The Great Anti-War Films Cavalcade

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Prosperity
and empire marked 19th century England, the Victorian
Age. As the 20th century dawned, her people couldn't
foresee the end of that empire. Frank Lloyd's motion picture Cavalcade
(1933) examines this transition through the lives of two families:
the well-to-do Marryots and their servants, the Bridges.

Cavalcade
begins on New Year's Eve 1899. A title card sets the scene: "As
1899 ends, England is at war with the Boers in South Africa, but
the tide of battle is against her – it is a national emergency."

As
we know all too well, fighting wars thousands of miles from our
own borders is always a national emergency, a task so vital that
governments must send their subjects into harm's way to kill foreigners.

As
Alfred (Herbert Mundin) and Ellen (Una O'Connor) Bridges prepare
libations for the party, they discuss the reason (or lack thereof)
for war:

Ellen:
What's the sense in the war? Nobody wanted to have a war.

Alfred:
We have to have wars every now and then just to prove we're
top dog.


It
is hardly a stretch to imagine a 21st Century American
couple having this same exchange. Does the Bush administration wage
The War on Some Terrorists sans a Congressional Declaration
with a sense of purpose? Or is it simply that might makes right?

Jane
Marryot (Diana Wynyard) occupies the moral center of the film with
an uncompromising objection to war and the senseless death it creates.
While putting her two sons, Edward and Joey, to bed, she is grateful
for their youthful innocence: "Thank heaven they're too young
to fight. Peace and happiness to you, my darlings. Peace and happiness
always."

Ellen
and Jane bid their husbands an anguished farewell as they depart
for the war in South Africa. Later, they check posted casualty lists,
relieved that they don't find Alfred's or Robert's name. Another
woman, not as fortunate, faints upon reading her husband's name
on that fateful list.

In
a clever contrast, Lloyd cuts to a scene showing Edward and Joey
and their young friend Edith playing with toy soldiers as they argue
about who will suffer the indignity of portraying the Boers in their
make-believe battle. Jane knows that the war is anything but imaginary
and admonishes the children, "Can't you play any other game
but soldiers fighting each other, killing each other?"

In
1901, Queen Victoria dies, and Alfred can't imagine England without
her. But as we shall see, the wars of the state continue unabated
as England desperately tries to maintain its Empire.

The
film cuts to 1908. Alfred has purchased a London pub. He misses
his glory days as a soldier and revels in telling war stories to
his patrons. Alas, he has been imbibing the profits and has fallen
behind in his rent. In fact, he has become a miserable drunk and
meets an accidental, but not surprising, demise.

Meanwhile,
the Marryot boys, Edward and Joey, have grown up. Edward (John Warburton)
has fallen in love with his childhood friend Edith (Margaret Lindsay).
They marry and embark on a honeymoon cruise, which a title card
indicates is on April 14, 1912. Deliriously happy, they talk about
their prospects for long-term bliss. Edith isn't hopeful, but is
content to live for the moment: "We can never in our whole
lives be happier than we are now."

As
they walk away, we see a life buoy hanging from the deck. Emblazoned
across it is, as you may have surmised from the foreshadowing date,
Titanic.

The
cavalcade of time marches inexorably forward to 1914 as Robert (Clive
Brook) and his son Joey (Frank Lawton) discuss the inevitable war
with Germany. The fact that it is always governments who start wars
and conscript young men to fight them against those with which they
have no grudge is highlighted in this exchange:

Joey:
I rather like the Germans, don't you, father?

Robert:
Enormously.

Unlike
with the current war, a nebulous conflict that we are told will
take years, Robert is confident in the superiority of the Empire:

Joey:
If there is a war, how long do you think it'll last?

Robert:
Three months at the outside.

Joey:
Perhaps it will last six months.

Robert:
Economically impossible. Have you any idea what a war costs?

Joey:
Hell of a lot, I suppose.

Robert:
A hell of a lot. The Germans can afford it even less than we
can.

Later
that evening, they receive word that the war has been declared official.
This news makes Jane physically ill. Instinctively knowing that
she will suffer heartbreak in the future, she grasps at a straw
of positive light:

Jane:
Edward missed this, anyhow. At least he died when he was happy,
before the world broke over his head.

Robert:
Jane, darling. We've had wars before without the world breaking.

Jane:
My world isn't very big.

A
jubilant Joey, who has decided he wants to enlist (when asked why,
he can't conjure even one reason), suggests they all get drunk and
frolic through the streets. A sober Jane objects:

Drink
to the war then. I'm not going to; I can't. "Rule Britannia.
Send us victorious, happy and glorious." Drink, Joey. You're
only a baby still, but you're old enough for war. Drink as the
Germans are doing tonight: to victory and defeat and stupid,
tragic sorrow.

