Agreeing Armageddon – The Somme

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 213th installment in the series.

December 8, 1915: Agreeing Armageddon – The Somme 

After the twin disasters of the Second Battle of Champagne and Loos, the French Army and British Expeditionary Force paused to regroup, resupply, bring up fresh troops and prepare for a second winter in the trenches. But the failure of these offensives did nothing to alter the strategic outlook of the men directing the war on the Western Front, and from December 6-8, 1915, top Allied commanders meeting behind closed doors agreed to a plan that would result in one of the bloodiest battles in history – the Somme. 

As representatives from France, Britain, Russia, Italy, and Serbia gathered at the Paris suburb of Chantilly for the Second Inter-Allied Conference (top; the first was in August), the situation was looking grim. Russia was temporarily out of the game following huge losses of men, material, and territory during the Central Powers’ successful summer offensive; Serbia was being crushed; Italy had achieved nothing in multiple attacks on the Isonzo front; and the British and French were just about to throw in the towel at Gallipoli.   

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To turn the situation around, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre proposed a bold plan involving simultaneous attacks on all fronts in order to cancel out the strategic advantage conferred by the enemy’s central position; by hitting Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire from every side at once, they would (hopefully) prevent them from shuttling troops back and forth between the different fronts to see off threats one by one, finally allowing the Allies to exploit their advantage in manpower. 

The memorandum presented by the French to the other Allies at Chantilly summarized the threat posed by the enemy’s central position: 

In the present situation the Germans are able to add 10 divisions, no longer required in Serbia, to their forces in reserve - about 12 divisions - on the French front.  Combined with the troops which could with safety be withdrawn from the Russian front, a mass of 25 to 30 divisions could be assembled.  If the enemy is permitted to carry out these movements, he will employ this force, acting on interior lines, on each front in succession… 

To prevent this, the memorandum advised, “The Allied armies ought to resume the general offensive on the Franco-British, Italian and Russian fronts as soon as they are in a state to do so. All the efforts of the Coalition must be exerted in the preparation and execution of this decisive action, which will only produce its full effect as a co-ordination of offensives.” 

In various theatres, the coordinated campaigns would eventually include Russia’s failed Lake Naroch Offensive on the Eastern Front in March 1916, followed by the stunning success of the Brusilov Offensive that summer; a Russian advance into eastern Anatolia on the Caucasian front; the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo, resulting in predictable failure, on the Italian front; and subsidiary campaigns by Britain against the Turks in the Sinai and Arabia (the Mesopotamian theatre was about to take a disastrous turn with the siege of Kut). The French also managed to persuade the reluctant British to keep the recently occupied position in Salonika in northern Greece, which would now be reinforced with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force from Gallipoli, thus threatening Bulgaria and maybe even encouraging Romania to join the Allies. 

However the main effort would fall to Britain and France on the Western Front, where Joffre contemplated a giant combined offensive against the German salient in northern France sometime in the spring or summer of 1916, focusing on the enemy’s defensive positions on both sides of the Somme River in Picardy. Joffre and BEF commander Sir John French (who was about to be replaced by Sir Douglas Haig) believed that concentrated, overwhelming artillery firepower, combined with control of the skies and huge numerical superiority on the ground, would allow them to shatter the German Second Army and threaten all the enemy armies to the southeast with encirclement, forcing the Germans into a general retreat. 

The Allies were prepared to commit phenomenal numbers of men and guns to this incredibly ambitious plan, calling for an attack on a 60-mile-long front: indeed, in addition to the British Fourth Army and French Sixth Army, the British were prepared to set aside an entire, new “Reserve Army” (later the Fifth Army) to exploit the hoped-for breakthrough. Altogether the British would advance with 400,000 men; to support this huge effort they would build new roads, railroads, and power stations, collect a fleet of thousands of trucks and other vehicles, and create a network of hundreds of miles of telephone wire.   

