Archive for How I Won the War

The Sunday Intertitle: Over There

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2021 by dcairns

SHOULDER ARMS (1918) was provided free to military hospitals where it was projected on the ceilings, for burns patients who couldn’t be moved. I can imagine watching it being a painful experience if you were severely wounded, because it’s very funny, but I guess it would be worth it.

Of course, everybody had told Chaplin not to make this film, since joking about the war was considered unacceptable, and Chaplin had received a lot of flack for not being at the front (though not as much flack as he might have received AT the front). As a Brit (he never took US citizenship, considering himself “a citizen of the world”) Chaplin could in theory have enlisted earl and skipped a movie career altogether in favour of an early death and we’d never have heard of him. Obviously I think he made the right call.

By contrast, two of Chaplin’s sons served in WWII (along with his movie-adopted-son Jackie Coogan). So, despite the liberty bonds and the rallies Chaplin attended, we might guess that he wasn’t that enthusiastic about the Great War. And SHOULDER ARMS seems to bear that out. Still, it’s not an anti-war film — a pacifist movie simply wouldn’t have been accepted while the war was raging. But it’s an expression of sympathy for the enlisted man — something Chaplin’s instincts must have told him he could pull off, so he would not be accused of mockery. It worked: the movie was one of his biggest moneymakers, and nobody seems to have condemned it.

For some reason this one isn’t on YouTube in its entirety except in a fuzzy Russian version — by rights it should be public domain so I dunno why not. But there are lengthy clips.

Brownlow & Gill’s Unknown Chaplin doc series triumphantly unearthed the opening sequences Chaplin shot but discarded, and here they are:

The plan was to show Charlie pre-war and post-war as well as in uniform. Midway through the plan changed, the decision was made to keep the movie short, and the postwar material was never filmed. But here’s Charlie with the kids, three mini-Charlies, waiting outside the pub in a ritual very familiar in Charlie’s native East End. I don’t know that his own dad was around long enough for him to have experienced this, but he’d have seen it.

Mrs. Charlie is an offscreen domestic tyrant hurling dishes, a cartoon-strip cliché. After the film’s first food joke (peeling onions behind his back to avoid the eye-stinging effect) Charlie accepts his draft notice as an escape route from the projectile crockery. But the enemy will be throwing more than plates.

The medical test scene leads to embarrassment, as a shirtless Charlie tries to hide from nurse Edna. David Robinson finds it strange that she should appear here undisguised, since she turns up later as a Frenchwoman at the front. He wonders if this stuff was being shot in a halfhearted or diffident way, with Chaplin not fully meaning to use it. I suspect rather that he planned to have Edna’s nurse turn up again in the war scenes, which would be easy enough to arrange (see also Clara Bow’s role in WINGS), and simply changed his mind.

The test features one of my favourite of Chaplin’s deleted gags, a variant on a routine played for Karno, and taken up in the AUSTIN POWERS movies with ruder gags: silhouetted through a frosted glass door, Charlie is seen accidentally swallowing Dr. Albert Austin’s twelve-inch long tongue depressor (seemingly a spoon), followed by the pliers he tries to retrieve it with. Maybe this was too grotesque and unrealistic for Chaplin’s taste, or maybe it was simply a casualty of restructuring.

So the film as we have it (in two cuts filmed with adjacent cameras and sometimes with alternate takes) opens (after Chaplin signs the main title in his own hand, a quixotic trick to counteract piracy) with Charlie in camp, undergoing training. His feet keep turning out and his legs get tangled. Generally athletic and startlingly nimble, his body disassembles into a storm of malfunctioning limbs when anyone tries to regiment it.

(If you were seeing the film on rerelease as part of The Chaplin Cavalcade, you’d have the director himself narrating a short intro composed of actuality war footage, showing that he had no qualms about relating his comic fantasia of total war to the real thing).

Chaplin benefits from the fact that American doughboys sported the silliest looking uniforms, complete with baggy pants and goofy hats and boots, so his distinctive outline retains some of its attributes, swapping rifle for cane.

