“With its centenaries approaching we can expect many more Great War films over the next few years,” wrote William Philpott two years ago in History Today, reviewing Spielberg’s War Horse. “Can we ask them now to get that war right?”
As we all know, the truth is sometimes too complex for accurate representation in the mass media. Most people are aware that the British cavalry never carried out a Light Brigade-style charge in the First World War, even in its earliest days. Nevertheless, for me, seeing the film for the first time on television, this scene was quite unnecessary to enable us to understand the plight of the millions of horses that died in the course of the war.
Another film I have recently seen for the first time is Richard Attenborough’s 1969 classic Oh! What a Lovely War. Like War Horse, it strays into historical inaccuracy throughout. If you look back through earlier posts, you will see that I praised the BBC’s drama series 39 Days, shown earlier this year, for its depiction of the events leading up to the war and its subtle portrayal of the personalities involved, particularly Sir Edward Gray, the British Foreign Minister, later a close acquaintance of Siegfried Sassoon. In Lovely War, Gray is played by Ralph Richardson as a stiff, unsympathetic figure. Douglas Haig, played by John Mills, fares even worse, stolidly ignoring the escalating numbers of dead and wounded as the Battles of the Somme and Passchendaele are played out, far away from his perch on top of a helter-skelter on Brighton’s West Pier.
Murray Melvin, who appeared in the original stage production, is reported as saying, “The Haig family wanted to take out an injunction on us because we were denigrating their ancestor. But everything that we said on stage was documented. Word for word. Lines like, 'I ask thee for victory, Lord, before the Americans arrive’.”
Unlike War Horse, Oh! What a Lovely War was never meant as a straight drama; it was always a satire, reflecting some of the less pleasant aspects of the conduct of the war and events that the public – when it came out, many veterans were still under the age of seventy - had previously preferred to ignore. When it made its stage debut in 1963, Joan Littlewood's production “seemed to offer a way of thinking about all wars, including the ones to come”, to quote The Telegraph, reviewing a 2014 revival. Bertrand Russell, attending an early performance, said: "If there were any way in which I could make people understand how true and important your play is, I would wish to do it." But Russell was a non-combatant – how could he judge the truth of the war? How could Littlewood (who adapted it from a radio play by Charles Chilton), or the film’s director, Richard Attenborough, who was not even born until 1923? One of the few veterans in the film’s cast was Cecil Parker, who had been a sergeant in the Royal Sussex Regiment; no one seems to have asked him what he thought of it.
If those who were not involved in the war cannot judge the accuracy of the media’s representations of it, can historians do any better? Is it possible for any individual to hope to summarise the historical significance of a four-year world war, or even to scratch the surface? Some historians think they can – yet they insist that Siegfried Sassoon’s satirical poems, a “bottom-up” view of what was actually happening on the battlefield, written by someone who was directly involved, cannot be considered either truthful or representative.
Although a direct comparison between the two films would be meaningless, there is common ground in that they represent the war both at its best and at its worst. The camaraderie of the soldiers in Lovely War shines through against the backdrop of pointless slaughter; the very fact that they are singing in unison tells us that they feel this, and the frequently ironic lyrics do not detract from the general impression of esprit de corps that they at times share with the enemy (specifically in the Christmas scene). This is also shown in War Horse, as soldiers from opposing trenches meet in No Man’s Land in an effort to relieve the suffering of a dumb animal on which both sides have pity. “Good” characters appear in the guise of German grooms as well as British Tommies, and it is thanks to a Frenchman that Albert finally gets his horse back. Admittedly, the fictional Major Stewart acts like a complete ninny, although not as heartless as Haig; the point, however, is not to show up the British military commanders as fools but to illustrate the scale of the carnage faced by all ranks (and their animals) whilst shining a spotlight on individual acts of heroism and compassion of the kind that we know took place throughout the conflict.
Lovely War nevertheless focuses on loss and hopelessness whilst War Horse encourages us to believe in the possibility of survival against the odds. Private Smith ends his war by lying down peacefully in a green meadow among his former comrades (in a scene that blows the climax of Blackadder Goes Forth out of the water); they all look rather fed up. Joey and Albert, by contrast, return to their Devon farm to be reunited with their loved ones.
Looking at it dispassionately, I can’t but agree with William Philpott that “It was a new sort of war on an industrial scale; a hard fought war with the usual amount of military mistakes and battlefield horrors; but a real war and not that of its recurrent cinematic truisms,” even if I don’t agree with him that the representation of the war in satirical works like Blackadder Goes Forth and Oh! What a Lovely War is a misinterpretation.
I would, rather, concur with the Daily Mail reviewer of War Horse who said that “Whatever the reservations about Michael Morpurgo’s story and the movie, it contains a truth which goes far to explain our emotional response.” His name? Max Hastings!