×

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

More Vintage

  • Makoto Iwamatsu The Sand Pebbles

    How Mako Helped Pave Way for Asian American Actors in 1965 With L.A. Theater Group

    The historic Golden Globe best actress win for Asian American actor Awkwafina reminds us of the pioneering work of creative trailblazers of Asian descent who preceded her. That list dates back to 1936 with Indian-Maori-European actor Merle Oberon’s Oscar nomination for 1935’s “The Dark Angel,” and includes such distinguished artists as Ken Watanabe, in Clint [...]

  • Katy Jurado High Noon

    Katy Jurado's Globe Win for 1952's 'High Noon' Was a Golden Moment for Diversity

    Long before the push for diversity and inclusion, Hollywood had a few Latin/Hispanic stars who made a big impact. One was Katy Jurado, the first Latina actress to win a Golden Globe (for 1952’s “High Noon”) and the first nominated for an Oscar (1954’s “Broken Lance”). She was born Jan. 16, 1924, in Mexico, and [...]

  • Willem Dafoe The Lighthouse

    Willem Dafoe on Early Film Roles, Working With Robert Eggers on 'The Lighthouse'

    A four-time Academy Award nominee, Willem Dafoe developed his cinematic charisma — seen in films like “The Florida Project” and “At Eternity’s Gate” — in his early career in theater. After studying drama at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Dafoe moved to New York in 1976 and joined what would eventually become The Wooster Group. His [...]

  • Scarface Movie

    Looking Back at 'Scarface' and How It Became a Cinematic Classic

    “Scarface,” which opened Dec. 9, 1983, made money at the box office but wasn’t immediately profitable. However, in the 36 years since, the film has been embraced as a classic. The project started as a 1930 pulp novel by Armitage Trail, inspired by gangster Al Capone, whose nickname was Scarface. On April 6, 1982, Variety [...]

  • Irwin Winkler

    'Irishman' Producer Irwin Winkler on De Niro, Scorsese and Early Days as an Agent

    Irwin Winkler has been producing films for parts of six decades. His latest is “The Irishman,” which reunites him with frequent collaborators Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro (“Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” “New York, New York”) as well as Al Pacino (“Revolution”). Winkler was first mentioned in Variety on Dec. 24, 1958, when he was an [...]

  • Jonathan Pryce

    Jonathan Pryce on Early Roles, Reading Reviews and Advice He Got From Lee Strasberg

    Jonathan Pryce, who has done memorable work for 40-plus years, hits a career high in “The Two Popes,” a complex look at Francis, played by Pryce, and Benedict, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. Though Pryce has played well-known figures before, such as Juan Perón in the 1996 “Evita,” he was hesitant to take on Pope Francis [...]

  • Sesame Street PBS

    'Sesame Street' Was First Brought to You by the Letters PBS 50 Years Ago

    “Sesame Street” bowed 50 years ago, on Nov. 10, 1969, one week after the launch of PBS. A month later, Variety reporter Les Brown gushed, “It may be just the show to put public television on the ratings map.”  He was right. “Sesame Street” drew 1.9 million households — especially impressive since it was seen [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content