Sunday, September 18, 2016

The great war goes to Hollywood: Hell's Angels

Film poster, 1929.

Hello, dear readers,
Having just gotten back from a trip to beautiful Los Angeles, it seems fitting to write about the silver screen tonight.

Just recently, my husband and I sat down with some popcorn to watch Hell's Angels, Howard Hughes's 1930 epic about the Great War. I must admit, I was not sure what to expect of this film; though I was aware of its subject matter and some of the drama surrounding its production, I did not know much else about it. 

An episode of the excellent podcast, You Must Remember This, had rekindled our interest in the movie and we moved it to the top of our DVD delivery service queue. The confluence of modern technologies by which the film manifested in our living room seems a fitting frame for the viewing experience; Hell's Angels has an arresting freshness untroubled by the eight decades that stand between its making and modern viewers. Though it often gets rather short critical shrift, I am unconvinced by those who claim that the film's production history eclipses the movie itself.

Hell's Angels features simply awe-inspiring aeronautical stunt sequences and a human drama mirrored by the incredible rise and fall of the flying machines that defy gravity and belief as they arc through the air...There are multitudes of details, themes, and other aspects that one might address in any critical take on this film. I'll focus this post on just a couple of them.

And without further ado...

I was just here! Well, in a way.
The Hell's Angels premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Los Angeles, 1930.

*** England's dreaming *** 

While the film and its actors, for the most part, are American, the story is set in England and Europe. Both places are depicted in times of pre-war innocence and during the grimmer war years. In particular, however, the film anchors itself in an idealized England, a place and time seen as though through a pleasant (Hollywood-mediated) haze, with a sort of nostalgia or longing built into scenes of carousing university students and lavish parties. In the pre-war years, England represents a space of temporary union and friendship for the two British protagonists, Roy and Monte, and their university classmate, a young man summoned against his will to return home to Germany for military service near the film's beginning. 

The dreamy pre-war England of Hell's Angels is defined not only by ephemerality but by a chimerical evasiveness. The film suggests that this place might not exist at all. Like an illusion that lives only on the silver screen, Hell's Angels acknowledges that the England that means so much to some of its characters might be no more than the stuff of dreams. As various characters learn, just as soon as their desire for this place seems to shift to belonging, it--the old-world values, innocence, and the promises it seems to make--seems to disappear, leaving its would-be denizens heir only to a cold awakening, a rougher modernity.

*** Time travel ***

There is no explicit time travel in this film. However, just as it becomes difficult to separate the real from the imagined pre-war England, the past and the present--both the wartime present within the film and the post-war moment of the film's making--maintain a complicated entanglement throughout. 

Early in the film, a chivalric pistol duel is depicted in silhouette, abstracting the setting and characters to harken back to previous centuries. 

A duel.
Still from

The scene precedes the war's advent in the film, but it foreshadows later encounters between two characters who represent not only opposing nations but generations locked into conflict. 

Some time later, a lovely color sequence depicts a ball given just as soldiers prepare to leave for war. Jean Harlow, who plays Roy's promised love interest but Monte's irresistible temptress, is dazzling in a gauzy chiffon and jeweled gown. She is a confident but self-absorbed character, resistant to the old-fashioned future to which she seems doomed because of her connection to the rather conservative Roy.

Jean Harlow as Helen.

While Roy seems to hail from an older world than his counterparts, Harlow's Helen is like a visitor from another time altogether, a kind of futuristic Hollywood yankee in King Arthur's court, if you will. Her modern sensibility distances her from both men, especially the idealistic Roy. She is unconcerned about her reputation amongst her fusty contemporaries or the degree to which they share her vision of the present and the future.

As they register on film, Helen's appearance and attitude are rather jarring. She is not a particularly sympathetic character, but there is something perhaps compelling, or at least startlingly recognizable, in her manner and look. They appear out of time within the film; Helen seems aware that she does not belong to the world that surrounds her. In truth, she looks like she belongs in ours. Just as Roy and others long for an illusory past, Helen seems a harbinger of a world beyond the present, beyond the war.

Helen looks forward, fearlessly. Her suitors see only a heavily mediated version of her--something angelic or devilish, held up only to the somewhat dim light of the present moment. 


I'll stop here for this evening. There is so much to say about this film! I'll follow up this post with another on the fascinating story of the Royal Flying Corps, whose history Hell's Angels prompted me to study.


Text © Fiona Robinson

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Where the nightingales are singing...

Hello dear readers,

A little note tonight to share with you a charming piece of Great War era music...

