Posted by Nancy Northcott Jan 26 2012, 12:49 am in Maisie Dobbs, TBR pile, Tolkien, Vera Brittain, Wing, WWI
Does a confluence of events sometimes send you a message that you should do a particular thing? On rare occasions, I feel as if that happens to me , and it happened with this blog. I’d intended to blog on something else, had planned it out in my head for weeks. And then these things started to happen.
First was KJ’s terrific December 24 blog on the Christmas Eve truce during the First World War (WWI). Then came the release of the movie Warhorse on Christmas Day. I’m not really keen on going to a movie wherein horses charge at people firing guns, but I noticed the movie.
Then came William Boyd’s essay in the New York Times (January 22) about why WWI still resonates in Europe even though the soldiers and most of the onlookers are now gone. In that same issue was Dave Kehr’s article about Paramount Pictures’ restoration and reissuance of Wings, the silent movie that won the equivalent of Best Picture for 1927 (the first such Oscar). The icing on the cake was reading Maisie Dobbs, a mystery set in 1929 London and involving people still coming to grips with the losses of WWI–The Great War, as it was known then, with no one dreaming the next generation would face a far bigger conflagration.
I’m a sucker for a good hero, and war produces heroes. So I figured the universe was sending me a message that I should write about this war, which has long been an interest of mine.
Okay, yes, it’s unlikely the universe really cares what I blog about. But still.
I think my interest in this war owes something to my longtime love of 1920s America, a period ripe with contrast and change, partly because of the war. War generates social upheaval, and social upheaval generates conflict. Maybe that’s why so many romances (and other books) are set in wartime or post-war eras. And really, who doesn’t love a military hero?
But I think my interest in the war itself began when I was spending a month in bed because of back surgery a couple of years after the dh and I were married. We rented classic movies several times a week and watched them together. One such movie was Wings, a silent movie then available only for VCR. We loved the movie. I’ve used it in my class on films of the 1920s, and the students always love it.
I’ve shown films from famous comedians of the age, like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, but the students always prefer the much longer and more intricately plotted Wings. I think that’s because they become more invested in the characters than the shorter comic pieces allow.
The most famous star of Wings was Clara Bow, the “It Girl” of 1920s America. Her costars were Charles “Buddy” Rogers, (on the left, future husband of America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford) and Richard Arlen. They played a trio who’d grown up together in the same small town.
Clara Bow’s character, Mary, had a crush on Buddy Rogers’ Jack. Jack, however, had eyes only for Sylvia, beloved of Richard Arlen’s Dave, and Jack’s jealousy caused a rift between him and Dave.
The two young men enlisted in the fledgling Army Air Corps (remember, the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk just over a decade before fighting broke out) and went off to training camp. In that environment, their friendship ultimately overcame Jack’s jealousy though Sylvia remained a taboo subject between them. She had allowed Jack to believe she might care for him because he was going off to war, something Dave knew but never revealed because he didn’t want to hurt Jack.
Meanwhile, Mary enlisted as an ambulance driver and followed her two friends to the Western Front. I don’t want to spoil the movie, so I won’t give away plot details here. The dh and I didn’t really expect a silent film to interest us that much. We rented the movie because it was famous and it takes a lot of movies to fill up a month. We were surprised to find the characters so engaging and their conflicts so sympathetic–Mary’s ardent desire to help and be with Jack, his hopeless affection for Sylvia, Jack and Dave’s camaraderie, and the true and constant love between Sylvia and Dave–that they caught us both up in the story, as they have my students.
The director of Wings, William Wellman, was a veteran of the Lafayette Escadrille, a group of American pilots who flew for the French before America entered the war. Wellman knew his subject very well, indeed, and turned a vast swath of Texas countryside into a replica of the Western Front. According to Kehr’s article in the Times and to the piece on this film in The Parade’s Gone By, a wonderful history of the silent film era by Kevin Brownlow, many of the stunt pilots were veterans of the war. Many audience members, of course, also would be. Many would also be veterans of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, the climactic clash of the film. So this movie had to be accurate.
Kehr points out that rear screen projection was not an effect available at the time, so all the aerial duels had to be shot in the air, with stars flying planes and cameras mounted on the cockpits. Arlen had flown for Canada during the war, but Rogers had to learn to fly for the movie. The aerial shots are spectacular. This is primarily a film about pilots, but the misery of the ground forces also appears. (For an interview on the restoration of Wings, click here.)
Y’all know I’m interested in military history, and I like a good book about tactics, but I mainly care what happens to societies and to individuals as a result of wars. I think that’s why I liked Wings so much and why I take such an interest in the books I’ve discussed here.
In his essay in the Times, Boyd noted that 2014 will mark the centennial of the war’s beginning. He suggested that the war still resonates because of the staggering casualty counts, which decimated a generation of European men. He described the war as “nineteenth-century armies with twentieth-century weaponry.” The flame thrower and the tank both debuted on the Western Front. The moving poem “In Flanders Fields,” by Lt. Col. John McCrae (Canadian army), has been described as one of the most memorable war poems ever written. Probably the most famous American song about the war was George M. Cohan’s “Over There.” Its jauntiness provides a sharp contrast to the tone of McCrae’s 1915 poem.
If you saw the movie Chariots of Fire, you may remember a scene near the beginning, when Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) arrives at Cambridge and greets a wounded veteran who’s helping carry baggage. A few minutes later, there’s a scene in the college dining hall that shows the long list of the college’s war losses painted on a wall. Women who’d been raised to have marriage and family as their goals suddenly had no one to marry, a problem many American women faced after our Civil War.
