Charlie Chaplin’s War Effort

Charlie Chaplin (centre), livin’ the dream. Image: TCM

Just weeks before the end of World War I, Charlie Chaplin released Shoulder Arms (1918).

The film, a satire of the Great War, is often cited as the first feature film Chaplin directed, even though it’s only 45 minutes long*. Shoulder Arms pokes fun at army life, the drudgery of the trenches, and – naturally – the Enemy.

Chaplin stars as The-Tramp-Turned-Doughboy, an infantryman who’s always half a step behind the rest of his fellow soldiers. It’s not that he’s thick; to him, the army is a foreign country to which he’s not yet acclimatized.

No matter! His squad is sent “Over There” (to Europe), where they find themselves assigned to a cramped, miserable trench.

Chaplin’s character shares a dugout with two other doughboys, and when it rains, the dugout gets a little damp. Did we say damp? We meant deluged. (Incidentally, the secret password is: “It’s wet”.)

But there is mail service, and nearly everyone receives a Package From Home, except Chaplin. Alas, there are no socks or baked goods for him. He’s so desperate for news, he reads a letter over a friend’s shoulder, savouring words not written for him.

It’s pitiful moment. We feel his acute isolation and loneliness, fighting a foreign war thousands of miles from home.

But Chaplin’s Little Tramp always makes the best of it, even here under constant enemy fire. He uses the situation to his advantage. For example, when he wants to open a bottle of wine, he holds it above his head, and an enemy bullet shears off the top. To light a cigarette, he likewise holds it aloft; the friction from a stray bullet lights it for him.

He learns to overcome a desperate situation and, in a way, makes us believe we can, too.

Chaplin is ready to face the enemy. Image: IMDB

If you think it was a risky for a filmmaker – who did not fight in WWI – to release a film while the war was still In Progress, you wouldn’t be the only one.

Many online sources say Chaplin was cautioned against making the film, and he himself had doubts before the release. But he showed the film to actor Douglas Fairbanks, who laughed in all the right spots, and this convinced Chaplin to release the film in October, 1918, about two weeks before the Armistice would be signed.

Now, there are conflicting stories about why Chaplin didn’t enlist. Some say he was reluctant to join the war effort, so he sold War Bonds instead. Another source says Chaplin’s studio contract didn’t permit him to leave the United States. Others say he tried to enlist, but was rejected for being underweight.

Regardless, audiences loved Shoulder Arms, particularly soldiers returning home from the war.

The New York Times reviewer said, “‘The fool’s funny,’ was the chuckling observation of one of those who saw Charlie Chaplin’s new film, Shoulder Arms…and, apparently, that’s the way everybody felt. There have been learned discussions as to whether Chaplin’s comedy is low or high, artistic or crude, but no one can deny that when he impersonates a screen fool he is funny.”

This would be Chaplin’s most celebrated film to date, both commercially and critically.

As for the title, Shoulder Arms, it’s a military command. Here’s a diagram of the Right Shoulder Arms, which, we’ve learned, is a way to carry your rifle:

Image: W.W.II Training Manual

You’ve probably read about life in the trenches during WWI. Not only did soldiers have to guard against weather and a constant threat of attack, there were lice, rats and trench foot.

It was a grim, awful war. Poison gas was used on unprepared troops, and for the first time, soldiers were diagnosed with a condition called shell shock.

Chaplin’s film doesn’t delve into these issues, but it also doesn’t glamorize war. The sets look authentic, especially the trenches, complete with sandbags and ladders for quick access to No-Man’s Land.

In our opinion, Chaplin struck a careful balance between satire and empathy. In its way, Shoulder Arms was a gutsy film – and a fascinating one for us today.

*The film was originally intended to be five reels, but Chaplin trimmed it to three. Our pal Lisle Foote has tracked down the deleted footage HERE.

This post is part of the WORLD WAR ONE ON FILM BLOGATHON hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films.

Shoulder Arms: starring Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Syd Chaplin. Written & directed by Charles Chaplin. Charles Chaplin Productions, 1918, B&W, 45 mins.

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29 comments

  1. Three reels are just right. So many directors could learn this! Charlie was right to follow his instincts in making this movie that makes us laugh by not ignoring the danger and degradation. I was happy to read that returning vets appreciated Shoulder Arms. That must have been satisfying.

    PS: Keep forgetting to mention how I like the subtle changes to the site. Very nice indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was happy, too, to learn returning vets liked this film. And I agree three reels is perfect. No unnecessary filler (a pet peeve of mine).

      Thanks for your kind words about my site “renovation”. Sometimes I get in these moods where I want to change the look for the sake of change.

      Like

  2. I so need to see this! Chaplin was never afraid to tackle current issues and draw attention to them. He had a real talent for making you cry one minute and then laugh hysterically the next. The letters scene sounds extremely touching. Thanks for joining me for this blogathon, Ruth.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve not seen this film, but your comment about the risk in the timing of it’s release reminds me of John Wayne’s They Were Expendable in the sense that releasing a movie in which America is losing the war in the year in which it actually wins WWII had to be risky.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I was talking about this film witth my grandma the other day, because it was on TV. I love World War I films, and this comedy made while the conflict was going on can be read in many levels – and mau=ybe the simplest, pirest level is the best of them. Great review.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Ksses!

    Liked by 1 person

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