Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Film and the Mechanization of Time in the Myth of the Great War Canon

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Film and the Mechanization of Time in the Myth of the Great War Canon

Article excerpt

Military historians claim with some justice that, since the 1960s, the Western Front of 1914 to 1918 has been partitioned into a "Western Front of history" and a "Western Front of literature and popular culture," the latter being "profoundly unhistorical" (Badsey 51, 39). Much of the blame for this state of affairs is fairly placed on "Paul Fussell's very influential book of 1975, The Great War and Modern Memory, which has played a major part in the teaching of the war's literature. In particular," Stephen Badsey claims, "Fussell and his followers argue that the Western Front can only be understood as a uniquely unhistorical event, taking place outside time" (43). Brian Bond more generally blames "teachers of English rather than history," who "still have more influence in the shaping of views on the First World War, through the teaching of war poetry, and from a narrow selection of poems, especially those of Owen and Sassoon" (Unquiet 88).

I largely agree with Bond about the necessity and justice of Britain's participation in the Great War (2-13) and see real merit in his idea that "popular notions of the First World War in general, and Britain's role in particular, were largely shaped in the 1960s, in part reflecting the very different concerns and political issues of that turbulent decade, but [also] in part resurrecting 'anti-war' beliefs of the 1930s" (51). As a teacher of English and an interdisciplinary scholar of the Great War, I admit to being shocked on occasion by the historical ignorance, not only of students but of colleagues with expertise in Canadian and/or Modern literatures. At the same time, I am troubled by the historian's uncomplicated reliance on "fact" versus "fiction," as when Bond takes "the famous official film The Battle of the Somme" as clear-cut evidence that "the film helped to give viewers some idea of what war was really like," strengthening "their resolve to persevere to achieve victory" (13), or when he insists that authors of "war literature" at the end of the 1920s were concerned with "individual experience," not with the public record (26).

In analyzing the form of The Battle of the Somme, I detect a rather different truth in this film because of its embedment in the industrial process. Poets and novelists who were quite bitter about their "individual experience" were no less bitter about a film that hailed the mechanized temporality of industrial assembly and its denaturing of the human body. The cinematic war thus became a synecdoche for vast changes taking place in the mode of production and in the conditions of modern life. Here, it seems to me, military historians will have to do far better than carp at "postmodern" culture (Badsey 43) for popularizing a "myth" of the Great War that "has displaced truth" (Bond 77)--first, by ceasing to privilege the referent over the form in which it appears, and, second, by asking how cultural change may be linked to changes in the mode of communication. In turn, literary scholars will have to take a more dialectical approach to the processes of cultural transformation in order to show how changes in the mode of communication are linked to changes in the mode of production, a method that I failed to consider in previous work.

"The Myth of the War"

According to the British cultural historian Samuel Hynes, the First World War "altered the ways in which men and women thought not only about war but about the world, and about culture and its expressions" (xi). As he sees it, "That change was so vast and so abrupt as to make the years after the war seem discontinuous from the years before, and that discontinuity became a part of English imaginations" (xi). Yet, when Hynes turns to cinema, its cultural impact, like that of print literature in the first decade after the war, looks very traditional. British Instructional Films, the leading producer of film, was set up in 1919 to recreate key military campaigns of the Great War. …

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