Wonder Woman (12A)

wonder woman 2

Huddled in a front line trench in November 1918, a Belgian refugee bemoans her flight to some visitors. Inflamed by the narrative, one of the visitors, a young woman, rips off her coat and dress, and, clad only in a sort of armour plated swimming costume, nimbly slips over the top to confront the enemy. The Germans are understandably interested by the sight, and begin to open fire on her. Luckily, she has a magic shield with her, which deflects snipers’ bullets and even machine-gun fire. Because she is drawing the enemy fire, the British behind her realise they have an opportunity to cross No-Man’s Land. (This is possible because, although the landscape is devastated and hellish, this is a part of the front, where, despite the two armies having faced each other there for four years, ‘without moving more than a few inches’, nobody has thought to install barbed wire to impede the progress of an attack.)
Once the Brits have speedily taken control of the German trench, they are then able to move unimpeded to the village just behind the lines, and to the thanks of grateful Belgians. The Germans, obviously, had not thought of defence in depth…
The new  Wonder Woman film is very silly, but I enjoyed it hugely.
The film’s back story is that a tribe of Amazons are living on a remote island, keeping themselves away from the rest of the human race, who have been corrupted by Ares, God of War. Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, wants to keep her daughter Diana away from anything warlike, but her auntie has other ideas. (It was good to see  Robin Wright playing the part of Auntie. She is here just as formidable but more virtuous than she is as Claire Underwood in House of Cards). Diana starts as a sweet little girls, and grows into Gia Gardot, a capable young woman with remarkably businesslike thighs.
One day a WW1 plane plummets into the water near the island. Diana dives to the rescue and pulls out a handsome man in a German uniform. He is no German, though, but Steve Trevor, an American spy working for the British. He has vital information that must reach London. German planes and ships come after him, but the Amazonian ladies see them off; bows and arrows beat machine-guns every time.
Steve tells Diana and the others that he is fighting ‘the War to end War’ and Diana decides that she must help him win it. She wants to get fighting immediately, and to confront Ludendorff, presented by Steve as the embodiment of warlike evil. She is therefore impatient when he says that he  must first take vital information to London. They get into a small yacht, which takes them to London surprisingly quickly.
The film’s London is rather beautifully re-created – this film is very well designed – and they go to the War Office, where the generals and politicians are of course bumbling and unimaginative. This is November 1918, and the old duffers are happy to accept a German offer of armistice, despite hints that the vile enemy might use this as a device to lull them into false security before unleashing a super-weapon.
This weapon has been developed somewhere in Turkey by a brilliant but psychotic German chemist with a facial prosthetic. She has designed a poison gas so potent that it dissolves gas masks. Ludendorff loves it, and she loves Ludendorff.
So Diana and Steve head for the Front, go over the top as described above, and then go on the hunt for Ludendorff. There is a good twist when it is revealed that not all evil is on the German side, and the superhero battles are rather good. Less clichéd than in most films of this type, partly because of the historical setting. No exploding helicopters for once.
When I mentioned the advance publicity for the film on this blog a while ago, I received an indignant email from a reader. Why was I writing about this sort of rubbish, when I had declined to review his novel about conscientious objectors? Alas, I had read the Kindle free sample of his book’s first chapters, So worthy, so lifeless, so obvious. Whereas this film, whatever qualms one might have about its historical vearacity, is lively, exciting, and sometimes rather witty.
Its presentation of the Great War is worth analysis. From this film you would gather that this was a  war fought between British and Germans. The French are not mentioned, Belgians are shown as victims, grateful for being rescued by the British (which is actually how they were often presented in popular literature between 1914 and 1918). Some Indian and black faces are visible among the British troops. Steve, the American, is there helping the British. There is no indication that General Pershing brought quite a lot of other American soldiers to Europe to fight (so the presentation of the American male is as  lone operative, sometimes wayward and disobedient to superiors). The Germans’ Turkish allies feature in a sinister way, at the start of the film.

The War  is presented simply as a stalemate, and there is no suggestion that by this stage in the War the German Army was beginning to crumble, or that the Allies had them on the run. The depiction of Ludendorff is less than fair. His fate in the film will surprise any historians who were under the impression that he survived till 1937. And I bet he didn’t really inhale magical popper-style gases to make him more aggressive.
The film’s imagery is very Paul Nash: landscapes with blasted trees, mud, shell-holes. Much of the fighting happens by night. There are grim shots of the wounded, and we are reminded often of the suffering that the war is causing. Yet when it comes to the battle, the military technology of the Great War is no match for one young woman in magical armour, with a sword, a shield, and a luminous lasso. For the big fight that is a required feature at the end of this kind of film, Diana must be pitted not against mere human efforts, but against Ares, the God of War himself.
The war is depicted as terrible, but never as futile. This is a war worth winning (because Ares has infected the minds of the Germans).
As the centenary period draws to an end, is this film a sign of a change in the presentation of the Great War, away from the ‘futility’ narrative, and away from pieties? The film uses the Western Front as the location for entertainment and wish-fulfilment fantasy in a way that would have been impossible, I think, ten years ago. I gather that it’s been a big success, especially among the young female audience. Is its appeal to those who have read about the awful messes of history, and like to think that what had really been needed was the appearance of one really strong and determined woman, to sort everything out?
The film is perhaps best described as well-made tosh, but tosh is often more revealing about the time of its creation than are more careful and accurate fictions. I’ve been thinking about Rollo Balmain and Sara Mignon recently, and their magnificently toshy A Sailor’s Love: A Tale of the Dardanelles. The inaccuracies of that ludicrous play tell us so much about the hopes and fears and fantasies of 1915. Wonder Woman, too, might get us thinking about what it reveals about 2017.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted June 11, 2017 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Have you read Kate Macdonald’s comparison of the plotlines with those of John Buchan? Very interesting.

