The Birth of a Nation (1915), dir. D.W. Griffith

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The Birth of a Nation is the worst film ever made.

Maybe this is controversial. The cover to the BFI’s recent Blu-ray release, mimicking original promotional materials, brazenly declares the “8th wonder of the world”, alongside the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Lighthouse of Alexandria. In a contemporary review in Variety, Mark Vance described “a great epoch in picture making”. D.W. Griffith held enormous power in early cinema, producing 1-2 films per week, accumulating 400 one-reelers for Biograph. Before the studio system, cinema was driven by independents. In the footsteps of Edison and Porter, Griffith’s name is inescapable, his light bulb logo appearing on every intertitle. Adapted from Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansmen (1905), a version had been in development in Kinemacolour, but Griffith’s film represented a paradigm shift, helping to establish the United States as a major production centre, developed under the Aitkens on a $40,000 budget and 6 weeks of rehearsal. The Birth of a Nation distinguished itself from nickelodeons as a 12-reel film screened in theatres and opera houses, its screening in Los Angeles’ Clune’s Auditorium on February 8th held under heavy police guard. The film became a perennial success: in his essay Do Movies Have Rights?, published in Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America, Louis Menand notes the film reached an audience of 100 million people between 1915 and 1926 (2006:200).

But The Birth of a Nation’s release was tumultuous, just as The Clansmen’s play sparked riots in Atlanta and was banned in Philadelphia and Boston. As Dorian Lynskey documents, censors acknowledged the film’s racist content, situated in a debate alongside the “moral panic over the depiction of crime and vice” in cinema. As Brian Willan notes in his essay ‘Cinematographic Calamity’ or ‘Soul-Stirring Appeal to Every Briton’: Birth of a Nation in England and South Africa, 1915–1931 in Journal of Southern African Studies 39(3), Birth was released across Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Latin America, but suppressed in France and South Africa (2013:624). As Menand writes, censorship was at the behest of authorities, banned in Minneapolis, Ohio, Newark, St. Paul, Chicago, Pittsburgh and St. Louis but largely “overturned in court” (2006:184).

Although multiple individuals opposed, opposition was hardly unified; Griffith’s response to a critical editorial in the New York Globe emphasised the intelligence of “theater-goers” over the “organized attacks of letter writers, publicity seekers, and fanatics”. The NAACP, founded in 1909, had a membership of 5000 and a white-dominated leadership; but, as Stephen Weinberger writes in his essay The Birth of a Nation and the Making of the NAACP in Journal of American Studies 45(1), the film “helped transform the association in ways no one could have imagined”, shifting to national issues as the film “moved from major population centers to smaller ones” (2011:92). As Weinberger highlights, opposition continued into the Civil Rights Movement, disrupting 50th anniversary screenings (2011:77).

Released upon the 50th anniversary of the American Civil War, The Birth of a Nation followed a wave of one-reelers that, as David Shepard comments in The Making of the Birth of a Nation (1993), focused upon the suffering of war. As America’s most recent national war, the Civil War was a part of national mythmaking. The son of a confederate officer, Griffith touched upon his own history. Before the historical epics and blockbusters of later decades, The Birth of a Nation embraces extravagance, telling a long and complex period of history over several years. Although focusing upon the lives of the Camerons and Stonemans, excursions are long: purple-tinted sequences follow Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers; as officials leave, he places his hands on his head, and prays, moving forward to his assassination at Ford’s Theatre during a production of Our American Cousin. Griffith positions the assassination through Elsie and Phil Stoneman, watching towards the stage through binoculars; Booth appears with his gun with the stillness of a photograph, as though a portrait from the time.

Griffith offers dedication to detail, drawing upon lithographs and photographs. Griffith aggressively references intertitles with footnotes, detailing key dates. Griffith acknowledges each set as “historical facsimile”, drawing the Wilmer McLean home from Campaigning with Grant (1897) and the executive office and theatre from Lincoln, a History (1890). Griffith excerpts from President Woodrow Wilson’s A History of the American People (1902), a college companion of Dixon’s often cited as declaring the film as “writing history with lightning”, though Lynskey highlights Wilson denying approving an “unfortunate production”. Joseph Carl Breil’s score utilises music familiar to the Civil War. As Gordon Thomas writes, Griffith wanted historical films to “operate as agents of enlightenment or of cultivation”, whilst remaining entertainment.

In his exploration of the Piedmont-based Camerons, Griffith appeals to nostalgia for a life that, per the intertitles, “runs in a quaintly way that is to be no more”, elder sister Margaret “trained in the manners of the old school”, creating a green tinted image of Victorian extravagance in home and costume. As Thomas writes, Griffith taps into the Southern myth of the Lost Cause, imagining a “pastoral paradise eradicated by the war”. A kindly master pets numerous cats and dogs; Griffith tries to endear with suitors and romance, creating scale in his interfamily romance. Looking at Elsie’s life in Washington, Griffith moves inside the House of Representatives, creating political intrigue prefiguring decades of political thrillers as Austin Stoneman pushes abolition. Griffith injects comedy: Austin is constantly in need of adjusting his wig.