McBey, James. "A Concert", 1917.  © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1408) 

In an episode of the recent television drama, The Crimson Field, the three main characters, all young VADs, perform a song together for the benefit of field hospital patients and staff. The sweet and wistful song caught my attention and I decided to learn what I could about it.

As it turns out,  not only was "There's a Long, Long, Trail" a most popular Great War tune, but its history also traces back to one of my almae matres.

The song was composed in 1913 by two Yale undergraduates, Alonzo Elliott and Stoddard King. The story goes that the two young men dreamed up the lyrics and melody one lazy afternoon on campus.
1914 sheet music cover

Elliott and King were not soldiers, and the war had not even begun when they wrote this song. And yet, "There's a Long, Long, Trail" seems to have lent itself well to the experiences and sentiments of many of our ghosts of 1914, whether combatant or civilian.

Full of gentle words of longing, the song contrasts a dreamy, moonlit, space that unites the singer and his or her love with the "long, long trail" keeping the two apart. A closeness, all too evanescent, is conjured up in memory and imagination, though reality sets "many a weary mile" between the two lovers.

The song traces the singer's path from a point of loneliness at the far end of the trail to a hoped-for reunion in which the two lovers walk beside one another. Time and distance work against the singer and his or her love at first, constituting the arduous trail that separates them. Ultimately, however, the song suggests that time and distance (covered) are the very things that will bring the lovers back to one another. In the meantime, dreams will have to do.

A couple of the recordings of "The Long, Long Trail" available for your listening pleasure:

  • A soaring 1917 version by John McCormack, likely one that many of our ghosts of 1914 heard.

  • A lovely, much later, 1940s rendition by the Sons of the Pioneers.

I'll close here, hoping that you enjoy this sweet tidbit of Great War musical history.

© Fiona Robinson

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Pigeon Post, Part 1

The war pigeon, Dreadnought, gazing rather lovingly into the eyes of a Royal Engineer.
Part of the "Royal Engineers Signal Service on the Front, 1914-18" collection.
 © IWM, item Q 11954
Hello, dear readers,

The Ghosts of 1914 are here today to add to our little collection of pigeon posts. Previously, we've reviewed a bit of the history of Chere Amie, the brave messenger pigeon, and Martha, the last of the passenger pigeon species that was once enormously plentiful in the United States.

For this pigeon series, I wanted to step back and get a better sense of the story of combat pigeons in the First World War. I've been filling in some answers to the who, what, where, why, and when questions with which I started my research. Slowly, but surely, I've drummed up some details on the history of combat pigeons in the Great War. I'll tell this story in parts; today's installation sets the stage with some essential background information.

To start, Cher Amie and Martha were not members of the same species, in case you were wondering. Combat (sometimes called "messenger", which, as I'll explain later, doesn't really describe the extent of their combat roles completely) pigeons were, as far as I've been able to gather, strictly of the homing variety.

[T]he whole secret of carrier pigeon service depends upon the attachment of the pigeon for its home, no matter how distant that may be...
       --The Contributor, Nov. 1887,  Vol. IX, No. 1. 

Homing pigeons are known and have long been bred for a remarkable ability to fly 'home', averaging impressive speeds and covering great distances. These birds are equipped with what seems an as-yet-not-fully-pinpointed biological navigational system that allows them, when released, to point themselves homewards and simply go!

Some have speculated that the homing pigeon uses magnetic navigation, while others have pointed to a subtle innate sound-based biotechnology. Yet others have proffered a sense of smell as the reason for this bird's wondrous gift.

Whatever the source of their magic, homing pigeons have a few thousand years of messenger service and sporting history across Asia and the Middle East. In the last two hundred years, their talents became even more widely known and employed. Major destinations in the long-haul flight of homing pigeon history in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere include

  • The Belgian Concourse of 1818, where pigeons raced long distance from Toulouse, France, to Brussels. This inaugural race set off a passion for pigeon racing clubs and contests.
    Envelope used as part of the pigeon post preparation process to get messages into France.
  • The Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, during which pigeons were used in place of a disabled telegraph system to deliver thousands of messages to Paris.

By the time of the Great War, homing pigeons were recognized for their speed, endurance, reliability, and efficiency as carriers for crucial information. This species was well-established as a viable communications option, particularly in conditions that made other technologies impossible. While some might consider pigeons a rather rudimentary system alongside such contemporary communications tools as radio and telegraphy, I'm learning that the art and science of pigeon messaging was just as sophisticated, complex, and daring as any others. In fact, as recently as 2009, a homing pigeon beat a South African DSL service in a (rather amusing) data transfer contest. Messenger pigeons show us that modern machinery does not always outperform a bit of ingenious collaboration between the human and animal world.

