French Finalize War Plan with Fatal Flaws

Getty Images
Getty Images

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 115th installment in the series.

May 1, 1914: French Finalize War Plan with Fatal Flaws

In April 1913, the chief of the French general staff, Joseph Joffre, presented the basic elements of his plan for war with Germany to the Supreme War Council. In its broad outlines, Plan XVII (so-called because it was the seventeenth war plan adopted by the council) envisaged a vigorous offensive by four French armies ranged along the Franco-German frontier, with one army held in reserve for follow-up attacks. The Supreme War Council approved Plan XVII shortly thereafter, and over the next year Joffre fleshed it out with general directives for each of the five armies. On May 1, 1914, the designated commanders received their final orders under Plan XVII.

Military Photos

Furthest south, the French First Army under General Auguste Dubail would strike east from an area straddling the headwaters of the Moselle River, near Epinal, into southern Alsace, one of the “lost provinces” annexed by Germany following its victory over France in 1871. Meanwhile, the Second Army under Noël Édouard de Castelnau, starting around Nancy, would move northeast into Lorraine, the other “lost province,” in the general direction of Sarrebrücke. This thrust would be supported by the Third Army under Pierre Ruffey, heading due east from Verdun towards Metz. Meanwhile the Fourth Army under Fernand de Langle de Cary would be held in reserve west of St. Mihiel as a “masse de manoeuvre,” to be thrown into battle to exploit openings created by the advance of the Second and Third Armies, as Joffre saw fit. Finally the Fifth Army, under General Charles Lanrezac, was left alone in the north to face whatever German forces might advance through Belgium, to be followed by an advance into Luxembourg and maybe even Germany itself.

Riboulet

As this frequently ambiguous wording suggests, Plan XVII was not a detailed plan of campaign, but rather a general scheme for mobilization and concentration that also contemplated some basic opening moves. Joffre, who fully realized that war is unpredictable, intended Plan XVII to be flexible, allowing improvisation to respond to the enemy’s movements. But even in outline this strategy had fatal flaws.

First of all, Joffre—like most other European generals of his day—believed that bold offensives were the key to victory, enshrining relentless all-out attack (offensive à outrance) as a sacred principle; according to this view, troops could overcome any obstacle as long as they were sufficiently imbued with intangible qualities of spirit and will. Thus Plan XVII opened, “Whatever the circumstance, it is the Commander-in-Chief’s intention to advance with all forces united to the attack of the German armies,” and the French infantry regulations adopted on April 20, 1914 declared that French troops would achieve the best results by rushing the enemy and relying on their bayonets for hand-to-hand combat, adding, “the French Army has returned to its old traditions, and no longer recognizes any law in the conduct of operations but that of the offensive.” But the French, along with the rest of Europe, were about to learn that their “law” held no sway on the modern battlefield, where machine guns, barbed wire, rapid-fire rifles, and heavy artillery made mincemeat of men’s valor.

Even worse, Plan XVII assumed that any German attack through Belgium would be confined to the country’s southeast corner, advancing on Sedan in northern France, the scene of the decisive Prussian victory in 1870. This assumption was questioned by Joseph Gallieni, the original commander of the Fifth Army designated to face the Germans in Belgium, who correctly predicted that their invasion would reach much further north and west, passing by Namur and Dinant, allowing them to threaten French forces with a huge envelopment from behind; however Joffre refused to shift the French armies west to face the threat, and Gallieni eventually resigned in protest. Tellingly, Joffre’s first choice to replace Gallieni, General Alexis Hargon, refused to command the Fifth Army on the same grounds.

Charles Lanrezac, who ended up accepting the command, was no more confident in Plan XVII’s strategy of concentration, echoing Gallieni’s suggestion that Fifth Army and at least some other French forces should be deployed further west along the Belgian border to counter a German invasion in depth. Lanrezac also criticized the decision to send Fifth Army into southeast Belgium, noting in a letter to Joffre, “Clearly, once the Fifth Army is committed to an offensive in the direction of Neufchateau it will be unable to parry a German offensive further north.” 

