It is a truism of twentieth-century European history that the First World War formed or, from certain points of view, deformed all aspects of European life. Certainly, the commemoration of that war occupied a central position in European thought in the two decades following its conclusion. Individual and collective experiences of combat, transmuted through artistic media, emerged as myths of the war, encompassing both the experience of the war and an interpretation of that experience.(1) These myths, especially the ones that developed into institutionalized national myths, are central to interwar debates on the life and direction of the individual and of the nation. Many critics have assumed that the experience of the First World War was universal--an absolute paradigm, undifferentiated by historical and cultural diversity. It was not. At the triumphal culmination of the "principle of nationality," the experience was supremely national, shaped by national history, culture, and tradition.(2)
The divergent national myths of the war are mirrored most significantly in the combat narratives, and then with increasing impact in the popular form of the cinema, particularly with the arrival of sound films in 1929.(3) The public reception of the war novels and the films based on them can serve as a barometer of national attitudes concerning war, national identity, and national culture.
This essay will examine two important combat novels usually regarded as pacifist or antiwar novels, and the films based on them: first, Roland Dorgeles's testimonial Les Croix de bois (1919) and Raymond Bernard's 1932 film of it; and second, Erich Maria Remarque's Im Westen nichts Neues (1929) and Lewis Milestone's 1930 American film version of it, All Quiet on the Western Front. The transformation of novelistic fictions into film fictions and the popular, critical, and even official reception of these works reveal patterns of national thought between the wars--patterns which have left their legacy in our use of political terminology to describe cultural artifacts and movements.
The myth of the First World War that emerges in France between the wars has two stages, only the first of which concerns us here. That stage concentrates on realistic temoinage--direct testimony of the experience of combat that, overtly or covertly, subsumes within it a valuation of the experience. Before examining Dorgeles's novel, it is worth taking a moment to recall the condition of France at the end of 1918. Out of a total population of a little over 40 million, metropolitan France had lost almost two million men dead, and more than a million permanently disabled. To put those figures in a human context, Jean Giono averred that of the original 1914 complement of his company, there were only two survivors, himself and his captain.(4) In addition, a wide swath of northeastern France had been laid waste, with some areas, particularly around Verdun, rendered permanently uninhabitable. Despite such losses, France and her allies had won the war, to the point of being able to impose a peace settlement on Germany. Thus in France, the problem inherent in commemorating the war, that is, in bestowing meaning on it, is one of weighing victory and loss, and concerns the answer to Henri de Montherlant's question: "was the good of the war worth its evil?"(5)
The French had already begun to answer that question in their public commemoration of the war. From the beginning, commemoration of the war was indissolubly linked with the memory of the dead. Significantly, the only national monument to the dead of the First World War is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, beneath the Arc de Triomphe, a choice of site that conflates national victory and national loss. Local ceremonies usually took place at the village monument to the dead of the war--there is scarcely a village in France that does not have such a monument--at 11:00 A.M. on Armistice Day. The participants included the local authorities, former combatants, schoolchildren, and the populace. …