The Birth of a Nation might be best known for its representation of the KKK, but its racist images penetrate more deeply. Griffith traces slavery’s history: in the opening, we observe a young boy surrounded by leering traders, Griffith’s intertitle stating the “bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.” We move into the courthouse of abolitionists; the slave peers out, desperate, helpless. On the cotton fields, we focus upon white men as Ben admires an image of Elsie, black men back of the frame, barely seen, never acknowledging the human trauma, suffering and dehumanisation explored in films like 12 Years a Slave (2013). The products of their labour become Southern ermine, worn without acknowledging their source. In their 2-hour interval for dinner, slaves are celebrating, dancing and clapping in unending joy.

Griffith’s Reconstruction is rooted in deep racism: offered enfranchisement, a freedman votes twice, peering to the audience as white officials are oblivious, when voter ID laws continue to disenfranchise black voters; intertitles state “the ignorant” are misusing the “charity of a generous North”. In the South Carolina legislature, Griffith pushes the ludicrous: black officials rest their feet without shoes, swig from the bottle, eat fried chicken; the speaker rules all members must wear shoes, an image Kevin Brownlow notes in his essay We Can Never Censor the Past is drawn from a political cartoon; motions suggest intermarriage and white salutes. As Thomas notes, Birth follows the ideology of “the Dunning school”, following the concept of “negro incapacity” of blacks as “childlike beings”. In one of the most ubiquitous images, Flora Cameron is pursued by the animalism of Gus, played in blackface, jumping to her death from a cliff at threat of marriage. Gus becomes another black victim lynched by the KKK, rallying a mob. In The Clansmen, Dixon Jr. is more explicit, depicting a mother and daughter who commit suicide after being raped by a gang of blacks. In drunken fervour, Silas Lynch speaks of revolution, building a Black Empire on the streets, coercing Elsie into marriage. Black characters become caricatures, “black trash” in accented intertitles. Griffith defended his representation of “faithful Negroes who stayed with their former masters and were ready to give up their lives to protect their white friends”, alluding to characters like blackface servant Mammy.

In the intertitles to the 1921 reissue, Griffith rebuffs calls for censorship, arguing for the “liberty” granted to “the Bible and the works of Shakespeare”. Intolerance (1916) is but an affirmation: as William M. Drew writes in the Masters of Cinema booklet, Griffith was dramatizing “consequences of attempts by powerful forces to control human thought and behavior”, emphasising his right to hold his beliefs. In The Birth of a Nation, the KKK is normalised, traced prior to their dissolution as a terrorist organisation in 1871 and their actions during the Civil Rights Movement and today. The confederate flag persists in the banal, used to wipe a woman’s face. White women become complicit in their persistence, stitching together KKK costumes. Griffith sets their arrival to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (1870): purple-tinted silhouettes march across the hills; on horseback, we feel their speed as they carry the cross, intercut against Lynch’s intimations of intermarriage. The Birth of the Nation isn’t state-produced in the same way as Triumph of the Will (1936) or October (1928), but it is propaganda, understanding the power of images in crafting political narrative. Just as the aesthetics of propaganda have become lauded for contributions to cinematic language, so too have those innovated by Griffith.

White supremacy cannot be divorced from The Birth of a Nation. In an intertitle, the KKK describe themselves as an “unconquered race” of “old Scotland’s hills”; another intertitle states their “Aryan birthright”; a flag declares how the confederacy is just, for “VICTORY OR DEATH”. Vance’s review seems to make Griffith’s intended audience clear, appraising how his “picture would please all white classes.” The Birth of a Nation only strengthens a toxic ideology, even within miscegenation laws that refused to allow white women to play against black actors on film or on stage, anti-immigration rhetoric and a climate supporting eugenics as a viable solution within philosophical and scientific though.

With The Clansmen and his Reconstruction Trilogy (1902-07), Dixon Jr. intended to “teach the north” about “the awful suffering of the white man”, anointed by “Almighty God” to reign “supreme”. Lynskey highlights a quote included in an NAACP pamphlet where Dixon Jr. describes his intention to “create a feeling of abhorrence in white people” and “prevent the mixing of white and Negro blood”, seeking “all Negroes removed from the United States.” In scenes present in the premiere under the title The Clansmen, excised from the finished cut, Menand describes scenes of “white women being abducted by black rapists”, a declaration that Lincoln “did not believe in racial equality” and a closing scene described as “Lincoln’s solution”, depicting the deportation of blacks to Africa (2006:185).

Although Brownlow notes “dispute about whether the film led to the revival of the Ku Klu[x] Klan or whether that was a result of the Great War”, Lynskey comments that the resurrected Klan based its logo “on a still from the movie”, describing its first public appearance at the Atlanta premiere, publicists using KKK emblazoned hats and aprons to promote the film; the KKK utilised the film for recruitment. Though the Klan initially had a few thousand members, the organisation grew to 100,000 by 1921 and 2-5 million by 1925, though dropping off by the end of the decade. As Joshua Rothman describes, the Klan became “superficially innocuous” with a sense of “patriotic respectability” and fraternity, appealing to middle classes with “festivities, pageants, and social gatherings”, alongside “baseball teams and beautiful-baby contests”, “charity drives”, “Christmas parties for orphans” and “wedding ceremonies, christenings and funerals”.