A classic book on the war and its effects on that generation in Britain is Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. I own a copy but have to admit I’ve never read it.
I’ve also never read With the Allies by Richard Harding Davis, one of the premier war correspondents of the era, or The Long Weekend, a look at Britain’s interwar social changes by Robert Graves and Alan Horne. Or The Real War 1914-1918 by Capt. B. H. Liddell Hart, considered a seminal history of the war. Or Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. Or Into the Breach, a study of women on the Western Front, by Dorothy and Carl J. Schneider.
Yes, I do own all these books. Someday, maybe soon, I’ll read them all. I may even write about this period if romance opens up to it. Or if I decide to branch out to other genres. Anne Perry has written novels set in the post-war period.
Lest you think these books are contributing to the TBR takeover of our house, you should know they’re all on the “historical resources” shelf, which is what I call all the history books I own. As a lifelong history geek, I own many. They don’t count as TBR under my definition, which I’ve formulated by extending the idea that the writer is a god in the story universe to mean the writer is also a god in her personal library. Feel free to borrow that if it works for you. *g*
We wouldn’t have all the fabulous romance heroes who just happen to be U. S. Marines if not for the Battle of Belleau Wood. It’s not as famous a clash as the Somme, Ypres, Saint-Mihiel, or Verdun but played a vital role in the war. I bought Miracle at Belleau Wood because it was so intriguing. I’ve used it to do research for my classes but not actually sat down and read it.
Before WWI, the Marine Corps was in danger of abolition, seen as unnecessary when the U. S. already had an army and a navy. Belleau Wood, a former hunting ground not much bigger than New York’s Central Park but a mere 30 miles from Paris, changed that.
The jacket copy says a contingent of 200 Marines “held off the leading edge of Crown Prince Rupprecht’s entire army” for almost a month while taking casualties at a rate of 40 percent. It quotes an American general as saying the Marines didn’t win the war but stopped an advance that “would have been the beginning of the end” for the Allies. This battle earned the Marines the nickname of Devil Dogs, which they still use, from their German adversaries.
They also earned, of course, the future of the Corps. Every reader who loves military romances has to be glad of that.
One book on the war I have actually read in its entirety and highly recommend is Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth, by John Garth. (I received a free copy of this book some years ago because I reviewed it.) As one might expect, the book focuses on the experiences of Tolkien and his prep school friends on the Western front, and it’s a story marked by grievous loss.
One of these friends, Robert Gilson, died leading his men across No Man’s Land, as the area between the opposing armies’ trenches was known, on the first morning of the Somme offensive. By sunset, Britain had lost 20,000 men with twice that many wounded. The next day cost her 30,000 lives. They must have left an excruciating vacuum in cities and towns across England.
The book is not all carnage and pain, though. It also spends a fair amount of time on Tolkien’s courtship of his wife, Edith, and traces interesting parallels between Tolkien’s wartime experiences and the war that would change Middle Earth forever.
One of the curious facts Garth included was that the Germans dug deep bunkers off their trenches, nicely engineered and sturdy, far superior to the British fortifications. Tolkien would’ve seen these when the British reached what had been German territory. Garth also recounts the tale, familiar from other biographies, that Middle Earth was born while Tolkien was grading examination papers and wrote in the margin of one, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” which became the first line of The Hobbit and spawned a hugely successful movie saga, not to mention millions of books sales.
Hmm. I’d like to write something that spawned a hugely successful movie saga and millions of books sales. Not to mention action figures. And Burger King toys. Would you?
Anyway, when we visited the Imperial War Museum in London some years ago, there was a big exhibit on WWI. It included a simulation of a trench. I wanted to see it, but knowing there would be realistic smells put me off. I’d had enough olfactory realism at the Jorvik Viking Center and the Bosworth Battlefield museum, so I passed. Still, I’m curious about that exhibit and sort of wish I’d held my breath and gone through it.
The mystery I read, Maisie Dobbs, was a gift from a friend who loves the series It’s about a young woman setting up her own private inquiry agency in 1929 London. Maisie had been a nurse, or VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) on the Western Front. The first case she handles draws her into another involving veterans of the war. As with any war, some of the deepest injuries didn’t show, but these men were vulnerable to exploitation. Maisie rescues a group of them from a horrible situation.
The book’s structure is odd in that we have the first case, then a very long flashback of Maisie’s upbringing and her wartime romance with a young doctor, a wonderful, dashing, romantic figure … who isn’t currently in her life, and then the case mentioned above. At the end of the book, we learn what happened to the doctor, Simon Lynch, and it’s sad.
I’m not normally one for sad books, but the theme of survivors dealing with wartime experiences, of heroes unable to cope with the world–as Frodo couldn’t cope with the peaceful life of the Shire–resonated with me, and Maisie’s success at building a life for herself sort of compensated for the sadness. That wouldn’t ordinarily satisfy me, but something about this story made me okay with it.
WWI also touches on my personal history. My grandfather on my father’s side married three times, as far as we know. A son from his first marriage died in the American Expeditionary Force in WWI. My grandfather died when my father was very small, so I don’t even know this half-uncle’s name. I wish I did.
What about you? Did you have relatives fight in World War I? Have you read much about this period? Do you define some books as TBR and others as not, or are they all part of the bookish invasion of your home? Do you have a favorite war movie or military romance hero?