I am one of those cynical miscreants who think that Blackadder Goes Forth adds to our understanding of some of the realities and absurdities of the First World War. In the year commemorating the War’s outbreak, it should be taken at face value and perhaps even given a medal.
Blackadder Goes Forth was the fourth and final series of the BBC sitcom Blackadder. It was broadcast for the first time in 1989 with a storyline set in Flanders during World War I that followed the leading characters’ attempts to escape from the trenches to avoid certain death under the misguided command of General Melchett. The series is especially remembered for its ending, which is emblematically heroic.
The six episodes of Blackadder Goes Forth (uneven as they are) constitute an “anti-war” film – although no one seems to know quite what that is. Writing in The Atlantic (10 January 2014) Calum Marsh says:
“In an interview with Newsweek following the release of Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg declared that ‘every war movie, good or bad, is an antiwar movie.’ What Spielberg means, I believe, is that insofar as every war movie depicts the brutality and horror of wartime, every war movie takes an implicit stand against it – that is, to make war look real is to make war look bad, and to make a movie that makes war look bad is to make a movie that’s anti-war… But it’s important to remember that despite their moralizing, war films are still essentially action films – blockbuster spectacles embellished by the verve and vigor of cutting-edge special effects. They may not strictly glorify. But they almost never discourage.”
When it comes to Hollywood blockbusters, Marsh may be right, although without a doubt there are exceptions. In fact, the First World War inspired several pacifist films. One of the most significant appeared in 1919: Abel Gance’s J’accuse (whose title echoes the notorious Dreyfus affair of 1894). The film includes a resurrection scene in which soldiers who have been killed return to confront those who are still alive.
In the USA in the 1920s quite a few movies depicted life in the trenches, the suffering of the wounded and the mayhem of the conflict. In Big Parade (King Vidor, USA, 1925) the playboy “hero” joins the army and woos a French girl before going into battle. The film was groundbreaking for not glorifying war and its human cost, exemplified by the lead character’s loss of a leg. It influenced all subsequent war films.
In Europe All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, USA, 1930) Westfront 1918 (G. W. Pabst, Germany, 1930), and Les Croix de bois (F. de R. Bernard, France, 1931) profoundly disturbed audiences. These films depicted the mundane and horrific, underlining the deficiencies of political and military leadership. They also took the viewpoint of the common soldier, vilifying the officer class and re-opening recently healed social wounds.
One of the best anti-war films (criticised by Michael Gove, British Conservative Party politician and Secretary of State for Education in his diatribe about the “right way” to remember the First World War) is Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) directed by Richard Attenborough. Its caustic humour has stood the test of time, and it too has scenes of enormous pathos.
In the film’s final shot, the camera pulls back from a single white cross planted on England’s South Downs to reveal the mother and daughters of the Smith family in their white Sunday dresses moving between row after row of grave markers. The screen fills with hundreds of white crosses that blur into a shocking expression of the numbing reality of millions of lives lost.
It is a well known paradox that the great achievements of civilisation – literature, music, art, cinema, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – are not in themselves capable of civilising humanity. Yet there is still a case to be made for opening eyes and ears, for offering different perspectives, for making people rethink history.
Blackadder Goes Forth probes accepted views and beliefs. Its silliness is punctuated by outrageous sallies of humour, laying bare the First World War’s catalogue of blunders that led to so great a carnage. The last scene before the soldiers go “over the top” is bitterly poignant. Following Baldrick’s claim to have one last cunning plan to save them from impending doom, Blackadder says, “Well, I’m afraid it’ll have to wait. Whatever it was, I’m sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman around here? … Good luck, everyone.”