    • Posted June 11, 2017 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Yes. Good article, especially on how Wonder Woman uses and adapts the plot of Mr.Standfast.

  2. Bradstreet
    Posted June 11, 2017 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Splendid review. I think that you’re right about the change from the futility narrative. The last time anyone attempted something even vaguely similar was the movie version of BIGGLES (1986), which bombed at the box office.

    However, the thing that I’ll really take from this is your description of Ms Gardot’s thighs as “businesslike”. It’s a good job that I wasn’t eating or drinking anything when I read that…

  3. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted June 20, 2017 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    >The film uses the Western Front as the location for entertainment and wish-fulfilment fantasy in a way that would have been impossible, I think, ten years ago.

    Check out “Deathwatch” (2002).

    Or better yet, don’t. A different but perhaps predictable sort of “entertainment.”


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  1. […] June 20, 2017 Rachel RichardsonLeave a comment I’m almost 8 months pregnant and running out of time and energy, but I knew I had to see Wonder Woman. I dragged myself off the tube one stop early, visions of the icy-cool movie theatres and unlimited buttery popcorn of my youth dancing through my head, only to discover that my local cinema’s version of air-con was “we’ve turned off all the heating.” £7 bought me a box of popcorn that was empty before the ads stopped and a Fanta that made me have to pee in the middle of the film. Never mind. (I went halfway through the boat scene. Other than double-speak about sexual norms of the early twentieth century, what did I miss?) What a delightful film! How refreshing to see such a kick-ass female character on screen! I was there as a historian but I wasn’t there for historical accuracy and I suspect anyone who was isn’t in the target audience. With a film so blatantly fantastical, who needs historical accuracy? I thought it was wonderful to see the FWW setting used in such a creative way — something I hope we’ll see more of, hopefully if Wonder Women inspires. We get WWII films all the time. WWII is easy. Nazis are evil — everyone can agree to that. It makes the story straightforward. But WWI is more complicated. No wonder the futility narrative has taken hold of the public imagination so unflinchingly. What’s a story without, as Captain Steve Trevor calls them, “the bad guys”? But are the Germans the bad guys — doesn’t that play into an overly simplistic nationalistic viewpoint which downplays or outright rejects the other nations’ complicity in warmongering? Are the warmongers the bad guys, with the average citizen a helpless pawn as evil  or incompetent generals lead them to their deaths? One is what most people believed at the time (I’m generalising here, I know) and the other is what most believe now. The problem with the futility narrative is that is robs the war of its meaning, and it was full of so much meaning, everyday, for the people who fought and lived it. This was something I thought the film showed well — a moment of levity, smiles and laughter amongst friends on the docks, which quickly turned to shocked silence as the wounded appeared and Diana realised the horrible results of the war. All the more powerful because of the context. But meaningless? I don’t think so. I watched the “bad guy” idea ping back and forth throughout the film, wondering how it would be resolved. There was a moment where I thought it might land on “it’s complicated” which is where I end up most of the time, but narratively unsatisfying. And there’s the rub. How do you have a blockbuster film without a climatic battle where good triumphs over evil? You don’t. After the decidedly good Diana defeated the decided evil (SPOILER ALERT who, in a stereotype busting twist, at least wasn’t German) Ares, the conclusion of the film settled on “it’s complicated” again. Some people are good, some people are evil, but most people are somewhere in between and capable of both. It felt a bit incongruous, but there are worse (and less accurate) conclusions. Diana wanted to free people of their obsession with war, a noble if naive ambition. She rejected the “Germans are the bad guys” narrative but clung tightly to the “Ares is to blame for all of this” idea, which allowed her to maintain her faith in humanity. She is fearless, full of empathy, willing to risk her life to save others and unwilling to let a man (handsome, flirtatious and forward-thinking though he may be) tell her to stay behind when there’s work to be done. She reminds me of someone — a FWW heroine. She is not dissimilar from the thousands of dedicated, brave, unconventional and naive women who left their homes for the frontline to serve, work, and yes — to fight. How wonderful to see her portrayed on the big screen. See also: George Simmer’s take on Wonder Woman […]

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