America was founded on manifest destiny. Though the passage of time from The Birth of a Nation might call for a sense of historical detachment, white supremacy remains potent, with the white supremacy rally at Charlottesville occurring without police intervention, creating a gathering place for neo-Nazis and the KKK. As Angela Nagle explores in her book Kill All Normies (2017), online culture of sites like 4Chan encourage a transgressive, nihilistic culture embedded within the alt-right and anti-Semitism. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in his article The First White President, Trump is a white supremacist with no “black facsimile”, supporting a “white coalition” beyond the white working class, as the country refuses to accept its “bloody heirloom” of racism that remains “at the heart of this country’s political life.”

Although Dixon Jr.’s writing contained intimations of racial war, The Birth of a Nation is profoundly anti-war. Though early scenes show the happiness of marching off to war, with the pageantry of cheers and drums (later contrasted by the KKK’s same march upon horseback), Griffith is depicting a march towards death. We follow Ben into the battlefields, receiving a letter from his big sister two and a half years after he departed. Through the perspective of a family, Griffith allows us to view the war’s effects over time. We follow the Cameron brothers, Wade and Duke, and Tod Stoneman, joining the regiment, entering battles like the Battle of Bull Run. Griffith depicts the sense of sheer panic at the arrival of guerrilla raids and black regiments, white residents running inside for shelter. G.W. “Billy” Bitzer pans the film’s solitary camera across the battlefield, surveying destruction and smoke, witnessing its scale from overhead. Griffith holds the camera upon bodies of dead soldiers, refusing to look away; as Thomas parallels, reminiscent of Matthew Brady’s photographs of the battle of Petersburg. As Brownlow notes, production began a month before the outbreak of World War I, on 4th July 1914, with Griffith believing its “pacifist message […] might even stop the war”, the intertitle preceding the 1921 release announcing its intent to convey the “ravages” and “abhorrence” of war. Willan notes opposition from British censors to some sequences of war.

Moving into a hospital, Griffith allows us to witness war’s effects. As Richard Brody writes, Griffith offers “humanly profound moments” in “universal circumstances”, praising his “breathtaking shot” of a “huddling mother and children” and the “harrowing and exalted grandeur” of a “classical moment of tragedy.” The conclusion, much like Intolerance’s ending upon a spiritual plane, follows romance towards a double honeymoon, taking a train carriage to sunset by the beach; couples dream of a “golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more.” As characters merge, a Messianic image of Jesus appears avowing peace, a scene Vance speculates will “in the church neighborhoods and where the staunchest of the peace advocates live it will go with a hurrah.”

The Birth of a Nation has persisted in part for its legacy upon the cinematic medium. But silent cinema has a vast canon of innovators beyond Griffith, acting equally and far more deeply into radicalism, each effort growing what cinema can do. The Birth of a Nation uses an impressive array of effects, reconfiguring the temporality of editing by intercutting between scenes. Griffith’s use of the circular frame allows for a kinetic cinema, displaying different or multiple parts of the frame to be revealed at a certain time, focusing in upon the romantic meeting by the pond in “Love Valley”, parts of the battlefield or moving out from the gallery during Lincoln’s assassination. In certain scenes, the colour tinting pierces the eye alongside Griffith’s use of silhouettes, depicting the power of bonfire celebrations. Through textual documents, Griffith relays narrative through letters and newspaper headlines, immersing the viewer within a multifaceted world. Griffith’s commitment to staging is shown through gesture and small movements; dancing is given a sense of motion, moving in the dancehall with the array of people.

But we should reckon with The Birth of a Nation’s legacy. The Birth of a Nation persisted with Dixon Jr.’s lost The Fall of a Nation (1916) released the following year; by 1930, it had been issued in sound, a prologue featuring Griffith and Lincoln. Menand points to the Aitkens’ efforts to produce a remake, trying to lure a “broken and broke” Griffith and Dixon in the 1930s and another in 1954, unable to secure financing (2006:200). Brody speculates why there was “no movie documentary in which former slaves bore witness to their experience” a la Shoah (1985), or “a full and classic drama about the agonies of slaves in the prewar South, and the full measure of horrific exactions by the Klan and the decades of Jim Crow.” But Hollywood’s at counter responses largely floundered, with Lynskey highlighting a screenplay that never materialised as a finished film between the NAACP and Universal, Lincoln’s Dream; The Birth of a Race (1918), set back by white financiers, devolved from a 3 hour epic response to a film about World War I, with only directors like Oscar Michaeux filling the void. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016) sought to reclaim the title for African-American empowerment and struggle, only to be set back by emerging testimony of sexual assault.

