Great Anti-War Films
and empire marked 19th century England, the Victorian
Age. As the 20th century dawned, her people couldnít
foresee the end of that empire. Frank Lloydís motion picture Cavalcade
(1933) examines this transition through the lives of two families:
the well-to-do Marryots and their servants, the Bridges.
begins on New Yearís 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."
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 harmís way to kill foreigners.
Alfred (Herbert Mundin) and Ellen (Una OíConnor) Bridges prepare
libations for the party, they discuss the reason (or lack thereof)
Whatís the sense in the war? Nobody wanted to have a war.
We have to have wars every now and then just to prove weíre
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?
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 theyíre too young
to fight. Peace and happiness to you, my darlings. Peace and happiness
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 donít find Alfredís or Robertís name. Another
woman, not as fortunate, faints upon reading her husbandís name
on that fateful list.
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, "Canít you play any other game
but soldiers fighting each other, killing each other?"
1901, Queen Victoria dies, and Alfred canít imagine England without
her. But as we shall see, the wars of the state continue unabated
as England desperately tries to maintain its Empire.
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.
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 isnít hopeful, but is
content to live for the moment: "We can never in our whole
lives be happier than we are now."
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,
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:
I rather like the Germans, donít you, father?
with the current war, a nebulous conflict that we are told will
take years, Robert is confident in the superiority of the Empire:
If there is a war, how long do you think itíll last?
Three months at the outside.
Perhaps it will last six months.
Economically impossible. Have you any idea what a war costs?
Hell of a lot, I suppose.
A hell of a lot. The Germans can afford it even less than we
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:
Edward missed this, anyhow. At least he died when he was happy,
before the world broke over his head.
Jane, darling. Weíve had wars before without the world breaking.
My world isnít very big.
jubilant Joey, who has decided he wants to enlist (when asked why,
he canít conjure even one reason), suggests they all get drunk and
frolic through the streets. A sober Jane objects:
to the war then. Iím not going to; I canít. "Rule Britannia.
Send us victorious, happy and glorious." Drink, Joey. Youíre
only a baby still, but youíre old enough for war. Drink as the
Germans are doing tonight: to victory and defeat and stupid,
modern American state, in which the government has assumed the role
of parent, delivers a similar message to young people: youíre not
old enough or responsible enough to drink a beer with your pizza,
but youíre old enough and responsible enough to kill foreigners
in distant lands.
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. Lloydís montage, which contains the most compelling
anti-war sentiment in the film, begins with British soldiers marching
in formation and gleefully singing Itís 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 Ö 1916 Ö 1917 Ö 1918)
the soldiers singing becomes less cheery and more morose. More soldiers
die each year until 1918, when the montage climaxes in a crescendo
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 parentsí former servants. He visits her
in her dressing room, and yes, they fall in love. (Canít these Marryot
boys meet a girl outside their family circle?)
for action at the outset of the war, Joey has been wizened by years
itís pretty horrid at times all the muck and filth. Itís 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 Iím just lucky.
wants to marry Fanny, but she knows that he must return to the front
and she doesnít want to become a war widow.
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 doesnít 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 wouldnít 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 doesnít 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.
film then cuts to the Roaring 20s, when Fanny has become a star.
Instead of some upbeat ditty, she sings Cowardís Twentieth Century
Blues, which in context reads as a plaintive anti-war lament:
is it that civilized humanity can make this world so wrong
this hurly-burly of insanity, our dreams cannot last long
reached a deadline, a press headline, every sorrow
value is news value tomorrow
century blues are getting me down
escape those dreary twentieth century blues
if there's a god in the sky, why shouldn't he grin
above this dreary twentieth century din
this strange illusion, chaos and confusion
seem to lose their way
is there to strive for, love or keep alive for
Hey hey, call it a day
nothing to win or to lose, it's getting me down
escape those weary twentieth century blues
the film ends on New Yearís 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.
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
itís 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.
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 weíre top dog,"
the Empire will fall eventually.
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.
Great Anti-War Films:
Gee (send him mail) is
a freelance writer residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He also authors
a monthly column "On Liberty" for The
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