Chaplin Helps Us Look at the Funny Side of World War I A Film Review of Shoulder Arms by Christopher Wostenberg
So far I have reviewed ten movies for Sideline. With those reviews, I have tried to expand your horizon by reviewing some films you might have heard of and some you probably never heard of. I have looked at both American films and foreign language films. But I noticed that the oldest movie I have reviewed is Sunset Boulevard from 1950.
With this review, I want to delve into a movie that is about a century old. I want to take you all back to a time when the only sound for a movie was provided by musicians in the theater where the movie was projected, generally by a single organist. Looking back at all the silent film era movies I have seen, I think the comedies have stood the test of time best. Much of the slapstick nature of these early films is still being utilized in today’s comedies. With that all said, in this review I will look at Charlie Chaplin’s first feature-length film Shoulder Arms, in which Chaplin took on the roles of lead actor, writer, director, and producer.
The plot follows the typical war film. It starts briefly with Chaplin’s Tramp character in boot camp. Next, we see life in the trenches: from the discomfort of the living conditions, to the dangers of combat, to the longing for home. Eventually, Charlie volunteers to infiltrate enemy lines to bring back enemy soldiers.
Chaplin was bold in making a comedy movie about a war that was currently going on and was said to be the “The war to end all wars” (first coined by H. G. Wells) due to its massive destructive nature at the time. The film would be released just a month before War World I (WWI) ended. This makes it one of only a handful of movies about WWI that came out during the war, and it was the only comedy from that handful. The movie depicts, comically, some of the issues faced by the doughboys sent over to the European trenches. One example is when the film depicts the sleeping conditions of soldiers, where many men are crammed together in bunk beds. These conditions get worse when it starts to rain and the only unoccupied bunk is under water. In traditional Tramp manner, Chaplin’s character finds a way to make the most of the situation. Much like his Tramp character, Chaplin was able to take some of the worst aspects from WWI and make the audience laugh, which was much needed at the time.
But in some sense, Shoulder Arms is not as critical of WWI as it could be, especially considering Chaplin’s later work The Great Dictator, which heavily lampooned European fascism in the 1930s. In no way does Shoulder Arms provide commentary on WWI; instead, it sticks to funny vignettes placed in war settings. The Tramp character in other films generally fights against authority figures, like the police, and the wealthy, but in Shoulder Arms, the character tries to be the ideal solider, even volunteering for a dangerous mission. Thus, Chaplin in the same vein conforms to being a good American by supporting the war and not criticizing it.
A lack of commentary on WWI, and the Tramp’s support of the war effort, lead some to think of the film as propaganda for the war effort at the time. The movie clearly places the heroes as the Allies, with the Tramp capturing dimwitted German soldiers including the Kaiser and Crown Prince. The propaganda angle can definitely be defended given that the Tramp character represents the common man that is smaller and outcast from the rest of the solders but is able to succeed to become the hero of the film. I do not think Chaplin meant the film to be propaganda. Instead, I think that he chose to place his film in a contemporary setting, much like most of his films of the time, to provide the audience with something they were familiar with. This goes to emphasize the relatable nature of the Tramp character to the audience and have the audience see the humor in everyday life. This is definitely in contrast to one of the other great comedic actor-director of the silent age, Buster Keaton, whose most famous film The General took place during the American Civil War.
Favorite Scene: The scene I remember long after watching this movie occurs when Chaplin is disguised as a tree behind enemy lines. The still shot that I have provided makes me giggle because Chaplin looks so ridiculous as a tree, but somehow almost believable as well. Just his mannerisms make you want to believe that no one will notice that he is not a tree. At first Chaplin remains stationary, while managing to take out three soldiers. Next, the hilarity builds as he is chased around the woods and just barely escapes capture. The scene demonstrates Chaplin’s great ability to make any absurd setup believable and funny. The costume is wonderful at making it believable that soldiers could make the outfit in the war-torn environment. Additionally, the costume still allowed Chaplin to retain his classic Tramp running style. The idea of disguising a character as an inanimate object like a tree has been used in many comedies after Shoulder Arms, most notably in Bugs Bunny cartoons from Warner Brothers.
Be bold like Chaplin and go watch Shoulder Arms. The fact that Shoulder Arms is both short and over a hundred years old means that it is readily available to watch for free on the internet without copyright issues. In fact, the Wikipedia page about the movie (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoulder_Arms) has the full-length movie embedded. So, take the time to watch it and maybe you will become hooked on classic silent comedies like me.
I close this review with a quote from the dark comedy Heathers, “If you were happy every day of your life, you wouldn’t be a human being. You’d be a game-show host.”