The Peace Machine: Can Cinema Eliminate War?

With the on-going commemorations of the First World War Centenary, set to culminate in 2018, it is high time to reverse the terms of the debate. Instead of an often-prurient fascination with the visual culture of this catastrophic war, why not celebrate and start researching equally diligently the ‘visuality’ of pacifism, a major consequence of the ‘war to end all wars’? The recent Tate Modern exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography attempted to point to this direction by surveying an eclectic history of war photography with the original inclusion of images and discourses of pacifism, as reactions and remedies to war traumas. When it comes to film, the new kid on the block in the visual public realm of the early 20th century, high hopes and aspirations had been attached to it since its early days and especially at the aftermath of the First World War (WW1). Amongst all arts, cinema at the time was hailed as the first proper internationalist art form. In 1924, at the height of his Hollywood film career, D.W. Griffith foresaw the future of ‘the movies 100 years from now’ by expressing a messianic belief in the medium’s transformative powers: ‘In the year 2024 the most important single thing which the cinema will have helped in a large way to accomplish will be that of eliminating from the face of the civilised world all armed conflict. Pictures will be the most powerful factor in bringing about this condition. With the use of the universal language of moving pictures the true meaning of the brotherhood of man will have been established throughout the earth.’* That film could eliminate war, however, was not the vision of one director only, but a shared one by newly founded post-WW1 pacifist associations and the much now maligned League of Nations, which mobilised cinema as part of their peace-building campaigns.

Such interwar movements and initiatives have been much criticised and even ridiculed by means of fiction cinema, as in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940), where a pacifist organisation is a cover for Nazi conspirators. Still, it is during this period that cinema and peace started to forge a multi-faceted relationship. Actually, Griffith’s visionary statement can be seen as emblematic of a wider post-WW1 mobilisation of all forms of film to propagandise pacifism, often by adopting the same mechanisms of war propaganda. Such a case was the widely exhibited series of educational short films and filmstrips produced in Britain in the 1920s under the banner of The Peace Machine; or, League of Nations productions, such as Star of Hope (1925) and The World War and After (1926). These are now long neglected examples of nonfiction peace propaganda in the quest for ‘international understanding’, but which actually at the time enjoyed widespread theatrical and especially nontheatrical exhibition. More well known are of course Hollywood productions, which thanks to the WW1 anniversary have been restored and rediscovered by new audiences. This is the case of Frank Borzage’s ‘forgotten masterpiece’ Farewell to the Arms (1932), an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel, one of the most forceful anti-war novels that this war spawned.

To correlate film with peace, however, is a by far neglected field of investigation by comparison to the established and still burgeoning scholarship on war cinema and war art. But recent research on peace and the arts has broken new ground, evidencing the need for reconceptualising art and cinema canons through new research programmes that consider how the notions of pacifism and internationalism emerged as forms of resistance to nationalist and imperialist discourses. To name a few, the following studies have challenged predominant conceptions and revised the historiography of their chosen subjects: Grace Brockington’s study Above the Battlefield: Modernism and the Peace Movement in Britain, 1900-1918 (2010); the Tate Liverpool exhibition and catalogue Picasso: Peace and Freedom (2010), which claimed to be the first to examine in depth the artist’s engagement with politics and the Peace Movement’ – quite a surprise considering the universal iconicity of Picasso’s Dove of Peace drawing of 1949; and The Glorious Art of Peace (2012), a cultural history of the relationship between peace and the arts across centuries by John Gittings. All studies argue convincingly about the ways that pacifism has constituted a force of creativity and political engagement for artists, not just by exposing the horrors of war, that is ‘anti-war’ art, but by inventing a new visual lexicon to propagate peace. 

These are narratives that have for long been suppressed, but which have started to enter the academic and public realm more consistently and dialogically, as manifested: in a forthcoming conference Narratives of Peace and Conflict (Liverpool, July 2015); in a forthcoming study by film historian Lawrence Napper, The Great War in Popular British Cinema of the 1920s (2015) that engages with pacifist discourses permeating post-WW1 cinema; and with the United Nations having started to digitise a very small, but promising, sample of its film library – such as San Francisco 1945, a documentary about one of the founding conferences of the United Nations Organization. This compilation film’s illustrative audio-visual montage promises a new world order starting with the San Francisco conference, heralded in the voice-over narration as a gathering of leaders to ‘design machinery to end wars’.

UN screen grabUN screen grab 2

These are much needed interventions enhanced by the growing public access to digitally restored archival material that testify to the immense optimism of post-war peace-building when politicians would publicly declare alliances to pacifism. These are useful reminders for our times, when the leader of the Labour Party proudly states on television ‘I am not a pacifist’, as a way to prove how ‘tough’ he is to support his 2015 electoral campaign. Shouldn’t we be concerned that a notion and ideal for which generations have fought has ended up being deployed as a word connoting weakness?

The Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition reminded its visitors, as soon as they stepped foot in its first room, that Kurt Vonnegut – the author of the influential semi-autobiographical anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) based on his memories of the Second World War – would until the end of his life sign off his writings with the word ‘Peace’. Let’s show respect to the memory of the dead of the two World Wars and rekindle Vonnegut’s spirit, by defying ‘tough’ politicians and the mainstream academic fashions that revel in pushing forcefully the research agendas of war art, war cinema and war propaganda. It is improbable that by 2024, war will have been eradicated by cinema and new media – to Griffith’s dismay. But rigorous research on the visual culture of pacifism might actually have an impact on the public understanding of the long history of ‘peace art’ as a way of building future resistance to war-mongering discourses and nationalistic tirades.

* D.W. Griffith, ‘The Movies 100 Years from Now’ in Film Makers on Film Making, edited by Harry M. Geduld, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967, p. 61.

Dr Katerina Loukopoulou is an Associate Lecturer at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts, London, teaching the history, theory and ethics of documentary and nonfiction cinema. Her research interests include cultural propaganda, cinema and the other arts, and she is about to embark on a research project that investigates the historical uses of cinema in the quest for peace-building and international understanding.


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