Sunday, 3 May 2015
1918: Shoulder Arms
In "A Dog's Life", Charlie's tramp meets a pretty girl (Edna Purviance), sees off some ruffians, and the two go off together at the end - much the same story as most of his last few films, but with a cute dog added to the mix. Chaplin, not surprisingly, remarked in his autobiography that one his biggest problems was constantly finding new ways for a pretty girl to fall in love with a tramp.
So, let's look at the other film. Cecil B. De Mille had cautioned Chaplin that it was dangerous to make fun of the war, but being Chaplin he followed his inspiration anyway. It paid off and the film was a big hit.
It picks up with Charlie in a training camp in America, struggling with learning how to march properly with his splayed feet and so on, then cuts to the trenches where he's having a miserable time. (A tracking shot through the trenches anticipates Kubrick's "Paths of Glory".) In one scene he and his bunkmates are trying to sleep in a trench that is flooded in two feet of water.
Meanwhile the Germans are planning their attack, and interestingly Chaplin refuses to dehumanise them, portraying the rank-and-file as reluctant and unfortunate as himself. Only their bullying little officer is the butt of his hostility as he drinks a big tankard of beer as a toast to the coming victory, and doesn't share it with his men. A few minutes later, Charlie's squad has gone over the top and, cutting past potentially unpleasant battle scenes, Charlie captures the whole platoon. His own officer congratulates him. ("How did you capture 13 men?" "I surrounded them.") He offers the Germans cigarettes but the little officer rudely declines. Charlie then puts him over his knee and gives him a good spanking, much to the delight of the German platoon.
Charlie then gets sent on a mission behind the lines, and after an assortment of comic sequences, inevitably resulting in meeting Edna Purviance in a bombed-out house, he ends up capturing the Kaiser himself and delivering him to the allies. (Edna gets to disguise herself as a German soldier in this bit, no doubt the inspiration for Blackadder's "Driver Parkhurst".)
Sadly though, after what looks like a triumphant ending, Charlie wakes up back in training camp. The whole thing has been a dream, and the battle is still to come.
Early signs here of the political views that would get Chaplin into trouble in later years, and finally kicked out of the country in the McCarthy era. Chaplin had no time for patriotism but was very much a champion of the little man, whatever his nationality. I think that was the key to his popularity. Sadly there's never been a shortage of people who can relate to being downtrodden.