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Spies


by Stanley Heller

I just finished Adam Hochschild's superb non-fiction book "To End All Wars" and learned something about one of my favorite movies, "The 39 Steps". It's a spy movie made in the 1930's by Alfred Hitchock. The hero is a Richard Hannay who accidentally learns of a plot against Britain, is falsely accused of murder and has to go from London to Scotland and back to foil the spies. Its exciting with a dash of sexiness when he at one point he escapes chained to a pretty girl who tried to turn him in. What Hochschild explains is that the movie is based on a novel written by John Buchnan, a British novelist who had who gloried in the Great War (World War I) and penned 24 best selling novels in four years. While writing his novels Buchnan also wrote articles for several newspapers and was an officer in army intelligence.

Which brings us to why spy novels are so often published.

The high adventure and quick victory that everyone expected for Britain in 1914 didn't occur. Instead thousands of men were slaughtered daily by machine guns and the war became a morass of trench warfare. The war barons were not about to question the fighting itself. So they started a draft, began professional publicity for the war and gave people a plausible reason for the huge loses of menůspies. During the war years in Britain over 90 "spy" dramas were performed on the British stage. (p.170) Actual spies were very few and most had been arrested at the start of the war, but no matter. Scotland Yard made sure any trial got sensational publicity and book publishers eagerly churned out the spy stories.

The best anti-war novel of World War I was "All Quiet on the Western Front", written by the German, Erich Maria Remarque. It shows how young men had their patriotism and war fever whipped up by their families and teachers only to be chilled in the trenches. The Nazi Germans, of course, hated it. It was made into a movie in the U.S. and when it was shown in Germany the Nazis rioted and several people were killed. They were able to get theaters to ban it.

I remember using the film when I taught history several decades ago. Unlike the war movies of today, which fast cut from one scene to another the movie has a long long stretch of battle, of men jumping out the trenches, being cut down by machine guns or being caught by barbed wire. It went on and on and on. It was justly horrifying.


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