Tag Archives: World War I

The past isn’t a foreign country in ‘Wonder Woman’

Everybody seems to love the new Wonder Woman movie.  There’s quite a bit that I like about it myself, especially the depiction of Diana’s personality.  And it’s nice to see a DC movie where the atmosphere isn’t so gloomy—the literal, physical atmosphere as well as the mood, I mean.  

One thing that irks me, though, is the movie’s sense of history.  It doesn’t have one.

Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, the stars of ‘Wonder Woman,’ at the 2016 San Diego Comic Con. By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Gal Gadot & Chris Pine) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Wonder Woman made her comics debut in 1941, a couple of months before America’s entry into World War II.  But the movie takes place near the end of the First World War, with strategists and politicians on both sides expecting an imminent armistice.  When Steve Trevor crashes into the waters off Themyscira, he’s fleeing the kaiser’s men rather than the Führer’s.  I’m not sure why the filmmakers opted for a WWI origin; maybe they wanted to distinguish their movie from Captain America: The First Avenger.

A couple of decades may not seem like a big shift, but there’s a world of difference between 1918 and 1941.  Any time traveler from 2017 would experience much more profound culture shock in the WWI era than the WWII one.  I’m not just referring to the external conditions of people’s lives, like technology and clothing, but also to the internal conditions: the ways that people of different classes, genders, and other categories conceived of themselves and related to one another.

The 1910s were much less recognizably modern than the 1940s, and much more “foreign” from the standpoint of the present day.  There’s little sense of this “foreignness” in Wonder Woman other than the hairstyles and costumes.  For a movie set a century ago, it’s notably ahistorical.  This is especially true of Steve Trevor himself.  None of his dialogue or his characterization would be inappropriate for an airman/intelligence officer of WWII.  For that matter, none of it would be out of place for a man of our own time.  

It’s interesting to contrast Wonder Woman‘s Trevor with the characters in another movie released this year, The Lost City of Z.  Portions of that film take place during WWI; in fact, both Wonder Woman and Lost City have battle sequences in which troops go over the top and into the hellscape of no man’s land.  But while Trevor is more or less interchangeable with a twenty-first-century American, Lost City‘s Percy Fawcett is very much a man of his time and class.  Indeed, the mores of the Edwardian British upper class figure in Lost City‘s plot.  Fawcett’s questionable family background hampers his advancement. It’s the story of a time and place when pedigree mattered a great deal.  Its characters’ attitudes and outlooks are distinct from our own.  Wonder Woman‘s Steve Trevor, by contrast, could be your next-door neighbor.

What’s especially curious is that the makers of Wonder Woman seem pretty uninterested in exploiting their period’s special relevance to everything that makes their title character singular.  Wonder Woman posed quite a challenge to prevailing attitudes about femininity in 1941, but imagine what a radical figure she would’ve been in 1918, before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.  You’d think a movie about a superhuman warrior woman that takes place in an era when women’s lives were so circumscribed would milk that fact for all it’s worth.  But the film’s engagement with 1910s gender norms is surprisingly light.  There’s a passing reference to women’s suffrage, an amusing scene in which Diana tries on a corset and underskirt for the first time, and another in which her presence inside an all-male conference room causes an uproar.  That’s about it.  I’m not trying to argue that the filmmakers should have concentrated more on Diana’s challenge to 1918 gender norms.  I just find it surprising that they didn’t engage that angle more, given their choice to set the story in the 1910s rather than the 1940s or 2010s.

I’m well aware that critiquing this movie on the basis of its historical sensibility is somewhat beside the point.  It isn’t really a “historical” film in the same sense that The Lost City of Z is.  Nobody goes to Wonder Woman to immerse themselves in the 1910s.  The filmmakers’ only real duties were to be true to the central character and to tell a good story.  But the notion of the past as a foreign country is a favorite theme of mine, so I get miffed when filmmakers and storytellers assume that people have always been more or less like us.  Some of Wonder Woman‘s most enjoyable moments are the ones in which Diana finds herself a fish out of water in a world of men.  But if any of us found ourselves in WWI-era Europe, we’d likely feel out of place, too.

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Lecture on African American soldiers in WWI

Here’s an event to commemorate the centennial of American involvement in the Great War that might be of interest to those of you in the Knoxville area.