Before watching The Birth of a Nation, my least favourite film had been Catwoman (2004), itself about an empowered black female. Of course, Catwoman has an impact upon our own world, representative of the heroes we celebrate and allow budgets for. But Catwoman’s innumerable flaws of plot, character and style have no immediate bearing compared to the persistence of ideologies of white supremacy and the subhumanization of racial minorities. Aesthetic form cannot be detached from content; the two together form a message. The Birth of a Nation is irredeemable, unable to be celebrated. The Birth of a Nation doesn’t deserve exhilaration: it deserves great sadness.

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Wonder Woman (2017), dir. Patty Jenkins

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DC’s efforts to launch a cinematic universe split critical opinion, despite commercial success. Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) maintained dark and gritty tones, in line with Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005-12) and The Dark Knight Returns (1988). Suicide Squad (2016) balanced wide numbers of characters between an uneven structure, unable to come together. Man of Steel may be the strongest effort, reimagining Superman’s mythology, but with major flaws. Behind failures lie masterpieces: Superman: The Movie (1978), Batman (1989), Vertigo stories like V for Vendetta (2006). Introduced in Batman v Superman, attending a gala in an elaborate dress, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) charged into battle in the Trinity in the fight against Doomsday.

Since inception, Wonder Woman has been symbolic for young girls and women, central to protest movements, intersecting along lines of feminism. Captain America, in patriotic red white and blue, symbolises the American Dream, but often critiques it, rogue amid the corruption and conspiracy of Nixon and Reagan, or SHIELD and Tony Stark in Civil War (2006-07). Superman, lone-surviving immigrant from Krypton and young boy in rural Smallville, symbolises “truth, justice and the American way”, despite his heritage. Wonder Woman’s costume may be red, white and blue, but she’s Themysciran. Gal Gadot isn’t American either: she’s Israeli and Jewish, outspoken against the actions of Hamas, serving in the Israeli Defence Force, leading to the film’s banning in Lebanon.

The mythical Themyscira, paradise Amazonian home, plays with ancient Greek mythology: an image of waterfalls, ancient stone and luscious greens, shot in southern Italy. Young Diana (Emily Carey) grows up, introducing us to an entire culture beyond the metropolitan Gotham and Metropolis, with a unique culture with accents not out of place within the Mediterranean. However, the film never touches upon Themyscira beyond the film’s first act, leaving open questions around its inhabitants and identity following human intervention.

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Wonder Woman #3 (2012)

Diana’s origin combines multiple retellings, shaped by clay by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), a virgin birth without father; in Blood (2011-12), Diana is revealed as Zeus’ daughter, amid confusion around her identity. Diana has an uneasy relationship with Hippolyta: Hippolyta forbids her from becoming an Amazonian warrior, trained instead by aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana undergoes rites of passage of a young adult: meeting stranded American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), working for British intelligence, she defies Hippolyta, taking her ship out into the human world. These conflicts aren’t uncommon: in The Contest (1994-95), dissatisfied with Diana’s inability to reshape the human world of men, Hippolyta relinquishes her title, seeking a more worthy warrior in her place. Themyscira has a conflicted relationship with our own: in Greg Rucka’s run in the mid-00s, Themyscira is a recognised nation state with an embassy in New York, Diana as ambassador, in-line with real-world geopolitics and globalisation. Diana even recently became a symbolic ambassador to the real-world UN.

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Wonder Woman #90 (1994)

Through the World War I setting, this duality rises to the fore. In the opening, Diana arrives at the Louvre, examining an image taken in the aftermath of battle in 1918 glimpsed within Batman v Superman, utilising a wartime setting similar to Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), transposing the World War II of her introduction in Sensation Comics #1 (1942) to World War I. WWI superheroes have always been retroactive, with Union Jack, introduced in The Invaders #7 (1976), deepening the legacy of Marvel’s universe. Superheroes emerged out of the vigilantes and pulp fiction of the 1930s in the shadow of the Great Depression, yet soon became a propaganda tool supporting national interests against spies, fascists and commies throughout World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.

The film adapts many elements from Marston’s first few issues, supporting characters like Steve’s secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) and villains like Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya), reimagined in her Phantom-esque mask. Nazis became caricatures since WWII propaganda began, sans the uneasy politics of genocide and eugenics. In the alliance system, war is chaos. The centenary, afforded distance from living memory, allows us to reflect upon what the war represented.

Placed in the months before the signing of the armistice and Treaty of Versailles the following year, our protagonists launch into battle in the Western Front. Russia was caught in revolution; the US, having pursued an isolationist policy, joined the war, Steve smuggling information from the Ottoman Empire. The German Empire became increasingly militaristic, seen through the focus upon General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) as villain. The “war to end all wars” became a breeding ground for political ideologies as the world tried to rebuild, amid anarchy, fascism and socialism and influenza. As Rüdiger Suchsland argues in Caligari: When Horror Came to Cinema (2014), the war reshaped cinema and art, through Dadaism, expressionism, Cubism, Futurism and surrealism. Wonder Woman reminds us of the devastation: 25 million dead, mothers, children, civilians. The film’s villain is war: Wonder Woman fights against poison gas obliterating the entire world. Her fight is futile: poison gas became a powerful threat through the work of Fritz Haber, its legacy felt through the genocide of the Holocaust and use of chemical weapons within Syria.

