Forgotten Men documentary review: antiwar hopes from between the wars

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Forgotten Men green light

This 1934 English antiwar propaganda film is a fascinating and, in retrospect, bittersweet document of the brief era between WWI and WWII.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m fascinated by WWI

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.

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Mon, Jun 23, 2014 5:33pm

I’m also fascinated by WWI, but living in the US, I don’t think we’ll be seeing too much about it on tv this year. The Military Channel (or whatever it’s called now) used to show two different documentary series on the war, WWI in Colour (narrated by Kenneth Branagh) and one called (I think?) The First World War which is fantastic, ten hours of really detailed information that I had no idea about. (Did you know that the Ypres gas attack was actually not the first use of it in the war–the Germans first tried it out on the Eastern front against the Russians near Warsaw, but it wasn’t effective due to the gas freezing before it could spread too far.)

I’m going to keep an eye out for British documentaries on the war to show up on YouTube, which is my source for British documentaries, a weakness of mine. (I’ve bookmarked the full 20 years of Time Team from Channel 4–I love archaeology, and am also keeping my eye out for any new Neil Oliver docs.)

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Kathy_A
Mon, Jun 23, 2014 5:41pm

Perhaps in 2017 some centenary stuff will start showing up in the US. I’ve been surprised at the number of Americans — even generally well-educated ones — who don’t seem to realize that the war had been going on for years before the US got involved.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Jun 23, 2014 5:50pm

Really? Wow. I guess it’s just not really taught in school anymore.
I always knew that we got in after the Lusitania was torpedoed–what surprised me the first time I looked at the timeline was that my teachers had implied that that was the event that got us in, when in actuality it took another two years for us to formally declare. I had always imagined it was like Pearl Harbor.

When I was in school in the late-70s/early-80s, both my junior high and high school teachers taught history chronologically, and both just ran out of time about mid-20th century, so I got lots of info about the alliances of WWI, but very little about the details of WWII, and damn near nothing about the post-war period. I ended up researching the Holocaust on my own after I saw a tv movie about the capture and trial of Eichmann when I was around 12 years old, because I learned very little about it in school.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Jun 23, 2014 5:54pm

There *are* some US events this year commemorating WWI:

But yes, perhaps more in 2017.

The NY Times had a lot of articles this weekend about the war and its long cultural shadow. (I knew that “in the trenches” and “no man’s land” were phrases from the war, but I didn’t know that “over the top” was as well.)

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Mon, Jun 23, 2014 6:16pm

That’s a great piece. (I posted it on my Facebook page over the weekend.)

Wed, Jun 25, 2014 10:29am

I think that that was part of the reason Britain was relatively unprepared for the Second World War; all too many people wanted to believe that the hell they’d gone through had been worth it, and that nobody could be so stupid as to start all that again.

I’ll keep an eye out for this.

Tonio Kruger
Sat, Jun 28, 2014 7:15pm

Since no one else seems likely to mention it, it only seems fitting that I post this obvious inspiration for this movie’s title. If nothing else, it proves that movie musicals and social commentary need not be strangers even in the worst of times. And if you all haven’t heard of this song already, I would like to think you’re in for a treat. YMMV, of course.

reply to  Tonio Kruger
Sat, Jun 28, 2014 9:37pm

I loved that movie. Yup, thought of that, too. Great minds! ;-)