts—and in particular a couple under-remembered works on which I’ll focus here—likewise have a good deal to offer students and audiences.
Many of the most prominent American Modernist writers and works feature or even focus on World War I, of course: from Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway’s status as veterans in The Great Gatsby (1925) to Ernest Hemingway’s debut short story collection In Our Time (1925) and anti-war novel A Farewell to Arms (1929) to John Dos Passos’ experimental historical novel The 42nd Parallel (1930, and then the first part of his U.S.A. trilogy [1938]). But to my mind the most unique and compelling American WWI novel is Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1939), a book that in both its depiction of the physical and psychological effects of war and its anti-war sentiments interestingly parallels Remarque’s novel. Johnny’s unfortunate timing—it was published shortly before the outbreak of World War II, and as of 1941 Trumbo and his publisher J.B. Lippincott decided to suspend printings for the remainder of the war—no doubt contributed to its relative lack of prominence; the 1971 film adaptation (directed by Trumbo himself) is somewhat better known, particularly after clips from it were used in the music video for Metallica’s “One” (1989). But such adaptations offer only glimpses of the psychological realism and depths of Trumbo’s novel, which deserves far wider readership as a stark and significant depiction of both war and veterans.
Appearing just two years after Trumbo’s novel was one of the most famous and successful American war movies, Sergeant York (1941); York netted Gary Cooper a Best Actor Oscar, was nominated for 11 Academy Awards overall, and has been added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, among many other accolades. Cooper’s impressive performance and the title character’s interesting blend of religious faith and (eventual) wartime courage keeps York from becoming propaganda, but I would argue that it tends that way, and would highlight instead a more thoroughly nuanced and successful American World War I film: the silent classic Wings (1927), which interestingly featured Gary Cooper in his first prominent (if still supporting) role. Wings certainly presents at times a spectacular version of war, as illustrated by the famous dogfight sequences (which likely won the film its own Oscar, as the first Best Picture winner). But Wings also features one of the more striking moments from any war film, as one of its protagonists (Buddy Rogers’ Jack) accidentally shoots down and kills his best friend (Richard Arlen’s David, who is piloting a stolen German plane as part of an escape from behind enemy lines), leading to a deathbed scene featuring the first same-sex kiss in an American film. While Wings is not as overtly anti-war as Trumbo’s novel, these and other concluding scenes reflect a nuanced and realistic portrayal of the war’s effects on its participants and veterans, making the film another cultural representation of the Great War that deserves a 21st century audience.
Last Great War Studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other WWI stories or contexts you’d highlight?

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