Considering his earlier obstinacy towards Gallieni and Hargon, it’s highly unlikely that Joffre would have given Lanrezac’s concerns any hearing, even in peacetime. But by the time he received Lanrezac’s letter, on August 1, 1914, war was upon them and it was too late for revisions anyway. In the weeks that followed Joffre’s stubborn refusal to face the facts—especially evidence of a massive German invasion through northern and central Belgium—would bring France to the brink of disaster.

See the previous installment or all entries.

8 Haunting Horror Movie Gimmicks

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

In the 1950s and 1960s, horror movies were making studios huge profits on shoestring budgets. But after the market hit horror overload, directors and studios had to be extra creative to get people to flock to theaters. That's when a flood of different gimmicks were introduced at movie theaters across the country to make a film stand out from the crowd. From hypnotists to life insurance policies and free vomit bags, here's a brief history of some of the most memorable horror movie gimmicks.

1. PSYCHO-RAMA // MY WORLD DIES SCREAMING (1958)

In order to truly become a classic, a horror movie can't just work on the surface; it has to get deep inside of your head. That's what Psycho-Rama tried to achieve when it was first conceived for My World Dies Screaming, later renamed Terror in the Haunted House. Psycho-Rama introduced audiences to subliminal imagery in order to let the scares sink in more than any traditional film could.

Skulls, snakes, ghoulish faces, and the word "Death" would all appear onscreen for a fraction of a second—not long enough for an audience member to consciously notice it, but it was enough to get them uneasy. Obviously Psycho-Rama didn't really catch on with the public or the film industry, but horror directors, like William Friedkin in The Exorcist, have since gone on to use this quick imagery technique to enhance their own movies.

2. FRIGHT INSURANCE // MACABRE (1958)

Director William Castle didn't make a name for himself in the film industry by directing cinematic classics; instead, he relied on shock and schlock to help fill movie theater seats. His movies were full of what audiences craved at the time: horror, gore, terror, suspense, and a heaping helping of camp. But his true genius came from marketing—and the gimmicks he brought to every movie, which have since become legendary among horrorphiles.

His most famous stunt was the life insurance policy he purchased for every member of an audience that paid to see Macabre. This was a real policy backed by Lloyd's of London, so if you died of fright in your seat, your family would receive $1000. Now who wouldn't want to roll the dice on that type of deal? Of course, the policy didn't cover anyone with a preexisting medical condition or an audience member who committed suicide during the screening. Lloyd's had to draw the line somewhere, right?

3. HYPNO-VISTA // HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959)

How do you make your routine horror movie stand out from the crowd? Hypnotize your audience, of course. Thus Hypno-Vista was born. For this gimmick, James Nicholson, president of American International Pictures, suggested that a lecture by a hypnotist, Dr. Emile Franchel, should precede Horrors of the Black Museum, which had a plot focusing on a hypnotizing killer.

For 13 minutes, Dr. Franchel talked to the audience about the science behind hypnotism, before attempting to hypnotize them himself in order to feel more immersed in the story. Nowadays it comes off as overlong and dry, but it was a gimmick that got people into theaters back in 1959. Plus, writer Herman Cohen said that eventually the lecture had to be removed whenever the movie re-aired on TV because it did, in fact, hypnotize some people.

4. NO LATE ADMISSION // PSYCHO (1960)

Though this isn't the most gimmickiest of gimmicks, Alfred Hitchcock's insistence that no audience member be admitted into Psycho once the movie started got a lot of publicity at the time. The Master of Suspense's reasoning is less about drumming up publicity and more about audience satisfaction, though. Because Janet Leigh gets killed so early into the movie, he didn't want people to miss her part and feel misled by the movie's marketing.