With the shell shortages of 1914-1915 finally easing, the Allies would for the first time have firepower to match the Germans: with over 1,500 guns and howitzers amassed, the preliminary bombardment at the Somme would last a week and consume 1.6 million shells, with virtually continuous firing during this period to pulverize German trenches and strongholds. To finish it off the British would tunnel 19 giant mines under the German positions, including one with 27 tons of high explosives, which together generated the largest man-made explosion in history up to that point. 

On paper the plan of attack looked invincible – but reality failed to live up to expectations. For one thing, many of the British troops were fresh recruits in Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener’s “New Army,” with plenty of enthusiasm but no combat experience. Furthermore the “creeping barrage” of artillery, meant to clear the way for the advancing infantry, was a mostly untested technique, and aerial observation failed to deliver the precise targeting of German artillery hoped for. Meanwhile, in addition to building a second line of defenses and starting a third, the Germans had also built deep dugouts, tunneled 40 feet or more below the surface, capable of sheltering entire battalions through the most punishing bombardments, to reemerge when the British and French infantry began their advance. 

The most important factor by far, however, was something none of the Allied commanders could have known – a plan already germinating in the mind of the German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn, who was also contemplating a mighty battle to end the war. As it happened the German blow would fall first, at a place called Verdun. 

“In Flanders Fields” 

On May 3, 1915, amidst the chaos of the Second Battle of Ypres, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian medical officer, wrote a few short verses that were fated to become the iconic poem of the First World War. Wildly popular following its publication by the British magazine Punch on December 8, 1915, “In Flanders Fields” would go on to be used for propaganda purposes (especially in support of recruiting efforts) but is today appreciated more for its simple, lyrical encapsulation of the tragedy of the First World War. It also led to the adoption of the red poppy as a symbol of memory and support for veterans, especially in Britain. 

In Flanders Fields 

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below. 

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields. 

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Do the Right Thing

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

A shot in the arm of American consciousness, Do the Right Thing—Spike Lee’s incendiary profile of racial tension and police overreaction—bristled in the veins of moviegoers when it landed in theaters in the summer of 1989. Taking its title from a Malcolm X quote, Do the Right Thing rumbled with youthful energy, dry comic wit, boombox-blasted politics, and an operatic magic unique to New York City.

It’s a fierce polemic. It’s a snapshot of stereotyping. It’s a chill hangout movie. It was also a showcase of Lee’s directorial know-how, just when experience was shaping his raw creative talent. Crank up the AC and the FM 108 We-Love Radio. Here are 10 things you might not know about Spike Lee's Oscar-nominated joint.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL-LIFE INCIDENT THAT HAPPENED IN 1986.

On December 19, 1986, four black men—Michael Griffith, Timothy Grimes, Curtis Sylvester, and Cedric Sandiford—were traveling when their car broke down. They walked three miles to the predominantly Italian-American Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York, where they got into an argument with some white teenagers before heading to New Park Pizzeria for a meal and a telephone. When they left the eatery, they were accosted by a larger group of white men, including the ones they’d encountered earlier. Sandiford and Griffith were beaten; Griffith tried to run but was chased onto the Belt Parkway, where he was hit by a car and killed. The incident was such a part of Do the Right Thing’s DNA that Lee wanted to open the film with his character, Mookie, shouting “Howard Beach!” while defacing Sal’s Famous Pizzeria.

2. IT’S DIFFICULT TO FIND SHOTS THAT DON’T FEATURE THE COLOR RED.

A scene from 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

One of the most impressive feats of the movie is how powerfully you feel the heat of the summer day. Besides placing Sterno cans near the camera to keep the air wavy, color was the filmmakers' most important tool in transferring the temperature to the screen. “I did a lot of research on [color usage’s] psychology and worked on a controlled palette that pretty much stayed in the warm range—yellows, reds, earth tones, ambers—and tried to stay away from blues and greens, which have a cooling effect,” cinematographer Ernest Dickerson told The Guardian. That rule extended to costuming, set design, and props, which is why almost every scene has at least one red element in it.