For Jenkins, Wonder Woman is a “hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind”. Diana is neutral: although Germany is ostensibly the enemy, she doesn’t take sides. Wonder Woman understands both sides complexly, attempting to find resolution. Through her lasso of truth, shield and bracelets, she never uses guns, a singular force of nature storming through No Man’s Land after a year in trenches without progress. She joins forces with a multi-ethnic group of soldiers, including American Scott Trevor, Scotsman Charlie (Ewen Bremmer), fez-adorned Arab Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) and Native American Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). In London, we walk past multiple ethnic groups, including Sikhs. Chief embodies the responsibilities of war and its legacy, confessing to Diana that his tribe was decimated by Trevor’s people. Sameer speaks multiple tongues, including Chinese, unable to fulfil his actor dream in wartime.

We see war’s impact through everyday people: Wonder Woman protects a small German village, aghast at starvation and refugees, forced to demolish a church tower. The film implicates the culpability of man, drawing duality between the symbolic Ares and our own free will, responsible for our own destruction. Focusing upon generals, influencing without fighting war, we move beyond presidents and kings and prime ministers to individuals, their own parts to play. Does killing Ares end war? The ‘one man’ theory simplifies war: the deaths of Hussein and Bin Laden positioned as ending the war in the Middle East; Hitler as enchanting dictator, not an ideology of racism and hate. Even in Star Wars, the deaths of Vader and Palpatine didn’t stop the rise of the First Order.

Themyscira embodies duality between the classical war of myths and legends and modern warfare. In an early scene with young Diana, we move within a Renaissance-esque painting as Hippolyta relates history down through ages, telling stories of Ares. Themyscira exists outside of time; its inhabitants have no awareness the war is actually on. Steve’s crashed plane brings human war to a peaceful place. As U-boats approach the island, hidden behind an invisible barrier, Jenkins draws these parallels most clearly, dark smog dissolving into the bright blue ocean. In the direst of times, even paradise is not safe; humanity sees paradise as another place to invade. In Snyder-esque slow motion, Jenkins places us in ancient battle evoking 300 (2007), juxtaposed against modern, mechanised war. Spears slaughter modern troops; Amazonians impacted by bullets amid man’s intervention. Themyscira stands behind fraternity, honour and small, internal conflicts. Modern war, in its global powers and uncertain enemies, is outside these structures. There is no glory as a German agent refuses to face war, swallowing a cyanide capsule.

Ares acts as both symbol of war and embodied god. Never becoming the main villain, he is necessary in a mythological fight between gods, transcending human conflict behind secrecy and hidden identities in his brotherly yet torn relationship with Wonder Woman. In a CGI intensive battle, war engulfed by orange flame, the film becomes its most Snyder, interested in visual spectacle over narrative storytelling, but remains engaging. The film implies Ares’ death ends the war, celebrations in London following the armistice, but this is disingenuous. Months of fighting and real human soldiers and negotiators had to come together first.

Placing Wonder Woman as period piece may seem a distancing measure, avoiding real world politics for escapism, but superheroes always respond to the world around them. Superman, upon introduction in Action Comics #1 (1938), had been a social justice warrior, “an enforcer on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised” rallying against “social injustices” like “poverty, inadequate housing conditions, mobster violence, and corporate and political corruption.” In radio drama Clan of the Fiery Cross (1946), Superman fought the KKK, incorporating “real Klan secrets leaked by Kennedy to expose and ridicule their rituals”. Recent stories like Batman #44 (2015) engage with issues of white violence and police brutality.

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Action Comics #1 (1938)

Films adaptations like The Dark Knight Rises (2012) show the power of public uprising amid poverty and chaos. In Batman v Superman, the film asks theological and philosophical questions over God and the power and control of superheroes. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man (2008) cannot be detached from Afghanistan and the War on Terror. Wonder Woman cannot be detached from gender politics.

As Jill Lepore explores in The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014), Wonder Woman was conceived as a “new type of woman”, who could “combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men”. Creator William Moulton Marston had been in a polyamorous relationship with Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Holloway, attending talks by Emmeline Pankhurst and suffragist protests as a student. As Lepore argues, the World War I settingmakes a certain chronological sense”, within the Marston family’s admiration of “the formidable women who fought for suffrage, equal rights and birth control”.

Female superhero films have largely failed, with Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005) unable to capture the strengths of their characters or explore issues of gender or empowerment. Supergirl (1984) might be the most enjoyable, if only because of the Christopher Reeves series and its 1980s cheesiness. But these films failed because they were bad films. Female characters are left periphery, no matter how interesting their characters are. In animated films like The Killing Joke (2016), DC struggled to present Batgirl’s sexuality in a way that isn’t deeply problematic. However, as Lepore argues, Wonder Woman is not “the Women’s March”, lacking her “American commitments and her feminist cause” as the film seeks universal audiences, positioned as “an implausible post-feminist hero”.

As Diana walks through London, a gown covering her costume, Wonder Woman is forced to dress towards conservative fashion trends, unable to carry sword or shield or expose skin. Looking through outfits in a store, she’s attracted to the most masculine and agile outfits possible to wear in battle, adopting glasses a la Diana, a nurse with her namesake in Sensation Comics #1, whose pseudonym she adopts.

