Shoulder Arms (1918)

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  • directed by Charles Chaplin
  • starring Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Syd Chaplin
  • A boot camp private goes on a daring mission behind enemy lines.

“How did you capture 13 soldiers?”

“I surrounded them.”

I wouldn’t call this one of Chaplin’s most charming films by any means, but Shoulder Arms was the earliest piece of evidence I’ve seen in which the performer went to great lengths to find the funny in otherwise supremely unfunny situations. Producers warned against centering a comedy on war, especially since the first World War had been going on for four years at this point, but Chaplin was excited by it and audiences ate it up, including the doughboys who returned from the actual war a month after the film’s release. It was his most popular film up until then both critically and commercially and also his shortest feature film.

The first part of Shoulder Arms takes place in the trenches and is segmented by the non-battle day to day routines of a soldier at war—lunch, sleep, a bit of strategizing—nothing extraordinary but all filled with enough gags to keep the story going. There was also a brief bout of loneliness and homesickness that Charlie experiences and it was my favorite scene because there’s nobody that can wear forlorn like he can.

The film doesn’t stay sentimental for too long and it all gets much sillier when the actual fighting begins, for example Charlie donning a tree costume in order to sidle within branches-length of the enemy. Here, and in the other battle scenes that followed, Chaplin seemed to move away from a realistic depiction of the war environment. Aside from all the slapstick in the first half, all of the trench scenes were believable and felt real enough. There was even a nice Paths of Glory-esque tracking shot. Whenever opposing forces shared the screen, however, Chaplin turned the mood and staging into something more akin to an Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny sequence. It was a smart and balanced approach to take for such subject matter during such a sensitive time, but overall as a film it never came together for me. I have to think that there was a bit of second guessing and on the fly self-censoring that was going on that held the film back, but still, it was good to see Chaplin begin to show his penchant for edgy material and darker tones in his comedy.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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