3. SPIKE LEE ORIGINALLY WANTED ROBERT DE NIRO TO PLAY SAL.

Oh, what might have been. It’s a no-brainer that Lee would have wanted Robert De Niro for the role of the brash Italian-American pizzeria owner, which eventually went to Danny Aiello (who scored an Oscar nomination for the film). “What young filmmaker wouldn’t want him to star in their film?” Lee said. “So, I gave him the script and he liked it, but he said it wasn’t for him.”

4. IT CONTAINS NODS TO A FEW CLASSIC FILMS.

Bill Nunn in 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An avid cinephile and a student of film history, Lee is such a massive fan of Charles Laughton’s chest-thumper Night of the Hunter that he dropped part of it into the middle of Do the Right Thing. Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) carries the knuckle ring version of Robert Mitchum’s Night of the Hunter character’s “Love” and “Hate” tattoos, and he explains their existence using almost the exact same monologue.

Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson also turned to classic noir The Third Man for its use of disorienting Dutch angles; you can watch as the camera angle gets more and more aggressively tilted leading up to the riot.

5. LEE TOOK THE MOVIE TO ANOTHER STUDIO TO AVOID A SAPPY ENDING.

It’s hard to imagine it, but Paramount executives dropped a bomb on Lee close to the end of pre-production, demanding an unrealistically uplifting ending. “They wanted Mookie and Sal to hug and be friends and sing ‘We Are the World,’” Lee told New York Magazine. "They told me this on a Friday; Monday morning we were at Universal.” Obviously, he did the right thing.

6. ROSIE PEREZ’S DANCE SEQUENCE TOOK EIGHT HOURS TO FILM.

Even the opening credits of Do the Right Thing are iconic. Rosie Perez’s frenetic, emotional dance to the bowel-shaking bass boom of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” sets the stage as well as any of Shakespeare’s prologues.

“Spike didn’t tell me he needed anger and angst and exhaustion,” Perez explained. “Instead, he just said, ‘I need you to kill it.’ I thought, okay. I thought I killed it in the first hour. Freakin’ eight hours later, this freakin’ man had me still dancing. I had tennis elbow, my knee was swelling. So, I forgot about the lyrics, the original words—you know, Elvis, John Wayne? To me, it was all 'Spike, Spike, Spike, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!' And when rage and hate just poured out of my body, pure exhaustion, he went, ‘Cut, print it! We got it!'"

7. LEE HIRED THE NATION OF ISLAM’S PARAMILITARY AS SECURITY ON THE SET.

The production descended on a Bedford-Stuyvesant street in late summer 1988, building Sal’s Famous Pizzeria and painting murals, but largely leaving the neighborhood in its natural state for the shoot. To ensure safety, they hired members of Fruit of Islam, then run by Louis Farrakhan, to act as on-set security. One of their first jobs was boarding up known crack houses and guarding them to deter drug abusers from returning.

8. CLOTHING REINFORCES THE RACIAL LOYALTIES.

Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, John Turturro, and Richard Edson in 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Lee and costume designer Ruth E. Carter bolstered certain characters’ attitudes by dressing them in racially-coded clothes. The white, brownstone-owner cyclist (John Savage) who scuffs Buggin’ Out’s (Giancarlo Esposito) shoes wears a Larry Bird Celtics jersey while Buggin’ Out’s sneaks are Air Jordans. Mookie also wears a Jordan jersey and a Dodgers jersey with Jackie Robinson’s number. Plus, while the racist Pino (John Turturro) wears all black in classic villain fashion, he wears a white undershirt while at work in the pizzeria, signaling his racial allegiance in the neighborhood in contrast to his open-minded brother Vito (Richard Edson), who wears a black undershirt.

9. IT WAS DIRECTLY AIMED AT HURTING A MAJOR NEW YORK CITY POLITICIAN.

There’s no mistaking that Do the Right Thing is an overtly political movie that spoke to complex, large-scale issues like gentrification, systemic racism, and police brutality, but parts of it were also aimed at one politician in particular. Blaming Mayor Ed Koch for the deaths of black men and women like Eleanor Bumpurs (one person to whom the movie is dedicated) at the hands of an overly aggressive police force, Lee included graffiti that said “DUMP KOCH” next to an image of Mike Tyson punching Koch and Jesse Jackson campaign posters that say, “Our Vote Counts!”