On Thursday, Feb. 23 UT’s Department of History and the Center for the Study of War and Society will co-host the Second Annual Fleming-Morrow Distinguished Lecture in African-American History.  Chad L. Williams, Associate Professor and Chair of the African and Afro-American Studies Department at Brandeis University, will discuss “Torchbearers of Democracy: The History and Legacy of African American Soldiers in World War I.”  Like his book of the same name, Williams’s talk will examine the 380,000 black soldiers whose WWI service was part of a larger battle waged both at home and abroad.

The lecture is at 5:30 p.m. in the Alumni Memorial Building, Room 210.  It’s free to the public, with a book signing to follow.

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Upcoming talk on Eugene Debs at UTK

Here’s a timely event for those of you in the Knoxville area as we move closer to the centennial of America’s entry into the First World War.  On Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 6:00 P.M., Ernest Freeberg will present “Eugene V. Debs and the Fight For Free Speech in World War One” in UT’s Hodges Library, room 212.

Dr. Freeberg, head of the Department of History at UT, is the author of a prize-winning book on Debs and civil liberties in wartime titled Democracy’s Prisoner.  His other works include The Age of Edison and The Education of Laura Bridgman, which won the AHA’s Dunning Prize.

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Sgt. York’s voice

I really should be grading finals right now, but for some reason I developed a sudden urge to find a recording of Alvin York’s voice.  Most of the historical figures that interest me came along well before the advent of sound recording, so I don’t get to indulge this sort of curiosity too often.  This newsreel includes a brief clip of York speaking.

As a bonus, here’s a video tour of his home, with some reflections from his son and daughter-in-law.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

World War II’s oldest casualties

With The Monuments Men hitting theaters this week, I thought this might be a good opportunity to discuss the fate of valuable artifacts during WWII.  And this leads us—as all things inevitably must—to the subject of extinct reptiles.

About a hundred million years ago, North Africa was the world capital of big, carnivorous dinosaurs.  The biggest of them all was Spinosaurus, top contender for the largest known meat-eating dinosaur of all time.  Even the lowest estimates of its size would make this animal longer than T. rex, and the higher estimates—up to 59 feet from nose to tail tip—are longer by far than those for any other theropod dinosaur known to science.

By Bogdanov, modified by Matt Martyniuk (User:Dinoguy2) and User:FunkMonk. Jaw muscles taken from[1] by User:Steveoc_86. (dmitrchel@mail.ru) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Spinosaurus got its moniker from the row of spines atop its vertebrae, some of them over five feet high, giving it a prominent sail or ridge running the length of its back.  The German paleontologist Ernst Stromer came up with the name in 1915, based on some jawbones, vertebrae, and ribs discovered three years earlier in Egypt.

Ernst Stromer

For thirty years, these fossils were safe and sound in Munich’s Paläontologisches Museum.  Then the war came, and European museums weren’t safe havens anymore.

On the night of April 24, 1944 the Royal Air Force hit Munich with a bombing raid that wrecked the museum and destroyed the Spinosaurus fossils inside.  Spinosaurus bones aren’t that plentiful, so the loss of any of them is a big deal, but the loss of this specimen was especially significant because it was the holotype (the individual used in the first official scientific description of the species).  All that remains of it today are Stromer’s notes, drawings, and photos.

Perhaps the rarity and fragmentary nature of Spinosaurus fossils help explain why this dinosaur hasn’t always been as popular as you’d expect.  It’s more well known now than it used to be, largely thanks to a starring role as the main antagonist in Jurassic Park III.

I’m partial to T. rex myself, but that scene is just freaking awesome.

Another massive carnivorous dino prowling around Cretaceous North Africa was Carcharodontosaurus, first discovered in the 192os and re-named by Stromer in 1931.  Like Spinosaurus, this guy was huge—upwards of forty feet long.  Its five-foot skull was lined with serrated, eight-inch teeth.

By Ornitholestes (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

And also like Spinosaurus, the holotype got pulverized by Allied bombs falling on Munich.  Expeditions to the Sahara unearthed additional specimens in the 1990s, but Stromer’s original went up in smoke during the war.

