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?
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.
The Great Anti-War Films:
- All Quiet on the Western Front
- Paths of Glory
- Grand Illusion
- The Thin Red Line
- The Americanization of Emily
December 1, 2001