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Wonder Woman, Uncle Sam, and ‘Archduke’

World War I in Popular Culture


Stephen Stocking (center) in the world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s “Archduke” at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Archduke, which plays the Mark Taper Forum through June 4, 2017, takes place in the days and hours before the event that is widely regarded as the beginning of World War I—the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Playwright Rajiv Joseph hopes that the play will get audiences thinking about World War I as not so distant or foreign. No one ever talks about World War I. There’s not many movies made about World War I, he said in a recent interview. It doesn’t have a narrative we attach ourselves to in any way, shape, or form. Yet what was once called The war to end all wars does have a place in our collective popular culture. Here are some of the books, television, movies, and other forms of art where it plays a pivotal role.

  1. 'A Farewell to Arms'

    Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel is a love story between an American man and a British nurse set against the backdrop of the Italian campaign. Published in 1929 to critical acclaim, it has since gotten the Hollywood treatment twice, and has even been turned into a full-length play. Fun fact: the first edition of A Farewell to Arms was originally censored, prompting Hemingway to personally reinsert some of the deleted text in a handful of copies that he delivered to literary friends.

  2. 'Black Adder Goes Forth'

    This 1980s British sitcom tells the story of the Black Adder, a bumbling would-be Machiavelli who continually attempts (and fails) to gain political power. The show ran for four seasons, each representing a key moment in British history. The final season takes place during World War I, and follows the Adder (played by Rowan Atkinson) as he does his best to sneak out of military service. If you didn’t think that World War I could be funny, then Black Adder is sure to prove you wrong. Oh, and did we mention that a very young (and very funny) Hugh Laurie co-stars?Black Adder Goes Forth (and the entire series, for that matter) are currently available on Hulu.

  3. 'Valiant Hearts: The Great War'

    While there is certainly no shortage of video games that take place during World War I, Valiant Hearts is special. Yes, it does tell the story of a solider in the trenches. But it also includes the stories of a nurse, a dog, and soldiers on different sides of this famous conflict. It is the rare video game that focuses on the human side of the events it depicts rather than simply glorifying the violence. Purchase Valiant Hearts: The Great War on Steam or the App Store.

  4. 'Gallipoli'

    No matter what your feelings about Mel Gibson are, it must be said that he starred in what amounts to a truly excellent 1980 film about the Australian campaign in Gallipoli. Rather than focusing on hardened soldiers or the political climate, Gallipoli tells the story of two track stars. Fun fact: did you know that most messages in the trenches were hand-delivered by literal runners? Gallipoli tells the story of two such messengers, friends conscripted into a war they don’t fully understand.

  5. Uncle Sam

    While it may be ubiquitous now, this star-spangled geriatric is largely the product of World War I. Uncle Sam was a relatively common fixture in American popular culture at the time, but it was J.M. Flagg’s propaganda poster for the U.S. Army (modeled after a previously successful British campaign) that has proved to be the Uncle’s most lasting image. In fact, the poster was so successful that it was used again as a part of the recruitment campaign for World War II.

  6. 'War Horse'

    This story of a horse and his boy on the battlefields of World War I first entered the public consciousness in the form of a 1982 novel by author Michael Morpurgo. In 2007 it was turned into a play (which played the Ahmanson in 2012), and in 2011 it became a Steven Spielberg Hollywood blockbuster. Fun fact: when Morpurgo originally heard that the Royal National Theatre intended to stage his book, he remarked, They must be mad.

  7. 'Wonder Woman'

    The classic DC Comics heroine was an Amazon warrior princess who ended up fighting the Axis powers during World War II (when she first appeared as a member of the Justice Society of America). The forthcoming Hollywood adaptation, however, brings her instead to the world of World War I pop culture. It tells the story of how Diana—a princess who is the daughter of Hippolyta, warrior princess of the Amazons—becomes Wonder Woman in an attempt to try to bring World War I to an early end. As an added bonus, it also features Chris Pine (who starred in 2007’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Taper).

  8. 'Downton Abbey'

    Set in the fictional Yorkshire country estate of Downton Abbey, this PBS drama tells the story of the Crawley family. Though not expressly about World War I, the show’s first and second seasons encompass the years surrounding The Great War, as well as their affects on the family and British society at large. Downton Abbey is currently available to stream on PBS Passport and Amazon Video.

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