American war films bring to mind images of aerial combat, artillery fire, and hardships of fighting in foreign lands. The stories have been centered around the men who lived these experiences, both real and imagined, with maybe a hint of love waiting back at home. As more stories emerged from the most recent events of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, filmmakers were keen to add love into their accounts. The element of love gives hope to those who are in harm’s way, a way to balance out the brutality of war. Selected are films that brought the love of women and their families at home to the fore.
Darling Lili (1970)
In the decade of the 1970’s, Julie Andrews graces us with her presence in the musical, Darling Lili. Darling Lili is an American musical film set in World War I. It was directed and co-written by Blake Edwards, Andrews’ husband. The film focuses on a popular British performer, Lili Smith (Julie Andrews), who is very enchanting and seductive. The German Military attends one of her performances and decides that she would be beneficial to them as a spy. Using her feminine wiles, Lili gathers intel on the British but catches herself falling in love with her subject, Major William Larrabee (Rock Hudson).
Darling Lili struggled in the box office. With a budget of $25 million, the film grossed only $5 million. With such low reception, many believed it was because Paramount executives poorly managed the movie, often going against the wishes of Blake Edwards. The film barely got a release and became a commercial box office failure.
Undeterred by the loss, Darling Lili had an award-winning soundtrack, all thanks to Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer. Andrews was nominated for best actress but her song “Whistling Away the Dark,” actually won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. Mancini and Mercer were also nominated for Best Original Score. These accolades cemented the film’s success as it was made long after the booming musical film era (the 1930s to 1950s).
Mata Hari (1985)
The 1980’s saw a severe decline in World War I American-produced cinema. The only movie from the decade is 1985’s, Mata Hari. This film is another retelling of the life of the titular character (real name Margaretha Zelle) as an exotic dancer and recruited German spy. The direction of the movie was a fictionalized love triangle between Mata Hari and German and French officers. Darling Lili touched on the same story but with a brighter take.
Like Mata Hari, Lili Smith is a woman in an influential position as a performer-turned-spy. While both films do not involve romantic love, they do present the moral dilemma that real female spies faced when working as a ‘honey pot.’ As the story continues, it becomes more difficult to separate feelings from the mission at hand. Unlike Darling Lili, Mata Hari is an erotic film and does not necessarily contribute to the celebration and remembrance of World War I.
Legends of the Fall (1994)
1994 reintroduced World War I film with Legends of the Fall. The movie chronicles the Ludlow clan’s sacrifice and the aftermath of World War I from the Montana plains. Brothers, Alfred and Tristan, enlist in the Canadian Army while America has yet to join the conflict. The youngest brother, Samuel, enlists as well, leaving behind his fiancé Susanna. When Samuel is killed, Tristan does not take the loss lightly. Influenced earlier in life by a member of the Cree Nation, Tristan savagely scalps enemy soldiers.
After being discharged from the Canadian Army, Tristan finds his readjustment at home quite challenging. Samuel’s fiance Susanna falls for Tristan, which proves to be a problematic relationship between the two. Tristan leaves Montana to embark on a quest to rediscover himself after the war. While at sea, he urges Susanna to find someone to make her happy via written letter. Susanna does eventually find someone else, while Tristan’s story takes another turn. He struggled greatly with PTSD (formerly dubbed “shell shock”), highlighting the devastating impact conflict has on not only the soldier but also the family.
Though Legends of the Fall premiered to mixed reviews, the movie touched on the plight of the Native Americans and prohibition during the war. The audience also sees a focus on what death and sacrifice can do to a family during these times. While the film opened to dismal reviews, it performed well with American audiences because of its star power and sweeping story.
In Love and War (1996)
Sir Richard Attenborough directed a different take on the First World War in 1996’s romantic drama, In Love And War. The film is an emotionally intense recreation of writer Ernest Hemingway’s service in Italy. Wounded, Hemingway is tended to by a nurse and later lover, Agnes von Kurkowsky. Trendy stars Chris O’Donnell (Hemingway) and Sandra Bullock (Kurkowsky) bring this historical romance to the big screen in a way seldom seen in movies about World War I.
The film, a precursor to Hemingway’s beloved A Farewell to Arms, presents a story as one of impossible romance. Kurkowsky and Hemingway bond after nearly losing his life to a combat injury. Their relationship blurs into an intensely passionate affair during Hemingway’s recovery, which puts Kurkowsky’s position at risk. When Kurkowsky moves from the hospital and closer to the front, Hemingway professes undying love for her. They vow to keep in contact through love letters and promise to marry after the war’s end.
Movie critics called the romance “doomed” because of the age difference and the impossible circumstances of war. Kurkowsky was seven years older than Hemingway and did not necessarily reciprocate his romantic feelings. In recovered letters, Kurkowky refers to the 19-year-old Hemingway as “Kid,” which shows that she had motherly feelings toward him. These letters, paired with their patient-nurse relationship, made the fictionalized version a stretch for most viewers. It is a shame that the story was turned into a soapy romance because the actual letters and book A Farewell to Arms are both compelling parts of a love story. They present relatable feelings and moral dilemma in war, instead of a predictable will they or won’t they.
These films simultaneously expose and celebrate human relationships during World War I. As more stories began to emerge from later wars, filmmakers became storytellers, inspired to present these uncovered pieces of history to audiences. Americans, recently affected by the conflicts, were interested in understanding how the war changed people on a personal level. These films not only depicted the profound impact that love (for better or worse) had on war-time Americans but also created a new sense of patriotism. Though historically inaccurate to a fault, war romance films seem to stir emotions of hope and renewal in traumatic times. Do you think the emphasis on love adds to the human experience in World War I? Or does this focus merely overshadow the war’s importance?
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Wheelwright, Julie. “Mother, Dancer, Wife, Spy: the Real Mata Hari.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Dec. 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/dec/05/the-real-mata-hari-executed-abused-woman.
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“In Love and War (1996).” IMDb, IMDb.com, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116621/?ref_=nv_sr_1.
Diliberto, Gioia. “A Hemingway Story, and Just as Fictional.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Jan. 1997, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/99/07/04/specials/hemingway-diliberto.html?scp=17&sq=Mauritania&st=Search.