The
modern American state, in which the government has assumed the role
of parent, delivers a similar message to young people: you're not
old enough or responsible enough to drink a beer with your pizza,
but you're old enough and responsible enough to kill foreigners
in distant lands.

Cavalcade
is based on a Noel Coward stage play, so dialogue carries the film.
The power of a motion picture, however, is in its visual images.
"Showing" is more convincing than "telling."
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a film montage is worth
ten thousand. Lloyd's montage, which contains the most compelling
anti-war sentiment in the film, begins with British soldiers marching
in formation and gleefully singing It's a Long Way to Tipperary.
Soldiers then begin to fall dead from enemy gunfire and bombs. But
rather than depicting battle scenes, Lloyd elects to show them dropping
from formation. As the years roll by (1915 … 1916 … 1917 … 1918)
the soldiers singing becomes less cheery and more morose. More soldiers
die each year until 1918, when the montage climaxes in a crescendo
of death.

Joey
and his buddies are on leave and enjoy drinks at a jazz club. When
he hears that the next performer is Fanny Bridges, he realizes that
she is the daughter of his parents' former servants. He visits her
in her dressing room, and yes, they fall in love. (Can't these Marryot
boys meet a girl outside their family circle?)

Ready
for action at the outset of the war, Joey has been wizened by years
of it:

Yes,
it's pretty horrid at times – all the muck and filth. It's a bit
weird when you find yourself the only surviving officer who
went out with the battalion. Of course, it may be, sort of,
the law of averages to make up to mother for Edward going down
on the Titanic. Or perhaps I'm just lucky.

He
wants to marry Fanny, but she knows that he must return to the front
and she doesn't want to become a war widow.

Later,
Ellen pays Jane a visit and wants to discuss their kids marrying.
Jane reprimands Ellen for reading private letters that Joey has
sent to Fanny. Jane doesn't want to intrude on the affairs of her
son, who is, after all, a grown man. Ellen mistakenly perceives
this to be a class issue: that Jane wouldn't want her son to marry
beneath his station. As word of the Armistice arrives, so to does
a telegram. Knowing that no news is good news, Jane doesn't have
to open the envelope to know that her only remaining child has been
killed in a pointless war. The confirmation causes her to faint.
This scene is juxtaposed with a scene of a raucous parade of celebration.

The
film then cuts to the Roaring 20s, when Fanny has become a star.
Instead of some upbeat ditty, she sings Coward's Twentieth Century
Blues, which in context reads as a plaintive anti-war lament:

Why
is it that civilized humanity can make this world so wrong
In
this hurly-burly of insanity, our dreams cannot last long
We’ve
reached a deadline, a press headline, every sorrow
Blues
value is news value tomorrow
Twentieth
century blues are getting me down
Blues,
escape those dreary twentieth century blues
Why,
if there’s a god in the sky, why shouldn’t he grin
High
above this dreary twentieth century din
In
this strange illusion, chaos and confusion
People
seem to lose their way
What
is there to strive for, love or keep alive for
Say,
Hey hey, call it a day
Blues,
nothing to win or to lose, it’s getting me down
Blues,
escape those weary twentieth century blues

As
the film ends on New Year's Eve 1932, Robert and Jane toast to "dignity,
greatness and peace for England again." How ironic this proves
to be as the ascension of Hitler effectively ends the British Empire,
and the blues of the twentieth century have only just begun.

Cavalcade
garnered three Oscar Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best
Interior Decoration. Wynyard was also nominated for Best Actress.
Despite these awards, the film is not without its faults. Because
it's an early talkie, some of the acting is melodramatic, perhaps
overly theatrical. The sound is inconsistent. Because it is so faithful
to the Coward play that is its source material, the film is too
reliant on dialogue.

Despite
these shortcomings, Cavalcade is worth screening for its anti-war
message alone. Also interesting is the way that war and adversity
affect upper class and working-class families differently. The most
important message of the film may be this: when the Empire engages
in war "every now and then just to prove we're top dog,"
the Empire will fall eventually.

Antiwar.com
is compiling a list of great anti-war films and books. If you have
a suggestion for a book or film that you think should be included,
send me an email with the
title and a one- or two-sentence synopsis or blurb. This will be
valuable not only to Antiwar.com,
but also to me as I write reviews for this series.

The
Great Anti-War Films:

December
1, 2001

Rick
Gee (send him mail) is
a freelance writer residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He also authors
a monthly column “On Liberty” for The
Valley News.

Rick
Gee Archives

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