This publicity tactic wasn't completely novel, though, as the groundbreaking French horror movie Les Diaboliques (1955) had a similar policy in place. This was at a time when people would simply stroll into movie screenings whenever they wanted, so to see a director—especially one so masterful at the art of publicity—who was adamant about showing up on time was a great way to pique some interest.

5. FRIGHT BREAK // HOMICIDAL (1961)

Another classic William Castle gimmick was the "fright break" he offered to audience members during his 1961 movie, Homicidal. Here, a timer would appear on the screen just as the film was hurtling toward its gruesome climax. Frightened audience members had 45 seconds to leave the theater and still get a full refund on their ticket. There was a catch, though.

Frightened audience members who decided to take the easy way out were shamed into the "coward's corner," which was a yellow cardboard booth supervised by some poor sap theater employee. Then, they were forced to sign a paper reading "I'm a bona-fide coward," before getting their money back. Obviously, at the risk of such humiliation, most people decided to just grit their teeth and experience the horror on the screen instead.

6. THE PUNISHMENT POLL // MR. SARDONICUS (1961)

The most interactive of William Castle's schlocky horror gimmicks put the fate of the film itself into the hands of the audience. Dubbed the "punishment poll," Castle devised a way to let viewers vote on the fate of the characters in the movie Mr. Sardonicus. Upon entering the theater, people were given a card with a picture of a thumb on it that would glow when a special light was placed on it. "Thumbs up" meant that Mr. Sardonicus would be given mercy, and "thumbs down" meant … well, you get the idea.

Apparently audiences never gave ol' Sardonicus the thumbs up, despite Castle's claims that the happier ending was filmed and ready to go. However, no alternative ending has ever surfaced, leaving many to doubt his claims. Chances are, there was only one way out for Mr. Sardonicus.

7. FREE VOMIT BAGS // MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970)

Horror fans are mostly masochists at heart. They don't want to be entertained—they want to be terrified. So when the folks behind 1970's Mark of the Devil gave out free vomit bags to the audience due to the film's grotesque nature, how could any self-respecting horror fan not be intrigued? It wasn't just the bags that the studio was advertising; it also claimed the film was rated V, for violence—and maybe some vomit?

8. DUO-VISION // WICKED, WICKED (1973)

Duo-Vision was hyped as the new storytelling technique in cinema—offering two times the terror for the price of one ticket. Of course Duo-Vision is just fancy marketing lingo for split-screen, meaning audiences see a film from two completely different perspectives side-by-side. In the 1973 horror film Wicked, Wicked, that meant watching the movie from the points of view of both the killer and his victims.

Seems like a perfect concept for the horror genre, right? Well, Duo-Vision wasn't just employed during the movie's most horrific moments; it was used for the movie's entire 95-minute runtime. The technique had been used sparingly in other films—most notably in Brian De Palma's much better film Sisters (1973)—but it had never been implemented to this extent. A little bit of Duo-Vision apparently goes a long way, because it fell out of favor soon after.

John Carpenter May Be Planning a They Live Sequel

Universal Studios Home Video
Universal Studios Home Video

John Carpenter is one of the horror genre's biggest names. The man behind the original Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, and The Thing, ​Carpenter has had a long enough career to see many of his most popular creations be remade, including this year's new Halloween film, which features some of the original actors returning to their iconic roles to continue a decades-long story.

But in a recent interview with ​Den of Geek, when Carpenter was questioned about whether his cult classic They Live might he ripe for revisiting, Carpenter teased: "Well, I’m not gonna tell you about that, because it might be closer to reality than you think."

​They Live, which came out in 1988, featured the late professional wrestler 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper in his signature role as a man who finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the true state of the world and uncover an alien invasion. Like so many of Carpenter's other films, it has continued to amass a cult following in the decades since its release—especially among those viewers who understood and appreciated its underlying political metaphor.

Today's highly divisive political climate makes it a perfect time for a sequel/reboot/reimagining of They Live, and it sounds as if Carpenter might agree.

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