In fact, the RAF’s April attack on Munich basically wiped out Stromer’s remarkable collection, including the type specimen of the carnivorous dinosaur Bahariasaurus, the only known specimen of the unusual prehistoric crocodile Stomatosuchus, and the bones of the long-necked dinosaur Aegyptosaurus.  And the war cost Stromer much more than his fossils.  Two of his sons died in the army, while the third spent years as a prisoner of the Russians.

Incidentally, the First World War took its toll on paleontology, too.  In December 1916 the German raider Möwe sank the Canadian ship Mount Temple, along with the twenty-two crates of hadrosaur and turtle fossils on board.

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Volunteers at war

While my cousin and I were in Nashville last week to see the Emancipation Proclamation, we visited a collection I’d managed to miss on all my previous trips to Music City: the Tennessee State Museum’s Military Branch.

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Jacket, cap, leg guards, medals, and dog tags belonging to Alvin C. York

Located inside the War Memorial Building near the Capitol, the Military Museum focuses on America’s wars from 1898 through 1945 and Tennesseans’ participation in them.  It’s a small facility, but it’s chock full of impressive artifacts.  Historical weapons and uniforms make up the bulk of the collection, but you’ll also find models, medals, propaganda posters, the silver service from a battleship, and a jacket worn by Dwight Eisenhower. Some of the items on display are trophies carried home by Tennessee veterans, such as Philippine and Japanese swords and German sidearms.

Although the exhibits give you a pretty general overview of America’s wars, special attention is paid to Tennessee connections.  A special highlight is a case devoted to Alvin York containing a uniform jacket, the Congressional Medal of Honor he received for his exceptional exploits of October 8, 1918, and some additional items.  (The museum is currently running a temporary exhibit on Sgt. York and the effort to map and excavate the site of his most famous engagement, so this is a great time to visit if you’re interested in WWI’s most famous soldier.)

The exhibits are a little dated, but the items on display more than make up for the lack of bells and whistles.  Give yourself about an hour and a half to tour the museum; hardcore weapon and military buffs will probably need additional time to take it all in.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Wanna hear something ironic?

Out of Philadelphia comes a news story so bass-ackwards that it belongs in The Onion.  Dimitri Rotov has the details over at Civil War Memory.

The Olympia, veteran vessel of the Spanish-American and First World Wars and the oldest steel warship still sitting on top of the water anywhere in the world, is at the Independence Seaport Museum.  The Olympia was Dewey’s flagship at Manila Bay; he was standing on her decks when he gave the order, “You may fire when ready, Gridley.”  She also happens to be the ship that brought home the remains of America’s WWI unknown soldier. 

Dewey and the crew of the Olympia at the Battle of Manila Bay. From Wikimedia Commons

Now, the ideal culmination of any effort to locate and preserve some historic vessel is to raise the wreck, conserve it in a lab, and then put in on display where you can interpret it for the public.  Olympia never went to the bottom of the ocean.  She sailed home to acclaim and ended up as a museum.  No sinking, no salvage.  So far so good.

The problem is that the Independence Seaport Museum can’t afford the upkeep anymore, so they’re looking to dispose of her.  Here’s the money quote:  “‘Another option would be scrapping Olympia,’ said James McLane, interim president of the museum, which owns the ship and is adjacent to it at Penn’s Landing. ‘But the Navy has told us that ‘reefing’ is better because it would allow divers to go down on it and would preserve Olympia.'”

“Reefing” basically means towing it out to sea and then sending it down to Davy Jones’s locker, where it would be inaccessible to everybody except for scuba divers and fish, subject to the very same kind of deterioration that’s causing the Monitor and the Titanic to crumble to pieces.  

I’m not trying to criticize the museum.  Lots of museums are in a bind.  If they don’t have the funds, then they don’t have the funds, and scrapping the ship wouldn’t do anybody any more benefit than reefing it.  But the irony here is just absolutely sickening.  We spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours trying to raise historic ships from the bottom of the sea, get them afloat, and turn them into exhibits, and now here we have a historic ship that’s already afloat and on exhibit, and it might end up at the bottom of the sea.  Unbelievable.

There is, fortunately, a group of people dedicated to keeping Olympia afloat, and I urge you to visit their website.  Please consider a donation to this organization, or at least sign their online petition.

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