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Reviewed by:
  • Media, Memory, and the First World War
  • Steven Trout
David Williams. Media, Memory, and the First World War. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2009. xii + 321 pp.

David Williams’s Media, Memory, and the First World War offers an important and original thesis: namely, that the invention of cinema, less than two decades before the outbreak of the Great War, profoundly altered the way that Western cultures experience time and thus the way in which they collectively remember. Indeed, with a nod to Paul Fussell, Williams might have called his book “The Great War and the Past-Progressive-Present-Tense.” The latter phrase, which Williams uses throughout this study, describes the temporal distortion that we all experience, without necessarily thinking about it, when watching films. As Williams reminds us, any piece of cinema is a record of something in the past; however, once projected onto a screen, events recorded by the camera live again—we see them, quite literally, as they are happening—and thus the past becomes part of the present. In other words, films not only disrupt time, they deconstruct it before our eyes, as now and then cease to form a binary opposition.

The best sections of Media (and these sections are nothing less than excellent) convey just how disconcerting this time distortion [End Page 666] was for early movie-going audiences, and they trace the influence of cinema’s “Past-Progressive-Present-Tense” on major works of First World War literature. In a riveting analysis of “Dulce et Decorum Est,” for example, Williams demonstrates that Wilfred Owen makes “his language move with the immediacy of the cinematic image” (120). By focusing on Owen’s shifts in tense—or, rather, his filmic merger of past and present—the author provides an important new perspective on this familiar poem. I also enjoyed Williams’s reading of All Quiet on the Western Front as a text that, paradoxically, elevates the cinematic image above the written word, and his discussion of Siegfried Sassoon’s Sherston trilogy in terms of the “ontological doubling” (153) that we experience whenever we see ourselves on film. In the trilogy, as in his poem “Picture Show,” Sassoon is simultaneously participant and observer, and thus his writing disconcertingly captures the two-way gaze between the man looking at the screen and the celluloid doppelganger who looks back. Here, as in his similarly insightful discussion of Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed, Williams’s understanding of cinema as a new—and for its earliest viewers ontologically disturbing—way of knowing allows him, rather surprisingly, to see fresh dimensions of meaning in written responses to the Great War.

Williams also offers a brief but interesting discussion of the still controversial British documentary The Battle of the Somme, a work that stands in many ways at the center of this study. For Williams, the film’s authenticity, which other scholars have challenged, is less important than its dynamics as a spatial and temporal phenomenon. The most popular British film of all time, The Battle of the Somme collapsed space and time by transporting seemingly live images of war (including images of men who were dead by the time of the film’s premier) from the Western Front to the British Home Front, thereby radically transforming the way in which noncombatants experienced and then remembered the fighting. The documentary also broke the link between social class and modes of collective memory. After participating in the time-warping experience of wartime cinema, “no educated Briton could look again at modern war as a continuation of Homer, and no undereducated Briton could look again at the past as a foreign country” (114).

Scholars focused on the cultural history of World War I will find considerable value in the sections mentioned above—and in a cluster of subsequent chapters that explores the link between memory and media in more contemporary works, including Timothy Findley’s The Wars and R. H. Thomson’s The Lost Boys. However, Media often comes across, despite its author’s best efforts, as two books, rather than one. Not content to focus solely on the impact of the “Past-Progressive- Present-Tense” [End Page 667...


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pp. 666-669
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