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Sensation Comics #1 (1942)

This sequence resembles another in the original comic, as Wonder Woman walks down the high street, passers-by gawking at her immodesty. Were Diana walking down that same street today, she’d be fine in shorts and exposed sleeves. But wardrobe has dominated Wonder Woman’s career. In The New Wonder Woman #178-204 (1968-73), Denny O’Neil disempowered the character, placing her within the modern, groovy fashion of Swinging London.

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Sensation Comics #1 (1942)

During the 1970s, experimental artists like Dara Birnbaum, following feminist scholars like Laura Mulvey, criticised media representation of women, remixing images from The New Adventures of Wonder Woman (1975-79). More recently, questions continue to be discussed with Wonder Woman’s quickly reversed costume redesign of armour-covered skin, amid efforts for stronger female characters.

Attending a meeting of the Imperial War Cabinet, Diana faces patriarchal judgement: she cannot know secrets of war, nor act as distraction to leering, horny ministers. She explains her role to them as his secretary, christened Diana Prince by Steve, constantly told to step back and not fight, decades before women were allowed to serve. Women worked as WAACs, nurses in combat and in munitions factories, but never in front lines. Man’s instinct is to protect women, but in doing so they lose their power.

Etta Candy represents the suffragist movement, wanting to fight for women’s rights, but never too hard. Suffragist movements split between violent and non-violent action; Etta would never chain herself to a railing or set off bombs, despite her beliefs. Women marched on Washington, draped in costumes, flags and shields. In Intolerance (1916), made contemporaneously to the movement, we see early arguments around the right of children, the state and the mother, alongside lines of poverty. Etta as Steve’s secretary is ironic: Wonder Woman became relegated to the secretary for the Justice League in All-Star Comics, unable to join them on international missions. Diana believes Etta’s role amounts to slavery within man’s world, tying to the central ideology that women were “enslaved to men” without the right to vote. According to Lepore, bondage within early issues of Sensation Comics, far from kink and fetish, ties into “the iconography of suffragism, feminism and the early birth control movement”, where women marched in chains as “political theatre”.

Feminism is shifting: women in the US achieved suffrage in 1920 with the 19th amendment; women over 30 in the UK achieved it in 1918. But debates continue on, Wonder Woman hailed as feminist icon in the 1970s in Ms. magazine; the missed opportunity of Roe v Wade; third-wave feminism, between identity politics, issues of sexual abuse and inequality. Through Themyscira, Wonder Woman confronts sexuality and gender, tapping into, as Lepore argues, suffragist ideas from feminist utopian fiction that suggested “a matriarchy that predated the rise of patriarchy”, with feminist “obsession with Amazons”.

Themyscira is diverse, between black and white, but its women embody a particular kind of womanhood: largely white, cis, able-bodied, beautiful. Themyscira has no room for Asian women or trans women. The gods protect women, giving them their own island. With the arrival of Steve, Diana deals with masculinity and sexuality. Bathing in a fountain, Diana is confounded by his dick; he brags about size, whilst trying to remain respectful and apologetic to her.

On the boat, Steve doesn’t want to sleep next to her; that’s for marriage. Steve follows a set of ingrained, normative rules already feeling outdated. Diana is sex positive, reading 12 volumes on sex; she understands mechanics, but doesn’t need men. She has an island full of hot women, and her hand. Amid 1950s censorship of comic books, Sensation Comics was “accused of inciting lesbianism”. Who needs marriage? But as Steve confesses, marriages rarely stay together; men find other women. In the aftermath of battle, in snowfall, Steve talks about life in peacetime: having “breakfast”, falling in love, kids and growing old together. Immediately, they acknowledge this as bullshit, taking her up to his room and they embrace, fading to black. Sexuality isn’t linear; some cultures are free, some are more conservative.

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Sensation Comics #1 (1942)

Themyscira becomes respite from war for Steve, but he has a duty, making it out alive or not. Gadot and Pine play off each other well; Pine stretches himself beyond his role as Kirk in Star Trek (2009-present) as a dutiful man in war. However, their chemistry never feels romantic. Wonder Woman seems more interested in Sameer; her primary interest is in fighting war. In The First Avenger, we feel Steve and Peggy’s relationship more closely, understanding them as characters and what they stand for, feeling closeness and strength in their relationship. Wonder Woman attempts to manufacture connection through Steve’s watch, as symbolic memento, yet never acquires enough power.

Wonder Woman has a smaller contribution to DC’s cinematic universe than predecessors; Batman v Superman followed each origin, contained within videos on a tablet; the Flash made an unnecessary cameo fighting Boomerang In Suicide Squad. Wonder Woman has some connections, through its opening logo, Wayne Enterprises vans and an email thanking Bruce in the final scene, yet the film is largely disinterested in making Wonder Woman more than it is. Instead, Wonder Woman establishes a somewhat lighter tone, more colourful yet without sacrificing the dark and gritty elements that established this universe. In the lead-up to Snyder and Whedon’s Justice League (2017), Geoff Johns acting as executive producer, DC’s films have a way forward for an entire universe of characters.