In our next posts, we'll dig into the nuts and bolts of pigeon training, transportation, and service on the Great War battlefront. Till then, we're sending this post off to wing its way to you.

Thanks for reading!

© Fiona Robinson

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The day after Veterans Day

Hello dear readers,
I'm back, from a rather lengthy hiatus here at Ghosts of 1914.

At 11:00 a.m. today, the 11th of November, I sat at my kitchen table, taking a break from my work. I closed my eyes and tried to reach back through time and place myself in the crowd who stood in Whitehall at the Cenotaph dedication, on 11 November 1920. I tried to hear bells tolling the hour and to feel the quietly shifting presence of the massive crowd that gathered to honor the war dead.

That particular Veterans, or Armistice, Day is one to which I have no particular family or other personal connection, at least of which I'm aware. But my work on the history and literature of the Great War has long made it a compelling moment for me. When the 11th of November comes around every year, its predecessors, especially those of the post-Great War era, echo loudly for me and, though I was not there to witness them, sometimes seem to overlay the present.

I aim to write something for Veterans Day each year here on Ghosts of 1914. One of my traditional Veterans Day messages is to urge you to give thanks and some measure of care, be it volunteered time or a charitable donation, to service people and/or veterans of today.

I almost didn't manage to write something in time for this year's occasion. I've been busy and somewhat burned out, what with a recent house move, a summer full of renovations, and a full time job. I didn't know if I had time or the energy to put something together for the 11th of November. But then, something about that brief moment of reaching back towards that Armistice Day in the ever-more-distant past, however indulgently fanciful it was, made me realize something. Perhaps it was the brief confluence of past and present that turned my mind towards the future. Veterans Day is important, but what about the day after Veterans Day? It is right to commemorate and show our gratitude on the 11th of November each year, to mark the day with solemnity, respect, and perhaps a wish for peace. But when the crowds disperse, when the flowers in wreaths are tattered, the flags put away, and the fanfares subside, it is also right to continue these efforts. When it is not Veterans Day, perhaps as much as or more than on the holiday itself, we must still find ways to recognize, to listen and learn, and to show compassion.

So I urge you, on what is now (nearly) the 12th of November, to consider the day after Veterans Day as another opportunity to participate in some work of remembrance, learning, compassion, and/or service for veterans of current, recent, and/or long-ago combat.

I am glad to pick up my pen here at Ghosts of 1914 once again, and, more importantly, to say "thank you" to service people past and present on the day after Veterans Day.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Ghosts of 1914 and a Christmas Controversy

Hello dear Readers,
It is a bit early for Christmas or other holiday seasonal content, I feel. However, I just had to pop in and share some information I've been gathering on a very striking Christmas television advertisement from Sainsbury's. We don't have Sainsbury's stores here in the U.S., but I found the ad online. Here it is:

This commercial tells a version of the story of the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, an incredible event that I've written about before.

However, the ad has apparently stirred up a lot of anger and indignation, particularly among those who are disturbed at the retail giant's plans to destroy a WWI memorial in Bristol. I've learned that the city's memorial football stadium, an historic tribute to the First World War, is now the target of a massive redevelopment plan by none other than Sainsbury's.

Naturally, the controversy over the expansion of big box stores and their associated projects is nothing unusual here in the U.S. The progression of giant concrete buildings, with their miles of dreary aisles lit by gloomy flourescent beams, is a disturbing trend. Open spaces and small family-owned businesses are often at risk. Here, though, many of the emotions stirred by this commercial and its maker are centered not only around an historic site, but around the rightful ownership of what it commemorates. Sainsbury's, in issuing this ad, is felt to stake some claim on First World War memory or history--and especially to presume to tell a story that many feel is near-sacred. To make this claim more upsetting, the business's destructive plans for the Bristol site make it obvious that preserving that memory or history is not a primary concern. To complicate matters, the ad is a product of a partnership between Sainsbury's and The British Legion, an eminent UK armed forces charity.

I found some excellent articles about the controversy over the stadium and advertisement:
The Independent: "Hypocritical Sainsbury's Ad..."
The Guardian: Sainsbury's Christmas Ad

and a great blog post about the controversy by Chris at The Pietist Schoolman:
"On Advertising, Chocolate, and the First World War"

Though some, including Ally Fogg at The Guardian, say that the advertisement is mostly disturbing not because of the stadium controversy but because it is a commercialized and unrealistic portrait of WWI experience, it is important to recall at least that the Truce really did happen. In fact, I would argue that it is essential to remember that it happened and was documented. It is part of the British (and German) WWI experience, though it is of course not reflective of the larger reality of a soldier's existence in the trenches and in battle. That it seems such an unbelievable phenomenon makes it all the more worth our attention, because it makes the tragedies of the rest of the Great War all the more poignant.