The trenches. Charlie enters frame, back to us, displaying the number 13 on his kit, and Rollie Totheroh’s camera dollies after him down the narrow sunken aisle, irresistibly recalling Kubrick and PATHS OF GLORY (I confess the travelling shot during drill made me think of FULL METAL JACKET, too). Since we’re traversing roughly-laid planks, and we can see the ground, so there are no tracks down there, I’m wondering if the camera’s been hung from above, supported from each side, using two sets of tracks alongside the trench? It’s reported that Charlie hadn’t even heard of camera cranes until THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Syd plays a comrade of Charlie’s, though comradeship is in short supply here, as usual in Chaplin’s work. Syd’s character is alternately a schlemiel to be the victim of Charlie’s fecklessness, and a dashing and heroic figure. Not sure who the other bunkmate is, disguised by extravagant facial hair comprising Irish beard with unconnected Groucho moustache and eyebrows.

Fiona was taken by the grim detail of the mousetrap hung from Charlie’s coat button, though a rat trap the size of one of his huge boots would be more use in reality.

The trenches are detailed, gritty and convincing, which brings us to a mystery. In Andrew Kelly’s All Quiet on the Western Front: The Story of a Film, if I recall correctly, a Universal press release is quoted stating that several of the crew of Lewis Milestone’s landmark war movie were veterans of the Great War, including designer Charles D. Hall, who is also the man in charge of SHOULDER ARMS’ sets. Now, I’m in touch with Hall’s great-nephew, Matthew Hall, who reports that there’s no oral history about a military record for CDC. The family’s oral tradition has him entering the US via Canada after his career in Fred Karno’s company. He could have found time to serve in the British army, but then he’d have had to be invalided out, and you’d expect the family to know about it. It COULD just be Universal ballyhoo. All I’m saying is, from the look of the sets, and the details like trenches being named Broadway and Rotten Row, somebody connected to the production has seen the real thing.

Chaplin makes fun of the enemy, with a tiny martinet strutting up and down, berating his hulking, mismatched Keystone Kops Kombat Unit.

Meanwhile, the Chaplin brothers eat lunch, unperturbed by the falling shells. A surprising splitscreen shows Charlie nostalgic for the real Broadway, with Henry Bergman (first of three roles) as a jovial bartender. This stuff is great, but fragmented. Chaplin shot lots (including some troubles with hand grenades which he’d take up later in GREAT DICTATOR), and these sequences may have been a bit more fluid before he got to trimming them down. Edna wrote to Chaplin to say how moved she was by the scene where he receives no mail from home. Impossible to imagine this working as well if it followed footage of him being harangued by a dish-hurling termagant. Charlie reading another soldier’s letter over his shoulder, facial reactions synching up exactly, is a great way of turning pathos into a gag (Chaplin imitators rarely master his ability to take the curse off potential saccharine by startling the audience with unexpected humour).

Chemical warfare! Charlie receives a delayed package from home, a pungent limburger disimproved by its Atlantic crossing. Donning gas mask, he lobs it across no-man’s land where it splatters the tiny commandant (the loyal Loyal Underwood). Note that all the early humour levied against the enemy targets the leaders, not the enlisted men.

The flooded barracks is my favourite sequence, because it’s so grim. The frog on Syd’s bare foot! Note that, when Charlie mistakes Syd’s foot for his own — a gag Stan & Ollie would make use of more than once — it’s apparent that the lack of family resemblance extends to the extremities. Charlie’s outsize boots would actually FIT Syd.

Charlie sleeping underwater with a phonograph trumpet to breathe through is a great gag. And plumping his waterlogged pillow is as excruciating an example of “making the best of things” as we would see until the boot-eating scene in THE GOLD RUSH.