Johnny Got His Gun (1971), dir. Dalton Trumbo

johnny

Screening at the Norwich Radical Film Festival, with a Q&A with Timothy Bottoms

Dalton Trumbo’s name is a notorious one, surviving the Hollywood blacklist through false identities, and acting as screenwriter on classics like Roman Holiday (1953) and Spartacus (1960). Perhaps now, he’s notorious for being played by Bryan Cranston in Trumbo (2015). But Johnny Got His Gun is not a notorious name. It clings onto dear life, a true independent film, reduced down to a handful of copies, surviving through Metallica music videos.

Other independent producers from this period like BBS have had their work remastered by Criterion, but the digital print screened today was far from perfect. Scratches, desaturated colours, the hiss of a projector – perhaps I’m far too used to a film being clean. Standing alongside The Go-Between (1971) at Cannes, it feels as though one has survived in audiences’ minds for longer.

The late 1960s saw the genre of the war epic collapse. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), trying to depict Pearl Harbor in the image of The Longest Day (1962), may not have bombed, but only just made back its budget. Trumbo found his screenplay rejected by every studio, the effects of the blacklist still hurting. The wave of the early 1970s rejection of Hollywood as it was had begun. Trumbo did it himself. As Bottoms explained during the Q&A, the war had touched everyone. His grandad was a veteran; so was his uncle; so was his dad. He avoided the draft for Vietnam, instead preferring to be an actor. One viewer suggested it was Trumbo’s anti-Vietnam film.

Johnny Got His Gun was one of Trumbo’s last films. Somehow, I’m glad I didn’t ask Bottoms why he never directed another film.

“Because he was on the brink of death!”

Paradoxically, it also represents a younger Trumbo, adapted from Trumbo’s own novel he published in 1938, an introspection on a war gone past on the brink of WWII. Trumbo and Bottoms grew to know each other quite well over the film’s production: an elder, industry veteran and a young, 18 year old actor, fresh off theater roles. Other actors auditioned for the role, including Peter Fonda. But Trumbo was immediately taken with Bottoms, reflecting a sense of transition between teenagehood and adulthood, without being either.

As a breakout role, it’s a brave one. His face remains concealed for much of the film’s duration, and he never fulfils traditional character roles that would make a star. Bottoms split his time between this film and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), filming the latter in Texas throughout the week and flying out every Sunday to shoot this film.

To say anything negative about this film feels difficult, because it has been such a good time, and I’ve reunited with old, super-queer friends, took a selfie with Timothy Bottoms and uttered the words “fuck the gender binary” in earshot of him. I’ve drunk glasses of free wine and eaten super-fancy canapés.

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But ultimately, this feels like a film of ideas rather than something specifically designed to be a film in its initial inception. Its anarchic, freewheeling stream of conscious is atemporal. Joe clings onto memories, trying to work out what year or month it actually is, or when the last Christmas was. (Soon enough, that he hasn’t died of influenza). Joe doesn’t know what time it is. In a book, neither does the reader – pages pass by without a sense of how much time has passed, entranced within another world. We dip into another memory when we have the time to read another chapter. But in film, the viewer knows how much time will pass, and can check their watch. Books can achieve a much cleaner way of drifting between flashback and present.

We listen to Joe’s stream of consciousness narration, largely improvised during filming, drowning out all other sounds in the room. Yet it often becomes a case of stating the obvious. “There’s someone in the room! What is he doing to me?” Through the long takes, there is no separation between Joe’s world and the people looking after him in the hospital. Trumbo fails to find a visual style which can balance this internal world with the external world. Again, this is easier to pull off within literary convention. Joe’s narration invalidates the need to see the people operating on him from a vantage point where we can see what they’re doing clearly. Seeing the people operating on him invalidates the need to hear his narration.

It is these sequences which are the most gripping, and probably helped establish the film’s cult status. With its monochrome bandages, I can’t help but think of Suture (1993). With its introspection on the workings of the mind, I can’t help but think of Inside Out (2015). It even has a sense of Cronenbergian body horror. The first shot immediately grips the viewer, as we see three surgeons’ faces stare us down, with no discernible individualistic features.

It is truly unsettling to see the state of Joe. The film’s title is a misnomer. Johnny hasn’t got his gun; we never even see Joe use it. He’s an emaciated wreck. Without arms, without legs, blinded, reduced to an unheard voice and a body moving under a sheet. When we see his shirt unbuttoned, this effect is somewhat reduced, as we see there is still life and humanity within him. His life is a true nightmare. Deaf and blind, he lives within a sensory world of touch, smell and sensing vibrations through the floorboards. Besides limited communication, all he can do is turn inside of himself.

