Two Countries in the Shadow of War

Kelsey Brow '12
Kelsey Brow '12
Cynical, suspicious and propaganda-filled, France was not a pleasant place to be in the years between World War I and World War II. Despite having fought on the same side of the war, France and the United States reacted very differently to it, as is shown in their film and print media. Kelsey Brow ’12 received an Emerson Grant to dig deeper into these differences.

Advised by Burgess Professor of French Roberta Krueger, Brow is analyzing several factors in this post-World War I setting: reactions in the U.S. versus those in France, differences between the attitudes reflected in film versus print media, and how all of these things changed from the years immediately after World War I to the nascent stages of World War II.

National feeling in the U.S. was at an all-time high in 1919. Soldiers returned as triumphant conquerors, elevating the status of the U.S. in the eyes of the world. Whereas the U.S. was isolationist and still a growing power before World War I, the victory in Europe as well as its entry in the League of Nations elevated the country to the status of world power. Despite some trends of conservatism and some class struggle, the 1920s upheld this happy feeling until the beginning of the Great Depression.

When the market crashed, people felt that the government was not helping to ease their pain, leading to newfound cynicism about the war that was won a decade previous. “The people became cynical; the Depression reminded them that we fought for this country and now the government is not helping us,” Brow said. “But people only considered the war a negatively when they were in a negative situation.”

But the film industry reflected a much darker view of the country and of the war. Film was always considered to be a low-class form of entertainment, and silent films that came out in the 20s often portrayed a poor soldier who returned from war and became a gangster because he needed money. Many James Cagney films that Brow has seen, such as Public Enemy and The Roaring 20s, share these commonalities.

And because communications technology was developed by commercial companies, government propaganda was neither effective nor long-lived in the U.S. The war also created a newfound fear of technology that was reflected in American films. “The overall fear that the war created was not only in terms of destruction, but with regard to technology versus man. During the war itself soldiers were often shooting at or shot at by an unseen enemy, creating a fear of the downfall of the individual,” Brow explained.

France’s national sentiment changed less in the years between World War I and World War II. The anti-Germanism that was mixed with general cynicism gradually disappeared throughout the 1920s, only to reappear at the dawn of World War II. The economic depression began in France in 1932 and was still felt even in the 1960s, which exacerbated citizens’ skepticism of the government.

Always considered an art, French cinema reflected this national feeling. Based on the book Le feu, the 1919 silent film J'accuse offers viewers a look into the daily life of a foot soldier (poilu), making them ask themselves: why did we do this? The film was remade as a talkie by the same director in 1937. By adding sound, the director could communicate his message more clearly, adding the question: do we really want this again?

But France found itself not only having to repair the land, but also defending itself from a cultural invasion of American songs and movies. As American culture became suddenly trendy in France, the French people, more in print than in film, became more and more cynical about their own culture.

Brow is a graduate of the IB program at Lakewood High in Lakewood, Colo.
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