The best audience for a presentation about World War I is an elderly audience. At least, that was my experience this week.
I already wrote about the excellent presentation Tuesday by two English professor who also teach film studies at Mount Mercy—Dr. Joy Ochs and Dr. Jim Grove. Thursday, Dr. Ochs introduced the movie “All Quiet on the Western Front” to an audience of around 60 in Betty Cherry Heritage Hall.
And then the movie began. It was a bit old-fashioned and clumsy at parts—but I was more impressed at how “modern” it seemed. They didn’t have any CGI, of course, so had to “stage” everything, but they still did well.
It felt pretty grim. You could almost feel yourself slipping in the mud. The acting was a bit 1920s—sometimes lines felt like they were needlessly shouted or a bit overdone. But still, the story was powerful and powerfully told.
It has been years since I read the novel, but I still knew what to expect. Still, the movie presented a compelling story about the impact of war. Without knowing the term, it talked about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. There was evidence that starvation makes the best aphrodisiac, and a strong sense of disconnect between what those on the “home front” think about a war, and what the soldiers fighting it actually experience.
The soldiers struggled to understand why a war even goes on. “It’s some kind of fever,” one character suggests.
It’s pretty remarkable that the movie was made in the late 1920s in America. I suppose it had to be 10 years after the war in order for a movie from a German point of view to be created in Hollywood. And its strong anti-war message probably resonated in an isolationist America.
Don’t expect a comedy if you rent this movie. It’s not exactly as powerful as “Schindler’s List,” but it’s a somber, and surprisingly realistic, war film.
The day after watching that movie, I found myself at Meth-Wick, a large assisted living facility in Cedar Rapids. The university sponsors a series of events at the facility; it is sort of a visiting scholar’s set of lectures. I was there once in the spring to ring bells with the Mount Mercy Handbell Ensemble, and today gave a World War I series overview.
Well, there were more than 70 people in the room at Meth-Wick, pretty much a full house. And they were clearly into the presentation. If I spoke a bit too far from the microphone I was quickly corrected. The nonverbal communication from the audience was what every professor would wish for—they were hanging on my every word.
I felt just a little weird to be enjoying myself so much. After all, recollecting World War I is a slightly somber process. One reason we have the series of events at MMU this fall is ruminate on war and peace and to pose the question of why the “war to end war” started a century of fighting.
But, I admit it, I had a blast. I got through my “talk” in about half an hour. I’ve used the same lecture with students, and it has always taken around an hour, but with university students, it always seems you have to explain so much more. On one slide, I have a photo of the Iowan recognized as the first American casualty of World War I. In an MMU class, you can say “this man’s name was used for a big mall in Des Moines,” and if he’s not named “Jordan Creek,” the students don’t know who that could be.
Today, I pointed a laser at that photo and a strong, clear voice called out from the audience: “That is Meryl Hay.” Yes ma’am, it sure is. And you just short-circuited 10 minutes of vamping. Well done.
Anyway, although there was a bit of a pause when I was done speaking, and I had close to half an hour left for comments or questions, then they started. It’s a bit intimidating to have the great-grandparent generation ask you history questions.
For example, one question began with this preamble: “I taught at the University of Dubuque for 20 years …” And he had visited New Zealand and marched in an ANZAC Day parade and wanted to talk about the ANZAC contribution to World War I. Luckily, I’ve studied enough history to be familiar with the battle of Gallipoli, so instead of tripping me up, the line of questions led to a nice conversation.
There were all kinds of similar interesting, and informed, questions. Several people asked about the new countries formed after World War I, like Czechoslovakia (a Cedar Rapids crowd, right?).
It’s one thing I’ve noticed about this WWI series. Many of the older visitors to campus linger after each talk because they have stories that they want to share. They, of course, are not old enough to have direct World War I memories—but one attendee today told me that not only was he a World War II veteran, but both his father and his mother were World War I veterans.
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to let you know that the main characters in “All Quiet on the Western Front” don’t survive the movie. After all, if you recall the novel and know where the title comes from, you get the point. The poignant last image in the movie is the faces of men who have died, superimposed over a vast cemetery.
But it’s also true that the world didn’t die in World War I—some of the real soldiers survived and had families and some of those families attend events 100 years later to recollect this large, sometimes tragic narrative that we are part of.
And I’m glad to meet them and hear their stories. A high point of the whole MMU series so far has been those little personal connections revealed by the sons and daughters of the World War I generation.