What Do We Find Funny About War?

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Funny Bones: The Black Comedy of the War. Now on at the BFI

As part of  ‘The View from the Ground’ season, the BFI (in partnership with the Imperial War Museum) is now screening a selection of the most memorable comedies about the Great War. On show are silent films and early talkies that bring laughter to the squalor of the trenches. It’s squaddie humour about the hopeless private, the dumb generals and the illogicality of war. It’s also morale boosting comedy about men dodging the draft, soldiers dressing up as women for talent shows, and the ridiculousness of life in a muddy, wet trench. But beyond the silly First World War slapstick of Charlie Chaplin and others, there is something deeper to the fascination with humour and battle. British cinema audiences have an enduring love for finding laughter in the arena of combat, but why are we laughing and what are we laughing at?

Understanding what we find funny about war does not necessarily come from looking at just comedy, it also comes from what we find most dramatic and engaging. Recent dramas about modern conflict are probably the most useful signposts. With films like Lone Survivor and American Sniper being churned out, Hollywood seems perfectly happy to consume stories of glamorised heroism and rigid structures of good and bad. However, on the other side of the Atlantic, recent dramas like 2014’s Kajaki suggest distaste to the idea of painting the modern battlefield with any sense of thrill, instead making the subject of its story the problems and faults within the army’s make up. The story of soldiers caught on an old minefield, Kajaki humanises soldiers instead of deifying them, and suggests a lack of any greater cause. It understands that war is hell, but doesn’t label it as some great battle against a faceless evil.

Herein lies what British audiences feel about war. Currently, the central emotion is skepticism. It is abundantly clear that the British public dislikes the concept of war, and is mistrustful of anyone suggesting it. This is reflected in the number of films being made about recent conflict. We don’t feel comfortable with linking heroism and the act of killing, and we don’t believe the army’s decision is always the right one. Thus, it is more comfortable to make fun of the stupidity of war than to accept it as something that we should take pride in and therefore encourage.

So, with skepticism in mind, the humour of British war comedies is found in who the audience associates with, who it doesn’t, and how we feel about what they’re fighting for. For WWI comedies, we laugh at the hopelessness of the private’s situations in Old Bill and Charlie Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms, stories of men trudging through mud in a war that seems completely illogical. On the opposite end, we laugh at ridiculed figures of authority – those not on the front line with the ordinary man.

The actuality of war is harsh. Men and women risk their lives for a cause they believe in. Whatever the battlefield, people die and many are injured. A situation so awful needs comedy for so many reasons. It’s needed to understand and sympathise with the ordinary soldier as a human being. While films of WWI may create caricatures of the private, they almost always express some deeper problem about the situation of the men doing the fighting. In retrospect, dark humour about the horror of war is there for us to make fun of it while it’s happening and stop it from ever happening again. More often than not, we are laughing because we are scared of what humanity is capable of.

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