I am not in favor of the commercialization of this story. I wish the advertisement could have been some kind of short film, issued in honor of the centenary of this extraordinary event and not linked to any commercial entity. It is worth such remembrance. I respect and sympathize with the anger that the ad has generated among those who do not wish to see the Bristol stadium torn down, and for that reason, I respect the feelings of those who would rather that Sainsbury's had never made a commercial telling a First World War story. What I hope, though, is that this commercial and its controversy help the WWI history community to grow, and for more people to be inspired to learn about the ghosts of 1914. 

The real message of the Christmas Truce has nothing to do with any shop, business, or any commercial objective, no matter who presumes to put their stamp on the telling of its story or how a retailer might seek to stir our emotions.  Those of us who have long been moved by this event have known that the real message is something that belongs to everyone; it is a gift that can never be transformed into a commodity. And what is that message? It's a simple one, in my opinion. "This was possible", the ghosts of the Christmas Truce tell us, giving us a glimpse of the desire for peace that lives in all of us.

A British officer's photo of soldiers meeting during the Christmas Truce of 1914. © IWM, Item Q 11718.

With early wishes for a peaceful and cheering holiday season,


© Fiona Robinson

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remembering (and Thanking) Veterans

Hello dear Readers!
A brief post today to honor Remembrance Day/Veteran's Day. THANK YOU all service members, past and present. I've been so impressed with the poppy installation at the Tower of London, honoring those who gave their lives in the Great War.

Let us give equal thanks, attention, and care to living veterans. As I have done in years past, I urge you to donate time and/or funds to supporting service people who need our help. Though I am not affiliated with it, I can recommend The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, for a start.

I will close here, with links to past posts about Remembrance Day and resources for giving.

With Thanks,

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Passenger Pigeon: Avian Ghost of 1914

Martha, in the Smithsonian Collection
Image © Smithsonian

Hello dear readers,
I'd like to bring you today the first installment of a mini blog series about carrier pigeons and their work in the Great War. My interest was inspired this summer by the sight of Cher Ami(e), the brave little carrier pigeon, whose steely determination and intelligence saved many human lives.

Though she did not have a direct connection to the Great War, another female pigeon has been generating a lot of buzz and a kind of collective indirect nostalgia recently--this is Martha, the last passenger pigeon known to humankind. While British Great War history is our usual province here at Ghosts of 1914, today we cross the Atlantic back to the United States for a brief glimpse of this enigmatic bird's story.

Though there is at least one claimed modern sighting to be found online, for the rest of us an encounter with a live passenger pigeon is something only to be imagined. At one time, clouds of these birds roved American skies. The beautiful painting below, by Michigan artist Lewis Cross, gives us an idea of  what was once an unremarkable sight: 
Lewis Cross,  Passenger Pigeon landscape. © Lakeshore Museum Center, Michigan. 
Image from 

Cross captures the sense of infinite plenty, the sky-darkening profusion, that might have led people to believe that there could be no end to the passenger pigeon. The swirl of birds in the painting could be taken for a kind of cornucopia, with its wrapping horn-like form. It is a kind of infinity symbol, arcing this way and that across the horizon. There is a dark presentiment, though, in the tapering trail of birds heading into the distance at the right. The pigeons swoop around and into this dwindling formation; Cross, who painted this piece years after Martha's passing in 1914, in this way shows us the past and present, the broad swath of birds stretching overhead and the tiny trace towards which they move.

Audubon sketch of a passenger pigeon, 1809.
© Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library/Library of Congress 
The passenger pigeon's extinction centenary is a strange anniversary of sorts. It is a moment to mourn the solitary bird, Martha, whose rusty breast, soft brownish grey wings, and striking red-rounded eyes are quite haunting. What a burden to be the last of her kind! It is also a moment when those who never could have seen a live passenger pigeon are made wistful and sad at the thought that any species so visibly available at one moment could vanish in virtually the next. There are even proponents of bringing the passenger pigeon back, using modern DNA research and other technologies to resurrect a species that we identify today with still-shocking invisibility.

There is so much good content available online about the passenger pigeon. I'll close this prologue to our eventual foray into carrier pigeon history with some links for the curious.

Till next time,

© Fiona Robinson

More about the Passenger Pigeon: