Set partly amongst the trenches of the First World War, Shoulder Arms was a bold film for Charlie Chaplin to make in 1918 given the wide reaching criticism he received for failing to sign up to fight. He was advised by close friends to abandon the film for something less controversial but Charlie battled on and despite the possible outrage and backlash the film became Chaplin’s most critically acclaimed and financially successful film up to that point, was particularly popular with returning Doughboys and features a couple of scenes which may well be recognisable to people who have never even seen a full Chaplin film.
Charlie plays a young recruit who is sent over to France to join the war. Despite typical problems to begin with he soon discovers that he is a more than competent soldier and after numerous brave exploits ends up in the house of a French woman (Edna Purviance) who tends to his wounds. With the help of his new love and a dear friend from the trenches, Chaplin ends up winning the war for the allies. Or does he?
One of the most striking aspects of Shoulder Arms are its sets. The trench set looks magnificent and as realistic as the likes of those found in Blackadder Goes Forth which was made seventy years later. The bunk set from Blackadder also bares a striking resemblance to the same set here. I also liked the moving camera in the trench scenes. Chaplin’s films were notorious, wrongly so in some cases, for using only static cameras but here the camera follows the star up and down the trench. I was also impressed with the large number of extras that were used. This is no D. W. Griffith production but when compared to the Chaplin films which come before, the larger cast is a sure sign of greater confidence and financial power.
An early scene had me chuckling as Charlie was in formation on manoeuvres before going ‘over there’. In the scene I noticed that his feet were at their trademark angle despite the rest of his troop standing to attention in a normal fashion. This is soon remarked upon by the commanding officer who attempts to get Chaplin’s feel to face forward but fails when they spring back outwards when he averts his gaze. This is a nice bit of comedy which plays around with Chaplin’s Tramp character. Scenes featuring the Tramp in America before joining up were cut by Chaplin but this scene makes it clear that you are still dealing with the same or at least a very similar character. Another comic nugget I enjoyed was Chaplin’s ingenious way of opening a wine bottle. With no bottle opener around he simply lifts the bottle above his head where it is exposed above the trench and a bullet shoots the top off. It’s a simple but effective gag.
The film’s most famous scenes take place when Charlie is in enemy territory, disguised as a tree. It’s an iconic image and sees the star take down numerous Germans thanks to a combination of wit and bravery. The scene where he is chased through woods and is thus even better camouflaged was very good and I struggled a couple of times to spot him. This scene also contains a slight goof as cars can be seen in the background. On IMDb there is talk of this being a goof due to the fact that there were no highways (motorways) in France at the time but this misses the point slightly. Although there may have been no highways, there certainly were cars (the car is a German invention) but the problem with seeing them is that they wouldn’t have been seen near a battlefield in that way. This though is a tiny problem and more of a ‘oh look at that’ moment of which there are many in Chaplin’s early location shooting.
I thought that the romantic element of the film was spot on and was neither overdone nor forgotten about. The story on the whole is excellent but I wasn’t a fan of the ending. I was always told at school that the ending (which I won’t spoil) was the work of a lazy writer and although I can see how it fits with the character I still didn’t like it. Overall though Shoulder Arms contains more than enough laughs and thrills for its run time and is a Chaplin film which I’d happily recommend to those not familiar with the silent clown’s work.