The exhibition Amours, Guerres et Sexualité 1914-1945 is at Le Musée de l’Armée in Paris (part of Les Invalides, where you can also see Napoleon’s Tomb, though we didn’t get round to that. Next time, maybe.) It’s a wonderful collection of pictures, posters, artefacts and all sorts, showing the connections between love and war during those years 1914-45, which seem to be increasingly seen as the years of European war, even though they included 21 years of (mostly) peace in the middle. On the subject of dating, though, Les Invalides also hosts a collection of military artefacts which it entitles Les Deux Guerres Mondiales, 1871-1945 – seeing, I guess, the years following the defeat at Sedan as being essentially a period of build-up to 1914.
Amours, guerres et sexualité ranges widely over wars, countries and moods, suggesting a myriad of ways in which thoughts about women affected the soldier. The yearning, the raunchy, the idealised, the sentimental, the obscene, the practical . This American leaflet of 1918 suggesting that men should rid their minds of seductive thoughts stood little chance of convincing many soldiers, I’d guess.
The exhibition makes clear the soldiers’ need for soft feminine reminders of home, and also shows what happens when sexual needs are unrestrained by domestic influences – there are sections on brothels, and a terrifying instructional film about the dangers of VD.
Putting the two wars together is interesting. Partly it shows how the experience of soldiering and separation was common to men of all nationalities and times, but it also lets one see how much more the First was a private enterprise war, with postcards, papers and artefacts produced by firms responding to popular demand, whereas in the second things were more centrally organised, from the U.S. Army producing pin-up magazines to the Third Reich organising and regulating official brothels.
There is a wealth of material in this well-designed exhibition, and a lot of it is reproduced in the catalogue, published by Gallimard and containing some interesting short essays on various gender themes.
I like this Fench image of a sexy lady with a little poilu doll. Is the soldier reader supposed to imagine himself doll-sized? Being toyed with and pressed to her voluptuous breasts?
While in Paris, we also went to the movies, and saw a film that, like the exhibition, linked the two wars. This was Sergeant York, by Howard Hawks, my favourite director. (I’ve been visiting Paris every so often for forty years now, and there always seems to be a Hawks film on somewhere. In the past, I’ve seen The Big Sleep there, and Bringing Up Baby, and To Have and Have Not, and maybe more, most of them at one of the Action chain of cinemas on the Left Bank.)
Sergeant York was a film I’d never seen before, and was a frankly propagandist movie made by Warners in 1940 to encourage support for America joining the War.
It tells the WW1 story of York, whose application to be exempted as a conscientious objector was refused, and who became a war hero, knocking out machine gun nests single-handed and capturing vast numbers of prisoners.
Hawks and his writers – who included John Huston – were obviously concerned not to make York, played by Gary Cooper, into too much of a Holy Joe. The first half hour of the movie showed him as a definitely masculine country-boy tearaway, getting drunk and causing trouble till he found the love of a good woman. Then, with the help of the local preacher/storekeeper he becomes a model citizen, working like mad to buy the piece of land land that he needs before he marries.
When war comes he originally thinks it is none of his business, and with the help of his preacher friend applies for exemption. This doesn’t work and he decides that he will go to war, but he won’t kill.
In battle, though, the Germans kill his comrades, and he rationalises that he can kill in order to save lives. He therefore puts his country hunting skills to good use, with spectacular results.
A lot of this film is Howard Hawks straying into John Ford territory – small-town rural America, homespun philosophy from storekeepers, and the Army as a paternalistic benevolent institution. Hawks the individualist is less involved in official American values than Ford would have been, and the hero of this film, like Bogart in To Have and Have Not, does the right thing for his own reasons, not the official ones.
The representation of nationalities is pretty stereotyped. The Germans are dastardly, trying to kill their captors after having officially surrendered, for example. The British are decent plodders, experienced at war, but achieving nothing like the spectacular results of the All-American hero. Eight Americans, obviously, are worth a division of Brits.
Not one of Hawks’s greatest films, but I’m glad to have caught up with it. The loving fiancée and devoted mother welcoming the hero home were images straight out of the Invalides exhibition.