Thursday 5 October 2017

Life Institute Ryerson Week Two: The Seduction and Consequences of the Great War

President Woodrow Wilson
Siegfried Sassoon

“You will see the effect upon people. They will acclaim it with enthusiasm; everybody is already looking forward to the first onslaught—so dull have their lives become.
—Herman Hesse, Damian

"One of the most troubling reasons men love war is the love of destruction, the thrill of killing...all you do is move the finger so imperceptibly, just a wish flashing across your mind like a shadow, not even a full brain synapse, and poof, in a blast of sound and energy and light a truck or a house or even people disappear, everything flying and settling back into dust."
William Broyles, "Why Men Love War, Esquire, November 1984, veteran of the Vietnam War

Oh! What a Lovely War is an every-man-for-himself adaptation of Charles Chilton's 1963 play, as staged in London by Joan Littlewood. The tragedy of World War I is redefined in bawdy music-hall terms, beginning with a verbal free-for-all involving the Crowned Heads of Europe. The war is presented as the "new attraction" at the Brighton Amusement Pier, complete with syrupy cheer-up songs, shooting galleries, free prizes and a scoreboard toting up the dead. Throughout the proceedings, the camera concentrates on a middle-class family, whose five sons end up as cannon fodder. The final image is a veddy proper British picnic on a graveyard. Of the many fleeting satiric images parading past the camera, one of the most indelible is the sight of several generals playing leapfrog as the world all around them goes to hell in a handbasket. The awesome all-star cast includes Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Jack Hawkins, John Mills, Susannah York, Dirk Bogarde and Phyllis Calvert. We haven't seen this many Englishmen in one place since the last Wimbledon match. The whole affair was supervised by Richard Attenborough, making his directorial debut.


The picture of the country 100 years ago is often unwholesome in ways that, again, resonate with current turmoil. Prejudice against immigrants ran high. Anti-German feelings were virulent, and Wilson issued orders requiring the registration of all German-born residents (a program administered by the 22-year-old J. Edgar Hoover).
Americans were encouraged to spy on and report one another for violations of voluntary rationing programs or failure to buy war bonds. The government engaged in a sophisticated large-scale propaganda campaign enforcing loyalty. A poster shown in the film asks, in menacing capital letters, “Are You 100% American?”
Watching “The Great War” can give you a sense of a full circle of events. If this was how America became the world’s pre-eminent power, is this also how it surrenders the role?
From a review in the New York Times : "‘The Great War,’ When America Took the World Stage"

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Based on Pat Barker's novel of the same name, Regeneration  (later renamed Behind the Lines when released in DVD) tells the story of soldiers of World War One sent to an asylum for emotional troubles. Two of the soldiers meeting there are Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, two of England's most important WW1 poets but the most interesting exchanges occur between Sassoon and his physician William Rivers at Craiglockart Hospital where British officers suffering from severe shell shock were sent.
Testament of  Youth

Anchored by an extraordinary performance from actress Alicia Vikander, James Kent’s Testament of Youth bears comparison to many other superbly mounted costume dramas backed by the BBC, but this one has a special distinction: it chronicles the horrors that World War I inflicted on a generation of young English people from a woman’s perspective.

Though the war was followed by a slew of books about it, Vera Brittain’s account of her own experiences has been regarded as unique. It did not appear in the war’s immediate aftermath, partly because the aspiring writer didn’t know how to deal with her memories. She first tried writing a novel, which she shelved as a failure, a judgment she also made against a subsequent attempt to make a book by fictionalizing journals and letters. It was only later, inspired by filmmaker John Grierson’s coining of the term “documentary,” that she decided to craft a nonfiction account of her experiences, which became an instant bestseller upon its publication in 1933.

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