Words: Olivia Boschung (She/Her)
The release of Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front in October 2022 promises a new take on the First World War, with its anti-war sentiment and sympathetic depiction of German troops. However, the centenary of the Great War’s ceasefire was four years ago. We are reaching a point where we must ask: how many more films do we need showing a European depiction of both World Wars?
An abundance of films already exists depicting the familiar events of both wars from the same Western winning position. Although All Quiet on the Western Front depicts a German telling of the First World War, the focus on European warfare is overdone. The majority of narratives told by blockbuster World War films fail to address the imperialist reality of the two conflicts. When these films are created by White-Western directors, like Christopher Nolan of Dunkirk, Edward Berger of All Quiet on the Western Front, and Sam Mendes of 1917, this comes as no surprise.
Imperialism was foundational for the Great Powers in both World Wars. The British and French were dependent upon exploiting their colonies for resources to maintain their campaigns. World War One films usually depict European men fighting in trenches, but what is not shown is the many soldiers enlisted from Britain’s and France’s colonised countries. The involvement of African nations is widely left out in the media, yet they played a decisive role in the conflicts. Battlefields stretched far beyond Europe, with fighting taking place in what is today Ghana due to colonial expansion. The continued portrayal of World War One as a Western war, while omitting battles fought in non-European countries, perpetuates a Western narrative of war which airbrushes an important part of twentieth-century history. This white-washing of the World Wars, even 100 years on from World War One, warps the public perception of history.
All Quiet on the Western Front takes an ‘anti-war’ angle, but can there be a cinematic depiction of war without glorifying war? Many scenes do show the tragedy and horror present in war. The opening scene displays young men and boys as cannon fodder, and the recycling of uniforms gives some scope of the scale of death caused by war. We see how Paul becomes desensitised to death and has to cope with witnessing the death of his friends at a young age. The scenes shown in All Quiet on the Western Front are certainly distressing. However, the depiction of war in cinema inherently tempts the existing fascination with war, especially the World Wars. The obsession with the World Wars is not uncommon in the West, and continued production of war media increases and toys with this fascination, even when the depiction is negative. Every history class is familiar with the military history fanatic. Their captivation is not calmed down by producing media surrounding warfare.
The Second World War is no different. Soldiers from all across the British Empire, especially around 2.5 million Indian soldiers, fought for Britain. India’s involvement in World War Two, essential to the Allied win, is frequently excluded from films. The horror of the Holocaust has been a part of cinematic history for over thirty years. We’ve all seen Schindler’s List, but where are the films about British Colonialism’s role in the War, such as the 1943 Bengal Famine?
In order to progress, Britain must accept the harmful aspects of our past, especially our imperialist history. By not displaying this in our media and wider culture, we cover up British atrocities and continue to hold up a rose-tinted view of Imperial Britain.
We learn about these Wars in school; we commemorate Remembrance Day yearly. Do we really need the addition of cinematic adaptations to remind us of the terrors of the World Wars? The Chinese Civil War, The Mongol Invasions, and Tai Ping Rebellion were all extremely destructive, but do not have Hollywood films made about them. The fact that there are hardly any films depicting non-western wars eradicates them from Western history and paints the false image of war being a Western issue.
The white-washing and lack of acknowledgement of the harmful and problematic actions of Britain during both World Wars within film feed into a harmful British nationalism. The excessive creation of media depicting the Allied Forces as winners of war without acknowledging imperialism creates problematic manifestations of nationalism, which ignores the exploitation of colonised peoples. Directors should challenge this depiction by exposing the imperialism and exploitation which allowed the Allies to win instead of simply depicting them as heroes.