The Sunday Intertitle: Playing War



Giovanni Pastrone (CABIRIA) and Segundo de Chomon, the Spanish special effects genius, collaborated on this strange, wondrous and possibly wrongheaded attempt to show the First World War as imagined by a child safe at home while his father is at the front.

Chomon was a pioneer not only of mixing animation with live action, going one better than Melies whose films only SEEM like cartoons, he built the first camera dolly, and this movie features several elegant and beautiful tracking shots, reframing the action and enhancing the emotion.

Pastrone’s battle scenes are exciting and sophisticated in their use of film language (and are all embedded in the action as flashback scenes from a letter home).

The weirdness comes from the juxtaposition of these off elements. The live action war pays lip service to humanism while serving up the typical endangered women and children, ravaging huns, and righteous avengers who put everything right in the end. This was seems to have no real costs.

The animated was is sheer spectacle too, though we’re told that it’s the product of a child’s imagination after he’s been distressed by vivid accounts of warfare, The mass destruction IS kind of disturbing in spite of the funny puppets and Thunderbirds explosions, though. Robbed of the expressivity of human beings, these toy soldiers behave like automata, “only following orders,” their faces masklike and set in inappropriate dopey smiles. I guess the overall effect is as conflicted as you could hope for in a movie made while the war was still stuck in bloody stalemate. It can’t be anti-war because it adopts a simple goodies and baddies perspective, but it manages to avoid being overly enthusiastic about violence.

Its noblest aspect is that it fails as propaganda.

5 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Playing War”

  1. cravingcandy Says:

    As well as the film, I’m quite taken with the first 4 minutes of music. Do you happen to know what piece it is?

  2. Erik Satie… one of the Gymnopedies, I think? A popular theme for movies. F for Fake AND Diva…

  3. cravingcandy Says:

    It seems you are correct! Thank you…

  4. Robert Keser Says:

    It’s about time that Segundo de Chomon was appreciated for his artful and imaginative improvements on the vigorous but crude antics of Melies (it’s not often you see a puppet paging through a book!) Pastrone added a lot of feeling here too, with the warmth of his actors and a remarkably fluid camera (the rescuers sliding down the snow-covered hills on the seat of their pants was a nice surprise).

  5. It’s great, isn’t it? Though I would dispute that there’s anything crude about Melies’ multiple exposures. It’s a shame in a way that Chomon copied (often improving on) Melies so much, because he was by no means devoid of imagination himself, and his innovations are just as important as GM’s.

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