It’s this introspection which I find the most difficult part of the film to manage. I sense traces of the surreal touches of Easy RiderMedium Cool and Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). When it’s at its most metaphorical and bizarre, it feels at its best. It creates the sense of a jumbled mind, deteriorating as time moves on just as a physical film or a digital file does, shifting between memory and past without a clear linear structure. It shifts from clinical monochrome to historical epic full colour, creating a clear distinction – between fantasy and present day reality. Where we shift into the mind, we see amphitheatres and unicorns and junkyards and our protagonist as a sideshow freak in the middle of the desert, somehow in two places at once, to an invisible paying audience (ourselves) who interacts with the circus. Within the Christmas party, the boss repeats his words over and over, a complete caricature. It’s a world of the dream and the surreal, yet still with a tangible connection to reality.

Jesus (played, somehow, by Donald Sutherland) rides the train of death, as fellow soldiers feel resigned to their inevitable demise within the war. Later, we see him working as a carpenter, as Joe philosophises alongside him, whilst soldiers behind him push along a cross – ready for the graves of soldiers, and his own shooting range. The film’s honest exploration of spirituality feels welcome – something also seen somewhat in Easy Rider – and would probably be absent were the film made today. Ultimately he concludes there is no God who could allow his suffering to happen – but we never see him begin as a committed atheist; instead, we interact with his process of becoming comfortable with death, and reflecting on the religion he was taught as a child.

Yet other sequences, like where we see his young romance on the day before he leaves for war, as his girlfriend begs him to stay, feel unwarranted. The film does a good job at depicting home life, although the scenes with his father where he goes fishing and they talk about the meaning of “democracy” struggle to feel natural either. They’re good flashbacks in a book – but here, comedic romance where two parties are unsure what the other wants and whether to overstep boundaries, feels like it’s out of place. There is no soundtrack to distract us, and these scenes drag on and I sigh in my seat, as though I should not offend Timothy Bottoms, and I begin to question my own existential dread once more.

In the closing scenes, the film’s crucial element is found. Johnny Got His Gun becomes a shockingly timely euthanasia debate within the topic of disability, that more than probably stands far above Me Before You (2016). Should his desire to die be respected, when there is no chance of him regaining any agency outside of his mind, or should he be made to live on?

Another irony: his life is respected without question, with multiple people looking after him, only for one soldier. Soldiers can be killed in war, and their hallowed soul is given an unceremonious burial, with half-arsed hymns because it’s tradition, buried with a bit of soil thrown over as enemy fire still blasts overhead.

The soldier who narrowly avoided death is afforded, in some ways, the worse state.

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), dir. Richard Attenborough

Unlike other stage to screen adaptations like Les Misérables (2012), awkwardly using the gritty aesthetic of a war film, Oh! What a Lovely War remains theatrical in its film version. The wooden floorboards of the Brighton Pier become a makeshift stage for the film’s events, a variety music hall transfiguring the mundane and everyday into symbolic objects: marionettes into soldiers in the game of war; rifle ranges become guns in the trenches; binoculars on the pier become a lookout post. It becomes a wraparound for vignettes from throughout the war, from early negotiations through to its aftermath.

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The audience is positioned within other stages too: Maggie Smith’s character’s performance in the theatre to a watching audience (both us as viewers and the theatre audience in 1914); the vast, cavernous enclosed spaces of the train station, full of extras; the white walled palace of the opening scenes, where the nations of Europe negotiate, so bare that it is a theatrical set in itself. Scenes merge from one into the other: fireworks transform into shellfire in moonlit trenches, as easy as a brief costume change or a change in set dressing; with no physical movement but an illusion achieved in seconds.

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Attenborough’s visual style helps make the film. His compositions are perfect, riffing on paintings and creating multi-layered images with depth. The film is rife with symbolism, owing much to theatre. There is a recurrent image of soldiers as poppies, holding them before they go to their deaths. In death, they are given red blankets to cover their corpses.

Musicals have never appealed much to me; even the most well-regarded films of Rodgers and Hammerstein, like The Sound of Music (1965), bring actual pain. There are still songs here which make me want to gag, but the incorporation of soldiers singing songs of the time in the trenches create a sense of realism into a highly stylised film.

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In some ways, a feminist portrayal of war is created. Not only does the Brighton Pier create a stage for the audience, it also creates a portrayal of the war back home, concurrent to life in the trenches – the southern coast away from the western front. War interrupts the end of the ‘golden’ Edwardian era: families on a June day by the seaside exist side by side to the patriotic marching band, the king’s men who become soldiers in combat.

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In this world, women thrive. The suffragist movement, so often overlooked or considered in isolation: Pankhurst’s death, or the victory in 1918, are considered apart from the war, rather than an essential part and consequence of it. A campaigner is given the expected vitriol given to all conscientious objectors at the time; by the film’s end, the men have been buried in white, unmarked graves – with the white specks of the women of the family remaining in focus; women have ascended past the war.

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Its satirical edge may not be the most accurate portrait of the war, promoting an image of an incompetent British Army that is not the entire truth; events like the Christmas truce exist somewhere between apocrypha and reality. But it creates a compelling attack on war, even outside of the musical numbers, through a heavy sense of juxtaposition. It could easily descend into offensive territory, belittling human suffering in the way The Producers (1967) satirised through its fictitious musical Springtime for Hitler, yet it never quite gets there.