Preparations to go “over the top” — Charlie is newly concerned about his unlucky serial number, then breaks his hand mirror for good measure. Still, seven years bad luck might mean you’re not going to get shot dead… The signal to charge is given, and Charlie goes through a magnificent set of changes, attempting to go through the motions of heroism, then having ladder trouble, then having second thoughts, finally doing his duty with no great enthusiasm. Sending his colleagues up ahead of him is probably the worst thing Charlie does in this film, and the most in character — elsewhere in his filmography, Charlie would always land his fellows in difficulty than get in any himself. But in this context, that’s not a point which can be pressed too far.

The enemy trench is taken — a vanishingly rare occurrence in real life — and Charlie singlehandedly captures thirteen Germans. “I surrounded them,” he says via intertitle, with a descriptive mime of a fast-circling finger to make it clear how this was achieved. He gives the tiny leader a spanking, to the delight of the German soldiers. This kind of solidarity with the ordinary men of the other side must have been very rare in American WWI pictures of the day.

More food: Charlie and Syd eat lunch, ignoring the shelling. “Hush, here comes a whizzbang,” as the song goes. Charlie opens a bottle by holding it aloft so a sniper can shoot the neck off, a gag reprised 56 years later in THE FOUR MUSKETEERS. (And in the same director’s HOW I WON THE WAR, Michael Crawford’s serial number is 131313.) He also lights a cigarette using the same method. It’s a stirring scene of two men inured to their desperate situation. Jet black comedy as Charlie chalks up his own sniper kills — the kind of thing that does depend of dehumanizing the other side, to the point where a human life is just a stripe on a blackboard. Harry Lime would laugh more heartily than I can.

Charlie makes the mistake of volunteering. He stands, chest out, proud to serve, until the near-suicidal nature of the mission is pointed out, when he executes an extraordinary physical transformation — his ribs turn concave, his shoulders drop, and he’s suggesting Syd might be a better choice after all.

The scenes of Charlie disguised as a dead tree were filmed amid an LA heatwave and appear to have been no fun at all. Chaplin didn’t like shooting on location at the best of times. He immediately faces chopping-down for firewood, a hazard nobody seems to have anticipated. (Immediate detection owing to being the only tree in France with a moustache would seem a likelier threat.) One of his arm-branches terminates in a knotty lump, which proves handy for knocking the would-be wood-gatherers cold.

Syd is captured by Henry Bergman in his second role (I’ve given up counting Albert Austin’s appearances and disappearances in this one). Charlie saves him from the firing squad but has to flee, losing his Tabanga costume. The bit of pipe he crawls through was a happy discovery on location, swiftly written into the story.

Edna enters the picture, and Charles D. Hall constructs a wonderful bombed-out dollhouse, exposed to the elements like a cutaway drawing. Charlie flees inside, taking care to lock the door and pull the blinds even though the surrounding wall has gone. This kind of large-scale expenditure horrified the budget-conscious Syd, until at last his wife Minnie forbade him to be involved in production at all, since it just upset him. (Syd also starred in his own WWI vehicle, A BETTER ‘OLE. It’s good!)

Edna, the ruin’s inhabitant, finds Charlie passed out and nurses him. Charlie coyly feigns unconsciousness a bit longer to enjoy her ministrations. When he awakens, she’s nervous until he pantomimes (the lack of a shared language justifies added gestural art) that he’s with the Americans. Not sure if this would necessarily be reassuring to a noncombatant — though the Germans were blamed for a lot of atrocities, gleefully reenacted by Von Stroheim back in Hollywood, in reality no one side ever has the monopoly on war crimes.

The Germans — the same troop of Chaplin troupers — show up, but the house collapses and Charlie escapes. With the remains of her home destroyed, Edna is now arrested for good measure, but the Moebius-strip geography of a Chaplin plot soon has him hiding in enemy HQ so he can rescue her, singeing her attacker (yes, these Krauts are all rapey) with a red-hot poker. The Edward II assault seems justifiable given these characters’ sleaziness.

