WILLIAM M. DREW
Hollywood is often associated with the imagery of militarism -- Bob Hope supporting the war effort, John Wayne defeating the enemy single-handedly. But from its earliest days, the motion picture community has produced films that have made strong statements against war and its brutality. And some of its leading figures have put their careers on the line by decrying the move towards war.
D.W. Griffith, the great director who more than any one man shaped the future of the American film, spoke out against war throughout his career. His Civil War epic, THE BIRTH OF A NATION, dramatizes the devastation of war and occupation. While the storm over its representation of the blacks in the Reconstruction Era has for many clouded the anti-war element in the film, the controversy at least serves to illustrate Griffith's belief that wars create more problems than they solve. His magnum opus, INTOLERANCE, which includes a depiction of the conquest of Babylon (modern Iraq) by the world's first superpower, Persia, is an antiwar spectacle of such immense proportions that it continues to stir audiences around the world. Pacifist messages also color BROKEN BLOSSOMS by juxtaposing the gentle Chinese hero with the brutal white pugilist, and ISN'T LIFE WONDERFUL? by portraying the wrenching poverty in post-World War I Germany. The director even managed to inject an anti-war motif into his World War I propaganda film, HEARTS OF THE WORLD. In 1936, Griffith was the first signer of the "People's Mandate to End War," a peace movement based in Washington, D.C. that gathered millions of signatures from around the world for an anti-war petition sent to the Inter-American Peace Conference in Buenos Aires.
Griffith's anti-war sentiments may have influenced his contemporaries. The silent screen's premier comedienne, Mabel Normand, who had earlier worked for Griffith, promoted a peace movement on the eve of the United States' involvement in the First World War. Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, two of Griffith's greatest dramatic stars, also expressed pacifist views over the years. Miss Gish, who said she regretted the propagandistic function of HEARTS OF THE WORLD which she made for Griffith in 1917-1918, in 1941 spoke and wrote eloquently against further US involvement in war. Griffith's fervor against war was matched by his chief rival, Thomas H. Ince, whose elaborate anti-war allegory, CIVILIZATION, is credited with having helped re-elect Woodrow Wilson on the slogan, "He kept us out of war."
Contrary to the efforts of Griffith and Ince, the screen was inundated with a flood of hate-the-Hun propaganda films for two years following the US entry into World War I. After a moratorium on war pictures in the early twenties (aside from Rex Ingram's THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE in 1921), a new cycle of realistic war films began in 1925 with the success of King Vidor's powerful anti-war epic, THE BIG PARADE. In contrast to the jingoism of the wartime melodramas, the American war films of the twenties and thirties depict conflict as a meaningless sacrifice. Films such as ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and BROKEN LULLABY are impassioned in their indictment of war. Even in the most heroic of the cycle, the aviation war films that include WINGS (1927), LILAC TIME (1928), HELL'S ANGELS (1930) and THE DAWN PATROL (1930; remade 1938)-there is an undercurrent of realistic pacifism that checks any romanticizing of war. The result is that virtually no American film of the twenties and thirties presents the war as a just, moral crusade. This debunking of war also influenced anti-war comedies with such popular stars as Wheeler & Woolsey, the Marx Brothers and Joe E. Brown. In 1939, the sense of waste caused by war shaped Hollywood's most celebrated sound film, the Civil War spectacle GONE WITH THE WIND. In Europe, too, there was a pacific spirit in films as the great French directors Abel Gance and Jean Renoir confronted the threat of a new war in the late thirties. Gance's J'ACCUSE (both the original silent production and the sound remake) and Renoir's LA GRANDE ILLUSION, along with V. I. Pudovkin's THE END OF ST. PETERSBURG from Russia and G. W. Pabst's WESTFRONT 1918 from Germany, were classic anti-war films released to tremendous international acclaim including the United States.
The US involvement in World War II and its Cold War aftermath, transforming the nation into a global superpower, shattered Hollywood's tradition of pacifism both on and off screen. Not only did propaganda films return with a vengeance, spokespersons for peace were intimidated. In the twenties and thirties, a time of relative peace, Will Rogers remained a universally-beloved figure even as he criticized contemporaneous "frontier" skirmishes involving the Marines in various countries. But in the forties and fifties, Lillian Gish was threatened, Lew Ayres was boycotted, Charlie Chaplin was exiled, Paul Robeson was blacklisted and, for a time, Maurice Chevalier, was persona non grata, all because they had spoken out against war.
Introduction copyright ©1991,
1998-2001 by William M. Drew.
All rights reserved.
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