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World War I, 100 Years Later: How Hollywood Short-Changed the Global Trauma

Nov. 11 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, Armistice Day (or Remembrance Day in Britain and other countries, and now called Veterans Day in the U.S.). World War II endures as part of our collective DNA, because filmmakers dealt with it extensively at the time, and continue to do so. (Two best picture Oscar nominees last year were about WWII: “Darkest Hour” and “Dunkirk.”)

But the First World War was mostly left unexamined, because it was so traumatic; casualties included 9 million killed in combat and 7 million civilians dead. Battles were deadlier, due to innovations like aerial attacks, machine guns and chemical warfare.

On Nov. 15, 1918, Variety ran multiple stories about the newfound peace. There was also a full-page guest essay by H.B. Marinelli, who ran a theatrical booking agency. Marinelli was full of optimism for the future, saying, “This war has taught humanity that Brutal Force cannot, should not, and must not rule. … Let us hope now that Everlasting World Peace will become a reality soon.”

The fighting, which lasted from July 28, 1914 until Nov 11, 1918, was called the Great War; they didn’t number it, because no one could even imagine there would be anything like it again.

Variety didn’t cover world events per se in those days, but the news stories provide clues about what life was like.

In May 1916, an article reported that English stage producers “are beginning to build their productions in America and having them shipped to London for staging. The reason is the scarcity of labor in London.” (The U.S. joined the war effort on April 6, 1917, long after other nations.)

Virtually every able-bodied man was in the service. London’s Drury Lane was known for its large-scale extravaganzas, but a June 16, 1916, story noted that the new revue “will be extremely shy of men,” with a chorus ratio of one male for every eight females. However, “William J. Wilson, who staged the production, is more worried about the stage mechanics than the lack of a male chorus.” He had reason for concern. A month later, on July 19, 1916, Variety reported that 27 people were injured at the theater when a scaffolding collapsed. “It was improperly secured, because the majority of those employed as stagehands are either aged and infirm, or addicted to drink. It is believed the accident was caused by the latter.”

The Nov. 15, 1918, issue of Variety featured a number of Armistice stories on page 1. In terms of songs, “The publishers of popular music were falling over one another this week in the rush to get out in the market ‘peace songs’ to replace war songs. Most of the new lyrics are about the boys returning home.”

With the legit theater, “The prevailing impression in theatrical circles is that the crop of war plays will no longer enjoy widespread popularity.”

Under the headline “Passport Restrictions Still On,” the report said, “The Department of State will be most severe in restrictions placed on the issuance of passports for England and the Continent for the year after peace. Only people with urgent business allowed. This is because, if the bars were let down, there would be a rush of morbid sightseers to the battle fields.”

News traveled slowly in those days. The Dec. 6, 1918, issue featured a report from Paris: “Free shows were offered during the afternoon of Tuesday, Nov. 12, to celebrate the signing of the armistice and consequent end of the war. The enthusiastic scenes witnessed in the theaters and music halls during the week were unique. The Marseillaise was repeatedly sung during the performances, soldiers getting on to the stage in some resorts to lead the measure.”

One of the first releases from MGM was the King Vidor-directed “The Big Parade,” with the studio’s Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg taking a big gamble to present an unglamorized view of war, with a tearjerker ending. They worried audiences might not want to relive the trauma. It was a huge hit, which encouraged “Wings” (the first best-picture Oscar winner), then “All Quiet on the Western Front” and the 1957 Stanley Kubrick classic “Paths of Glory.”

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, Peter Jackson created “They Shall Not Grow Old,” using archival footage from the Imperial War Museum. Its BBC showing is a key part of Remembrance Day weekend, and the film will open in the U.S. in December.

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