The arrival of the Kaiser sets things up for a bit of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS style revisionism, though since the war was still on I suppose it’s more like prophecy. This part of the film is more exciting than it is funny. It reminded Fiona of ‘Allo, ‘Allo! a sitcom she likes and I don’t. Syd plays Kaiser Bill in a theatrical makeup that renders him unrecognizable. Henry Gibson is also back in another disguise. Now Charlie has to rescue Edna and Syd while capturing the enemy leaders and also making sure Syd’s two characters don’t bump into one another.

The best part of this is Charlie, impersonating a German chauffeur, brutalizing Syd every time someone’s watching. Syd is relieved to learn it’s all a ruse, but then the strangling begins anew, again and again. Mistreating Syd is definitely the Way Forward.

Edna in drag is TOO CUTE. The whole thing ends triumphally but it’s all a dream, which helps in a number of ways. It alibis the story against claims of implausibility, and it adds a bittersweet note — the reality of war is still ahead of Charlie, and it cannot be averted (unless peace breaks out before he’s shipped over). CHaplin COULD have had himself wake up in the sodden trench, thereby making the story’s grimmer parts real and only its heroic climax a fantasy, but he chose, I guess, a safer route. It worked, since nobody was offended, it seems.

Chaplin, untrained in storytelling save as a performer in theatre and movies, retained a weakness for it-was-all-a-dream endings, but they’re often used in interesting ways. They don’t solve the story problems — as here, they deepen them. He even contemplated finishing THE GREAT DICTATOR this way, with his Jewish barber character awakening in the concentration camp. Which would have been undeniably strong. But sometimes we don’t want strong.

I’d like this film even better if it took more of the right kind of risks, but it’s the art of the possible we’re talking about here. As it was, Chaplin lost confidence and was on the point of scrapping the movie when chum Doug Fairbanks’ hysterical reaction convinced him not to. Thank God for Doug.

Chaplin wasn’t the only one finding comedy in war. Some of the best war poems have a satiric bite. I like Siegfried Sassoon’s The General ~

“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

As with SHOULDER ARMS, nothing about this is really funny, except the rhythm and rhyme of it. Unlike the Chaplin, a bitter aftertaste is definitely the goal. With Chaplin’s film, it’s like more a minor note of disquiet amid the hilarity. Milos Forman talked about seeing THE GREAT DICTATOR in Czechoslovakia after WWII, and feeling the massive relief at finally being able to laugh at this bastard. Audiences in 1918 must have experienced something of the same liberating effect.

Creative Differences

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2021 by dcairns

I can’t write anything better about BITTER VICTORY than Jonathan Rosenbaum’s piece, which is one of his really good ones. He gets at the ambiguity of the two main characters — Curt Jurgens as Brand, essentially the villain, ought to attract our sympathies more than he does, and Richard Burton’s hero, Leith, oughtn’t to be as appealing as he is. Of course, a lot of this has to do with casting, and Ray’s relationships with his stars. Jurgens was forced on him. Burton, a fellow alcoholic, was sympatico, and Ray tried to get him for KING OF KINGS later, and Burton seriously thought about it.

Brand is a coward and a hypocrite, pathologically jealous, and somewhat brutal. But he’s TRYING to be brave, sometimes he is, and his anxiety about his wife’s fidelity is not wholly without foundation. I think she’s ready to take off with Burton if the circumstances allow it. Still, he’s an unattractive character, unattractively played. Jurgens kept protesting that he wasn’t sympathetic enough, but if Ray tried to fix that, his feelings about having Jurgens forced on him maybe got in the way. Ray was rewriting with Gavin Lambert, the psycho producer was rewriting with Paul Gallico, on another continent, and meanwhile the original author had script approval.

It’s interesting that Ray, by all accounts a supersensitive and uncannily perceptive guy, chose to make his European debut with a producer who turned out, according to Lambert, to be someone who enjoyed destroying directors. Given Ray’s noted self-destructiveness, it’s possible he chose Graetz, at some subconscious level, as just the kind of guy he ought to have nothing to do with.

The making of a film often seems to echo the story of the film, so it’s also easy to see Leith and Brand as portraits of Ray and Graetz. Leith, the romantic T.E. Lawrence figure — like Lawrence, an archaeologist, and someone who upsets his commanders because of his strange manner — Brand, the bully and desk-jockey who instinctively resents Leith, and who is constantly trying to prove himself against him. The reason Leith, and the audiences, give Brand no credit for drinking water that may be poisoned, is that it requires no physical courage, just a lack of imagination.

The one area where Brand’s imagination is on overdrive is his sexual jealousy of his wife and Leith. In fact, the two last met before Brand came on the scene, and they’re much too noble to do anything about their lingering emotions. But Brand evidently has a whole other movie playing in his head…

Ray had wanted Montgomery Clift as Leith, and Burton in the other role, as Brand. Had that been the case, Leith would certainly still have been more appealing than Brand (Burton could do nasty very well, Monty did soulful and vulnerable) but the balance would have been closer. Whether Clift could have made himself sound like a British officer is questionable. But part of the film’s interest is the way Leith’s perversity, self-destructiveness, crazy romanticism and sadistic goading of Brand play out as heroic and noble. The more you pick it apart afterwards the more interesting it gets.

I also love the look of the desert scenes, among the most barren ever filmed. LAWRENCE’s dunes are like feminine fleshscapes by comparison. In daylight, the contrast is so low the action is almost happening against an infinity curve, and at night there’s faux-lunar floodlighting against a jet-black sky, so we get warring voids.

Asides from the central trio (Ruth Roman is pretty good, but Ray wanted Moira Shearer), the only other substantial characters are a sympathetic Arab guide (Raymond Pellegrin, excellent) and the viciously mad Private Wilkins, played by the great Nigel Green.

Green can conjure a glint of madness like few other actors. It can just be THERE, not doing anything, suggesting a weird blinkered disassociation, like in THE IPCRESS FILE. But Wilkins is out where the buses don’t run. He’s evidently been doing this kind of thing too long. Everything’s a joke to him. We’re all going to die? That’s a good joke. We’re just going to suffer horribly? Still funny. Someone else is going to die instead? Equally good. Despite having just about the same attitude to everything that can or might happen, Green is electrifying in the role and Wilkins is terrifyingly unpredictable.

The other familiar face is Christopher Lee, playing another working class private. Lee rarely played plebeian, but is reasonable convincing, and of course he’s the most convincing commando. He MOVES awfully well. In Arab dress, at night, he totally evokes the kind of horror movie he was about become famous for. They should have let him show Burton how to ambush a man and stab him in the back, silently. Lee had actual military experience doing that. Burton’s approach gives the enemy plenty of time to yell and would not work. Still, at this very instant comes the extraordinary moment when Burton lets out a gasp — he’s doing the killing, but it’s like HE’S the one being killed. This close juxtaposition of the clumsy and the brilliant is what Truffaut perhaps meant when he remarked that Ray’s films were often not as “well-made” as other Hollywood filmmakers’, but he got moments of truth that nobody else would go near.

And, often, these moments involve violence.

The unfolding of the desert mission — retrieving enemy documents of completely opaque significance — kept reminding me of HOW I WON THE WAR. Running out of water, men cracking under the strain. Both films reference Lawrence without naming him. But it didn’t seem likely to have been a direct influence on Richard Lester. But it might conceivably have inspired novelist Patrick Ryan, who wrote the source book. The crazy, near-abstract mission is oddly close to satire, but markedly without laughs.

“We can’t enjoy ourselves infinitum.”

Posted in FILM, Radio, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , on February 27, 2020 by dcairns

how-i-won-the-war

The above sentence is from HOW I WON THE WAR, one of the late Charles Wood’s many brilliant lines, which combine slang, gobbledygook and non sequiturs into a kind of personal language named by John Gielgud: Woodery-pokery.

The most melancholy writing task I’ve ever performed was writing obits of the Great Man for The Independent and The Stage, which you can now read. But, at the same time, it was a privilege to be asked. We can’t enjoy ourselves infinitum. Thanks to Kate Wood.