I was propelled into a reading and movie watching frenzy to make up for my sketchy knowledge of World War One after reading To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild. He not only laid out the history of the major battles on French soil, and brought us the major military figures but the British opponents of the war. It’s wonderfully written and shows what so many movies and memories forget about the context, the opposition, the failed leadership, the ruined lives.
Now there are two large museums open dedicated to thinking about that war. The Museum of the Great War, still in process is in Meaux, France The National WWI Museum in Kansas City, Mo opened in 2006. The latter, which I’ll visit next week, seems more of a traditional war-related effort — meant to honor and inspire. That in Meux, 25 miles NE of Paris, as reported by Edward Rothstein in the NY Times, seems to have a more sober, and telling aim.
…I gasped at an array of those uniforms, many mounted on headless figures, with caps suspended above, carrying their authentic kit bags and trappings of nation and rank. As they were being mounted in cases, it scarcely seemed a fantasy to imagine them awaiting orders. And some, given individualized plaster faces, showed exhaustion or exhilaration in the midst of their stationary marches.
The particularity of the uniforms, the minuteness of the detail open to scrutiny, was surprisingly affecting. The statistics of the war are stupefying, but they are more graspable, and more shocking, when seen not as a conglomeration of data but as an extended sequence of individuals.
One gallery shows the personal possessions of soldiers, including objects that had been carved and shaped from war materiel in the trenches: erotic reliefs cut in the brass casings of shells, bullets turned into salt shakers, musical instruments carved from found wood or bent from metal remnants. There is a dark humor in some objects, a startling resilience in others. And again, the sense is not of an army, but of an astounding gathering of particular people and their talents, arrayed in a field for the sole purpose of killing one another.
I put it so starkly not because the institution does; it is not in any explicit way an antiwar museum. But it is difficult to see the carnage made so personal and not be shocked into dismay. It may even be that visitors are meant to feel this way. While the final historical display shows American troops at war — and they are still regarded as having saved the French from catastrophic defeat — the sense is not of strategy or accomplishment, but of relief.
A visit here will certainly be on my list next trip to France. In the meantime besides To End All Wars, I’ll remind you of the relatively recent movie, A Very Long Engagement, 1932′s powerful Wooden Crosses [Les Croix de Bois] which, along with Milestone’s 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front, is considered in the top rank of real war films. Milestone’s 1948 The Arch of Triumph is not an in-the-trenches film but features Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer as love-doomed immigrants to Paris just as Germany invades Poland. Canadian, Paul Gross, directed Passchendaele, in 2008, a fairly successful mix of a love story unfolding in one of the war’s greatest battles – the battle of Passchendaele, with over 500,000 dead, and Canadians suffering greatly. It’s a bit celebratory but the terrific trench scenes keep the Canadian pride in a grim perspective. It’s a lot better than either version of A Farewell to Arms, 1932′s with Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper, directed by Frank Borzage, and 1957′s King Vidor version with Jennifer Jones and Rock Hudson. Of the two, I prefer the earlier. A gripping documentary, Gallipoli, in 2006, gives a powerful sense of what it was like for Turk, British and French soldiers in that almost 9 month long battle. One of the best such documentary’s I’ve seen — without nationalist preening.
I’ll be back later and fill in some books worth reading….
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