Movies and war: nearly all of us are familiar with the World War II movies Saving Private Ryan, The Dirty Dozen, and Schindler's List, but it was the First World War that popularized war films. Released in the fall of 1916, the British documentary The Battle of the Somme was viewed by over twenty-million people, nearly half of the population of Britain at that time.* Using actual footage from the front lines, the silent film's graphic images of war were unlike anything those on the home front had seen before. The Dean of Durham Cathedral, Herbert Henson, wrote to The Times, objecting that as an "entertainment it wounds the heart and violates the very sanctity of bereavement." What did it mean to sit in a darkened room with others and watch the war in black and white?
A War Film by Teresa Hooley
With a catch of the breath and the heart's uplifting,
Sorrow and pride,
The Mons Retreat;
The 'Old Contemptibles' who fought and died,
The horror and the anguish and the glory.
As in a dream,
Still hearing the machine-guns rattle and shells scream,
I came out into the street.
When the day was done,
My little son
Wondered at bath-time why I kissed him so,
Naked upon my knee.
How could he know
The sudden terror that assaulted me?...
The body I had borne
Nine moons beneath my heart,
A part of me…
It should be taken away
To War. Tortured. Torn.
Rotting in No Man's Land, out in the rain—
My little son…
Yet all those men had mothers, every one.
How should he know
Why I kissed and kissed and kissed him, crooning his name?
He thought that I was daft.
He thought it was a game,
And laughed, and laughed.
The poem begins with the simple phrase "I saw" – and then breaks off, as if the poem's speaker herself must pause to process the moving images she has just viewed. Sorrow and pride co-mingle with horror and glory, and she cannot easily reconcile the contradictions that the film and the war have produced. The war is presented as entertainment, the "week's great draw," and in cinemas where Charlie Chaplin plays out comic scenes, now it is "The Old Contemptibles" (the nickname given to the men in the British regular army who survived the slaughter of 1914) who "fight and die."
As she exits the cinema, she finds that the real world has also shifted and now appears dream-like. The young mother tries to return to normal scenes of domesticity, but haunted by the war film, even her young son's bath-time is an assault as she is seized by "sudden terror." Remembering the great intimacy of carrying her son "Nine moons beneath my heart," she realizes that he, too, will be renamed "It" if he joins the ranks of soldiers: "If someday,/It should be taken away/To War."
The anguish that she has witnessed on the movie screen is now projected onto the body of her young son as she imagines him in a future war, "Tortured. Torn./Slain./Rotting in No Man's Land, out in the rain—". The horrors that mutilate and destroy the bodies of the soldiers are starkly and simply listed. One-word descriptions of death are punctuated as full sentences, echoing the emptiness and demonstrating the inadequacy of words to convey grief and loss.
Her actions, as she "kissed and kissed and kissed him, crooning his name" appear as a kind of charm to ward off the imagined horrors of the future, but the young boy "thought it was a game." In this, the child is linked with the men who direct and propagandize war, often associating it with sports and games, selling it as adventure and competition.
The poem is at its most poignant in its implicit realization that the young mother is powerless to break the chain of violence. For women like the speaker of the poem, the game is averting another war. Published in 1927, the poem and its argument lost the game a mere twelve years later when Hitler's German armies invaded Poland, beginning World War II.
*For more on the film, see the excellent resources on the BBC's website "Why Was the Battle of the Somme film bigger than Star Wars"? The film that inspired Hooley's poem has been debated, as has the date of the poem's composition. "The War Film" was published in Hooley's 1927 collection Songs of all Seasons, suggesting that the 1926 film Mons was the inspiration for the poem. For a fuller discussion, see the excellent post "A War Film" on The Bioscope.