Paul M. Edwards. World War I on Film: English Language Releases through 2014. Jefferson: McFarland, 2016. 265 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-2063-3.
Reviewed by Nicholas Sambaluk (Air University)
Published on H-War (August, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Paul M. Edwards rightly identifies the need for a work that can combine cinematographic history with military history context, surveying a century of WWI-themed films that were released in English. Unfortunately, the resulting work is a disappointment that falls well short of the need.
The concept of the book is crisp. War movies are not only a mainstay of the film industry, but the timing of World War I ensured that the conflict coincided with rapid developments in filmmaking. In the context of a relatively “total” war, the pervasive role of propaganda influenced wartime films’ themes and also ensured that a considerable number (though, as the author points out, not a majority) of wartime films were also war-themed. The centenary of the global conflict offers a valuable opportunity to garner wider interest and awareness in the topic, and it also offers a chance to observe many films from across a considerable time span.
Likewise, the layout is strong. The introductory chapter helps orient the reader to filmmaking of the 1910s, when the war occurred, and the introduction also provides useful information about popular and significant themes, recurrent character types, and issues of authenticity. This chapter is then followed by write-ups about each of a very extensive collection of 350 World War I films. The three most obvious organizational alternatives are to arrange the movies alphabetically, chronologically by release year, or chronologically by the timing of the story. Edwards chooses to organize the films alphabetically, and although this requires the inclusion of numerous headings that direct the reader to look a film up by an alternate title, the alphabetical approach is cogent. This organization is greatly strengthened by the inclusion of an appendix that lists all the examined films by year.
Fully one-third of the films that Edwards examines were released during the war itself, and seventy-five of them in the years 1917 and 1918, when the United States was a combatant power. As Edwards notes, dictated quotas for war films also drove the production of myriad war-themed movies, though the author clarifies that these were quite often short films made with low budgets and with very thin and predictable plots. A common trait that Edwards’s write-ups identify is the haphazard and misleading portrayal of women as either nurses, vamps, or spies. Edwards identifies that “the easy manner in which the female lead was injected into the plot by means of being a nurse or USO entertainer does a significant disservice to the thousands of women who served in these capacities” (p. 42) and endured hardship and danger. However, Edwards apparently inadvertently uses duplicate words also in his introduction chapter (p. 21).
For most of the examined movies, Edwards provides information on the production company, director, and actors. A paragraph outlines the story, and afterward the author ranks the film’s military correlation on a scale from “excellent” to “good” to “helpful” to “poor” to “none.” Another paragraph includes commentary on the film, such as symbolism or relation to earlier or later books or films, vignettes about the people who made the film, or the actual events on which the film was based. A final paragraph in some instances is dedicated to “bloopers,” where historical inaccuracies detract from the film. Edwards does frequently note mistakes made by several of the films he studies.
Unfortunately, and ironically, this book’s Achilles’ heel is its spotty command of historical facts in the commentary sections on the movies. The book includes nearly a dozen inaccuracies, which range from annoying to embarrassing. Milder examples include the Royal Flying Corps being misrepresented as the “Royal Flying Club” (p. 69) or the “British Flying Club” (p. 74). Other mistakes will confuse readers who are not intimately familiar with the war’s history. “Australian troops set in an outpost in the Tyrolean Pass” (p. 71) should instead read “Austrian,” and the confusion is significant since the Australians and the Austrians fought on opposite sides during the war. A character in another movie is described as “going back to Germany and will fight the Germans” (p. 77), whereas the character actually fights for the Germans. Edwards’s write-up that Mata Hari “rather naively became involved with the French and German intelligence networks during the war and she was executed on October 17, 1917, as a spy” misidentifies her execution date by two days but is otherwise correct (p. 148).
Perhaps the most serious of these problems is the two separate and distinct mistakes concerning “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen’s death. Richthofen was actually killed by an antiaircraft machine gunner’s ground fire during an aerial dogfight on April 21, 1918. However, the Royal Air Force long credited Canadian Captain Roy Brown with the victory. Edwards describes a 1983 film as reflecting “the growing the belief among historians that [Billy] Bishop was not responsible for the downing of the Red Baron as claimed” (p. 122). Contrary to Edwards’s writing, no one seems ever to have claimed that Bishop shot down the Red Baron, and Bishop and his squadron were in England refitting when Richthofen was shot down. Both Bishop and Brown were Canadian pilots, and Edwards seems to have confused the two aces. Edwards makes a further mistake when he later asserts, in relation to another film, that “the best current information suggest[s] the Red Baron was brought down by a rifleman on the ground” (p. 200). No one has ever made a credible claim that Richthofen was brought down by a rifleman.
Cumulatively, these mistakes seriously detract from the book’s reliability. A scholar in the field who is willing to make the necessary and numerous annotations and corrections might still be able to use World War I on Film to derive some useful information about various films that touch on the topic of the war. But this work should be avoided by any reader who is not already familiar enough with the war to deconflict the book’s multiple factual problems. This is an unfortunate outcome for a work that is cogently organized and engages with a worthy and timely subject.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Nicholas Sambaluk. Review of Edwards, Paul M., World War I on Film: English Language Releases through 2014.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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