Curzon Cinemas supporting WW1 event and SSAFA with Charlie Chaplin's Shoulder Arms (1918)

Curzon Cinemas, Westgate Hall’s neighbours, are giving us fantastic support with our WW1 event. On Saturday, at 12.15, they are screening Charlie Chaplin’s WW1 hit, Shoulder Arms! Tickets are £5, 100% proceeds to SSAFA. Don’t miss this opportunity to see one of the top ten films of WW1, a favourite with troops and civilians, a 45min silent film transporting us to the world as was. Please join us and spread the word.

As context and background to the film, Dr. Emma Hanna a member of the Gateways to the First World War team provided the following.

Shoulder Arms (1918), starring Charlie Chaplin, was shown in cinemas from 1st December 1918, shortly after the signing of the Armistice on 11th November. Despite some initial concerns that the subject of the film – a comedy which The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly called ‘a roaring burlesque of trench life’ – would be inappropriate at that time, it was very well received. Chaplin was the leading cinema star of his day and his films were a huge source of entertainment for millions of people during four terrible years of war.

The popularity of Chaplin helped to make Shoulder Arms a success, but as The Bioscope said ‘The war is over and we want to forget it, but Chaplin’s version of what happened over there is not something to forget.’

Chaplin’s ability to combine pathos and humour enabled Shoulder Arms to make fun of certain aspects of frontline service without causing offence. While too many families were mourning the loss of a loved one, the majority of British society wanted to celebrate Britain’s victory after years of hardship and sacrifice.

In November 1918 there was widespread rejoicing that the war was over, a Victory Parade was planned and Armistice Night ‘Jazz Balls’ were held. Many of the five million British men who returned from the fighting would say that they wanted to remember the war years for their comradeship and purpose: they would not thank us for describing them as cannon fodder or helpless victims.

Shoulder Arms enables us to glimpse something of the immediate post-war mood, of wanting to remember the better times and make light of the bad without any disrespect to those who did not return. In the midst of so much death there was a great deal of life, and humour was an important part of the British soldier’s armoury. It is not the poetry of Wilfred Owen – who was largely unknown until the 1960s – but the humour of trench magazines like the Wipers Times and the sardonic ‘Old Bill’ sketches by Bruce Bairnsfather that give us genuine insights into the mind-set of Tommy Atkins.

Shoulder Arms is part of that human need to use comedy to make a situation more bearable, and by watching it we are remembering the soldiers of 1914-18 as they wanted to remember themselves.

Dr Emma Hanna, University of Kent


Westgate Hall