REEL HEALING: How the Films of Lon Chaney Helped America Grapple with the Tragedy of World War I, Part 1

by | Nov 11, 2020 | 0 comments

Part One

On Sunday, June 28, 1914 at 10:45 in the morning, a shot rang out on the streets of Sarejevo – then the capitol of the Bosnia-Herzegovina province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – followed by a second a moment later. That single moment in time, which marked the death by assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophia, would be the immediate cause of the greatest conflict the world had ever known, one whose repercussions could hardly be imagined at the time. 

To be sure, Franz Ferdinand was a minor and relatively unaccomplished European royal. He ascended to his position only after the deaths of both his cousin and his father, and marked his career as Archduke more by his passion of big game hunting rather than any political or military achievements. There’s little doubt that, had it not been for his assassination and the events it touched off, he would be little more than a minor footnote in history today. 

But, thanks to a series of alliances around the world, Ferdinand’s death by a member of the student-led revolutionary group, Young Bosnia, who were armed and organized by the Black Hand – a secret military organization dedicated to unifying all nations possessing a majority of South Serbian citizens under one banner – sparked a world-wide conflict. Austria declared war on Serbia, causing Germany, Austria’s ally, to declare war on Russia, Serbia’s ally.

Germany then declared war on France, an ally of Russia, and invaded Belgium, a neutral country. This led to Great Britain declaring war on Germany, as they were allied with France. Within a week, many of the world’s greatest powers were at war with one another. The United States, under President Woodrow Wilson, announced their neutrality rather than joining either side of the conflict. In 1917, however, pushed to the brink by the ongoing attacks on American ships in the Atlantic, Wilson finally declared war on Germany and entered the fray.

“World War I was bloody, brutal, and all-consuming.”

And so World War I raged on in Europe. Recognized as the first mass killing event of the 20th century, it was responsible for more than 20 million deaths, both civilian and military. It quickly became clear that this war was different than others that had come before it. Advances in technology had created indelible changes, not only on the battlefield, but in both medicine and in the way wars were reported to those at home. Unlike the “gentlemanly” conflicts that had come before, such as the American Civil War – during which interested parties could gather on nearby hillsides and picnic while watching the battles below – World War I was bloody, brutal, and all-consuming. Nature itself was unforgiving, as the soldiers had little protection from rain (and the resulting mud), wind, heat, bitter cold, and other natural occurrences. Battlefronts, marked by the presence of trenches throughout which diseases like typhoid, body lice, trench foot, influenza, and trench fever ran rampant, resembled nothing so much as medieval depictions of Hell, with signs of horror, mutilation, and decay as far as the eye could see. When the sandbags that protected the soldiers from gunfire were damaged or destroyed, corpses were piled up to take their place. Death was always a mere moment away.

“This was not a war that could be romanticized (as much as many tried) – it was slaughter on a mass scale.”

Front-line soldiers were not the “honorable combatants” of previous conflicts as much as they were considered pieces of meat with weapons, to be thrown at the enemy in increasingly desperate waves of human cannon fodder in an attempt to overwhelm the other side. They were frequently ordered to “go over the top,” with virtually no regard for their personal safety, and attack in what often turned into a suicide run. This was not a war that could be romanticized (as much as many tried) – it was slaughter on a mass scale.

However, as in wars before and since, the battlefield, besides being an abattoir, proved to be an excellent proving ground for both new technology and medical innovation. This was the war that saw the development of the Thomas splint, which introduced a new way to immobilize broken hip and thigh bones, changing an 80% mortality rate for such injuries to an 80% survival rate; newly motorized ambulances replaced horse-and-carriage conveyances, transporting wounded from the battlefield to the hospital more quickly and effectively; vehicles equipped with X-Ray machines, installed by Madame Marie Curie herself, advanced the science of medical imaging and diagnosis; recent developments in hygiene, antiseptics, and vaccines helped treat and avoid many instances of infection and disease contracted at the front; revolutionary advances in blood transfusions improved with the addition of anticoagulants, allowing for the conservation and transportation of blood; and new techniques in both anesthesia and reconstructive surgery were put to the test in the unforgiving theater of war.  

And unforgiving it certainly was, as time and science brought into being many new methods of making death and destruction more widespread and efficient than ever before. Both sides of the conflict were hard at work revising and updating existing armaments, as well as creating new ones. The hand grenade, at first crude and unreliable, evolved into an effective killing machine, especially useful in trench warfare; the armor-plated tank, complete with caterpillar treads, found its place on the battlefield of World War I, as its design made it perfect for moving over uneven terrain and dealing death at close range; aerial warfare and aerial bombardment, long the purview of science fiction, became a terrifying reality as death rained from above; machine guns became faster, more reliable, and more deadly; and the newly-developed flame thrower was first used by the Imperial German Army to clear trenches by burning their enemies alive.  

Perhaps the most terrifying development, however, was the introduction of poison gas to the battlefield, in spite of the bans instituted by the Hague Convention in both 1899 and 1907 prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. Chlorine gas was the first chemical used in warfare; when chlorine meets moisture in the body, such as in the mucous membranes, it forms hydrochloric acid. It was limited, however, as its green color and distinctive odor served as a warning of its presence, allowing time for the donning of a simple gas mask. Far deadlier was mustard gas, which causes the skin to blister and can remain on the ground or in clothing for weeks after dispersal, and phosgene, a colorless – and largely odorless – gas that causes a buildup of fluid in the lungs leading to suffocation.

In spite of these new and horrendous methods of destruction, the advances in medicine meant that men were surviving injuries that would have killed them in earlier battles. Amputations and major surgeries were not the death sentence they had been, and such soldiers were more likely to be patched up and sent home than ever before. For some, that was both the good news and the bad. 

It’s estimated that 21 million people were injured, mutilated, or disfigured in World War I, with nearly 20% of that number suffering facial disfigurements of one kind or another, while even greater numbers returned home without one or more limbs. Wounded by shrapnel, bullets, chemical attack, fire, cold, disease, or any of a number of attacks meant to kill or disable, a larger percentage of wounded soldiers than in any previous conflict survived to come home, albeit horribly changed. Reconstructive surgery was available – to a point – but that science was still in its infancy. The result was that all over Europe and America, servicemen were returning home with shattered, broken faces, causing many to experience a feeling of lost humanity and isolation from friends, family, and loved ones. The mutilation of sexual organs, for which nothing could be done, was particularly damaging psychologically. Custom-made masks were available to veterans whose faces had been disfigured, although whether these were designed to protect the injured or the public at large is open to conjecture. 

This phenomenon was so widespread that France, for example, had an organization, Union des Gueules Cassées (“The Brotherhood of Smashed Mugs”), dedicated to helping and supporting veterans who had sustained disfiguring injuries of the head and face. The English town of Sidcup in south-east London, which had a hospital specially dedicated to the care of disfigured vets, had blue benches installed around town specifically for the use of such soldiers. Whether it was for their benefit, or to warn passers-by to look away, is not clear.

In the US, former soldier Robert S. Marx, working with the newly-formed American Legion, established the Disabled American Veterans of the World War (DAV) in 1920, dedicated to raising public awareness about, and providing support for, disfigured soldiers. By 1922, the organization had 25,000 members, with 1,200 chapters nationwide.

“While much was written both during and after the war, most of the literature of the time dealt with the effects of “shell shock,” better known and understood today as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”

But in spite of these heroic efforts, acceptance was long in coming for these “gargoyles,” as many called themselves. Sent off to war in the prime of youth and vigor, they returned home in a monstrous condition. In her 1918 book, You Who Can Help: Letters of an American Army Officer’s Wife, August 1916 – January 1918, Mary Smith Churchill, who served as a nurse during the war, wrote, “… the thousands and even hundreds of thousands of head and face wounds almost prevent the poor men from looking human. I suppose they are glad to be alive, but with the life before them it is a pretty hard outlook.” A volunteer nurse, Enid Bagnold1, who was vocally critical of her hospital’s administration and was dismissed because of it, wrote about one of her patients in her 1918 book, A Diary Without Dates, saying, “… he has no profile, as we know a man’s. Like an ape, he has only his bumpy forehead and his protruding lips – the nose, the left eye, gone.” And John Masefield, a noted writer and poet who served on the staff of a British hospital for French soldiers and briefly served as an orderly, wrote in his diary, which was written at the front, “…[the doctors] shewed me some 50 casts of Before and After [reconstructive] treatment and really they make human heads out of things that have no single feature left, not even a swelling.” From an object of pity to an inhuman animal to a “thing,” the wounded vets lost their humanity as quickly as they had lost their features.

While much was written both during and after the war, most of the literature of the time dealt with the effects of “shell shock,” better known and understood today as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Virginia Woolf covered the topic in both Mrs. Dalloway (1925) which includes a character who is a World War I veteran experiencing PTSD-related symptoms, including hallucinations, who is committed to a mental asylum, and ultimately commits suicide and, to a lesser extent, in To the Lighthouse (1927), which foregrounds the changes wrought on the Ramsey family due to the War.  Ernest Hemingway also faced the fallout of the “War to End All Wars” in A Farewell to Arms (1929), the author’s first bestseller which was based on his own experiences in the Italian campaigns during the war, and The Sun Also Rises (1926), largely recognized as Hemingway’s best and most important novel, based on his own 1925 trip to Spain and his thesis that the so-called “Lost Generation” of the 1920s, largely considered to be irretrievably damaged by the war, was actually more resilient than they were given credit for.\

Few novels, however, dealt with the tragic injuries suffered by soldiers on the front lines. One notable exception was Johnny Got His Gun, a stunning anti-war novel written by Dalton Trumbo in 1938. In it, young American soldier Joe Bonham regains consciousness in a hospital bed, and comes to realize that his arms and legs, as well as the entirety of his face, including his eyes, ears, teeth, and tongue have been lost, resulting in his being trapped within his body with his mind still fully functional.

The story is told entirely in Joe’s mind, as he slips into and out of delusion and reality. It is a shattering look at the horror of those who were kept alive, but without a real life to return to. Granted, Joe’s situation is more extreme than most of the veterans that came back with “smashed mugs,” but Dalton portrays Joe’s new existence with sympathy and grace, something that was lacking in many veteran’s post-war lives. In spite of this, it’s hardly surprising that few, if any, other novels dealt with the subject matter that Trumbo took up. Johnny… is intense and disturbing, and a scathing indictment about the cost of war and who it is that is forced to pay that price.

Few movies were made about the war during the period of 1914-1918. Still in its infancy, having debuted in 1895, by the time World War I began in Europe, film was still trying to find its way as a vehicle for narrative expression, rather than a simple exhibition of moving images. Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) would help show that film could tell actual stories, while D.W. Griffith’s highly controversial The Birth of a Nation (1915) proved the viability of both feature-length film (as opposed to shorts, which dominated production at the time) and film as an artistic medium capable of much more than the simple recorded stage play that had been common up until that time.

“Needless to say, Hollywood had nothing to say about disabled and disfigured vets, content to keep them invisible as the country tried to put the war behind it.”

But as much as film had advanced, the public was still cautious as far as subject matter went. In 1910, Edison Studios released a one-reel (about 10 minutes) adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Tame to the point of being tepid by today’s standards, the film outraged the public, being castigated as not only “blasphemous,” but “revolting.” The pushback was so strong that the horror genre would largely disappear from the silver screen for more than a decade, giving way to more “respectable” forms such as romance, drama, and comedy. Needless to say, Hollywood had nothing to say about disabled and disfigured vets, content to keep them invisible as the country tried to put the war behind it.

In 1919, however, a film debuted that would be the first step in a reassessment of the war’s wounded, although that was likely the farthest thing from director, producer, and writer George Loane Tucker’s mind. The film, based on a play by George M. Cohan, which in turn was based on an original novel by Frank L. Packard, was The Miracle Man, about a gang of crooks who throw in with a shady faith healer, known as the Patriarch, in a small town, bilking the gullible public out of their hard-earned cash. The film is unremarkable – what exists of it – except for one thing: the character of the Frog, and the talented actor who portrayed him.

The Frog, part of the criminal gang, was a contortionist, who could twist and turn his body into seemingly impossible alignments, coming into town as a cripple and then allowing the Patriarch (the eponymous “Miracle Man”) to “heal” him, resulting in a man who went from a bent and broken figure to a vigorous and healthy young man. Without special effects capable of making this transformation, the role had to go to someone who could not only pull off the requisite physical stunt work, but could also act (a tougher combination to find in one person than was initially thought).

The role was filled by a character actor who had achieved some notoriety as head cattle rustler Hame Bozzam in the 1918 William S. Hart Western, Riddle Gawne. His performance drew favorable notices in the press, leading to the role of the Frog, which cemented the actor’s reputation as one of Hollywood’s leading character actors. His name? Leonidas Frank Chaney, better known to film buffs around the world as the immortal Lon Chaney, the Man of 1,000 Faces.

[1] Bagnold would attain even greater fame in 1935 with the publication of her best-known work, National Velvet.


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<a href="" target="_self">John Petty</a>

John Petty

John E. Petty is a Lecturer in Film at the University of Texas at Dallas. He is the author of Capes, Crooks, and Cliffhangers: Heroic Serial Posters of the Golden Age and the textbook Understanding Film. John has also been published in a number of academic and popular journals and magazines, including Films of the Golden Age, and is a contributor to A Companion of the Gangster Film.


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