“We had this plan because the film came out in August and that fall was the Democratic primary [between Koch and David Dinkins],” Lee told New York Magazine. “So, throughout the film, you hear Mister Señor Love Daddy, played by Samuel Jackson, telling people to vote, vote, vote. And Dinkins won."

10. BARACK AND MICHELLE OBAMA SAW IT ON THEIR FIRST DATE.

Martin Lawrence, Giancarlo Esposito, and Steve White in Do the Right Thing (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

“He was trying to show me his sophisticated side by selecting an independent filmmaker,” Michelle Obama said, reflecting on seeing Do the Right Thing on her first date with her future husband—and the future president. On the 25th anniversary of Lee’s film, Barack Obama recorded a video message thanking Lee for helping him impress Michelle. Other options for that first date? Batman and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids were still in theaters, and The Karate Kid Part III came out the same weekend as Do the Right Thing.

13 Nostalgic Facts About American Graffiti

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Before he made Star Wars, then ruined Star Wars, then saved Star Wars by selling it to Disney, George Lucas made another iconic film that has served as a cultural touchstone. American Graffiti, released 45 years ago today, was a nostalgic, semi-autobiographical look at the American teenager circa 1962, before "the sixties" kicked in and changed everything. The film was a massive hit, earning $55 million in 1973 and another $63 million when it was re-released in 1978—a total of some $500 million at today's ticket prices. Let's get nostalgic for nostalgia and look in-depth at the making of American Graffiti

1. GEORGE LUCAS MADE THE MOVIE PARTIALLY OUT OF SPITE.

The young director's previous film and first feature, the futuristic sci-fi drama THX-1138, had been a disappointment both critically and commercially. Lucas' wife, Marcia—as well as friend Francis Ford Coppola—urged him to make something more relatable. "Don't be so weird," Lucas recalled Coppola telling him. "Try to do something that's human ... Everyone thinks you're a cold fish, but you can be a warm and funny guy, make a warm and funny movie."

Marcia said, "I reminded George that I warned him [THX] hadn't involved the audience emotionally. He always said, 'Emotionally involving the audience is easy. Anybody can do it blindfolded, get a little kitten and have some guy wring its neck ...' So finally, George said to me, 'I'm gonna show you how easy it is. I'll make a film that emotionally involves the audience.'" He showed her!

2. IT WAS SAVED FROM BECOMING A TV MOVIE BY THE GODFATHER.

Universal Pictures gave Lucas a budget of $600,000, or about $3.5 million in 2016 dollars, to make the movie—in other words, not very much. When Coppola came onboard as a producer shortly after the release of The Godfather, Universal gave Lucas another $175,000. Later, when the film was finished and had test-screened positively, Universal inexplicably wanted to drastically re-edit it and release it as a TV movie. Lucas objected but had no clout. Coppola, on the other hand—by this time an Oscar-winner—could make studio executives listen. He convinced them to do only a little bit of trimming (the deleted scenes were reincorporated for home video release) and to release the film theatrically. 

3. CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, THERE IS NO ACTUAL CONNECTION BETWEEN AMERICAN GRAFFITI AND HAPPY DAYS.

Happy Days premiered five months after American Graffiti was released. It was set in the '50s, had Ron Howard playing a teen very similar to his American Graffiti character, used "Rock Around the Clock" as its theme song, and even borrowed the American Graffiti font for the credits. You'd think that Happy Days was somehow a spin-off of the movie, but you'd be wrong. It actually began as an unsold pilot in 1971 and aired in 1972 as part of the anthology series Love, American Style. (Lucas watched it at some point when he was considering casting Howard in American Graffiti.) After the movie took off, and with '50s nostalgia in high gear (Grease was burning up Broadway), ABC reconsidered the Happy Days pilot, ordered a series, and did everything they could to make it remind people of American Graffiti. It ran for 10 years and was one of the most popular sitcoms in TV history. 

