I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
As we begin marking the four-year centenary of World War I, it’s important to remember that there was a short period — only 20 years — when the world could look back and still believe that the Great War had been the “war to end all wars.” This startling and, in retrospect, bittersweet film is a fascinating document from between the wars, before the hindsight that war in Europe had only paused, not truly ended.
Dating from 1934, Forgotten Men is unabashed antiwar propaganda offering interviews with veterans from not only Great Britain — this is an English production — but from Belgium, Italy, and even Germany, too, along with incredible footage from the war across the Continent. In a bonus new interview on the DVD, present-day historian Max Arthur calls this the “most remarkably documentary ever on the First World War,” in part because even he had never seen most of this material before. From the patriotic parades in France and Germany to cheery volunteers signing up to join the army in London the tone turns horrifically somber: we witness plane crashing and battleships sinking, soldiers running through rains of shells and clawing their way out of muddy trenches, men dead and dying in countless ways. The footage is not explicit in the way we’d consider it today — it’s not gory or bloody — but there’s no escaping the knowledge that we are watching soldiers die before our eyes; a hundred years ago seems very immediate. (In one extraordinary sequence, an unseen cameraman shooting a shell attack captures on film the bomb explosion that kills him; the camera survives.)
There are elements of media nostalgia to this film, too. Even in 1934, silent film was already passé, so sound effects were added to the war footage, which isn’t as obtrusive as you might think (perhaps because silent film seems odder to us today than film with sound). The veterans’ perspectives on what they survived is less a part of the film than a similar production today might provide, though what they have to say is poignant and clearly heartfelt. “There were no gas masks” at the first gas attack at Ypres in 1915, a Belgian vet who survived it notes stoically. A British vet expresses awe at the cameramen who shot the footage we see: “I’ve seen them crawling through the mud from shellhole to shellhole, and they took most of the risks we took, armed only with a camera.” (There’s a woman vet, too, who worked with a “Graves Registration Unit.”) It’s intriguing to see how unpolished and awkward these interviewees appear. This is what media looked like before we were all media savvy.
Saddest of all, though, is the conviction and pride with which the film presents its documentary footage and the veterans’ experiences as “a deterrent to war.” Because we know that only five years later, total war would embroil Europe once again. I’m sure I can’t even imagine the dismay and horror these veterans must have felt when they realized it was all going to happen again.