4. THE STUDIO WANTED TO CHANGE THE TITLE.

Universal executives didn't know what American Graffiti meant as a title (they weren't alone), and begged Lucas to change it. They furnished a list of 60 alternates, including Rock Around the Block (Coppola's suggestion) and Another Slow Night in Modesto (which was close to Lucas' original working title, Another Quiet Night in Modesto). Lucas wouldn't budge.

5. LUCAS'S CO-WRITERS DIDN'T LIKE THE ENDING.

The film ends with title cards revealing what happened to the main characters (the male ones, anyway) afterward, much of which isn't happy. The co-writers Lucas hired early on to help him develop the script, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, found it depressing and strange and tried to talk Lucas out of it but never succeeded. (Stubbornness is a recurring theme in stories about Lucas.)

6. WOLFMAN JACK WAS A HOLDOVER FROM A PREVIOUS MOVIE IDEA LUCAS HAD.

The radio DJ with the distinctive voice was part of Lucas' teenage years in Modesto, California, and Lucas even considered making a documentary about him when he was a student at USC's film school. When American Graffiti made him a millionaire, Lucas paid the Wolfman a little extra for serving as the film's "inspiration." 

7. IN THE ORIGINAL CONCEPTION, THE BLONDE WASN'T REAL.

Curt (played by Richard Dreyfuss) spends most of the film chasing a beautiful, mysterious blonde (played by Suzanne Somers) he sees driving a Ford Thunderbird. Lucas originally intended to shoot a scene where the blonde and the car were briefly transparent, revealing to the audience that she was a figment of Curt's imagination. This was one of the things that had to go when Universal insisted on a strict, tight budget. 

8. THE PRODUCER HAD TO BECOME MACKENZIE PHILLIPS'S LEGAL GUARDIAN FOR THE SHOOT.

Mackenzie Phillips was just 12 years old when she arrived to make the film, and though she had showbiz experience (her father, John Phillips, was in The Mamas & the Papas), neither she nor her parents realized that California law required her to have a guardian present. "They were almost going to have to recast me, but Gary Kurtz"—a producer on the film—"and his family said, 'We'll take her,'" Phillips said in 1999. " So they went to the courts in San Francisco and got guardianship of me." Phillips lived with the Kurtzes for the duration of the shoot and described it as a happy experience. 

9. THE PRODUCTION WAS KICKED OUT OF TOWN AFTER ONE DAY OF SHOOTING.

Lucas and company planned to shoot the film in San Rafael, California, as the real setting—Modesto—had changed too much since 1962. But after just one day in San Rafael, the city council gave them the boot. Not only had a member of the crew been arrested for growing marijuana, but the first night of filming and its accompanying street closures had drawn complaints from local businesses. The production moved 20 miles north to Petaluma, where things ran a bit more smoothly (at least in terms of interactions with the locals).  

10. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM SOLD 3 MILLION COPIES.

The concept of filling an entire soundtrack with nothing but preexisting popular songs (rather than an instrumental score) was still new, with Easy Rider (1969) having been the first major example. The American Graffiti double album included 41 of the 43 songs heard in the movie, arranged in the order they appear, missing only "Gee" by The Crows and "Louie Louie" by Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids.

11. THERE'S A REASON ELVIS PRESLEY IS CONSPICUOUSLY ABSENT FROM THE SOUNDTRACK.

The reason, of course, is money. To mitigate the cost of licensing so many songs, Universal offered a flat rate to all of the labels involved. Everyone went along with it except for RCA, which meant no Elvis. The kids in American Graffiti are therefore probably the only teenagers in America who could listen to the radio all night in 1962 and never hear an Elvis song. 

12. HARRISON FORD WOULD ONLY AGREE TO BE IN THE MOVIE IF HE DIDN'T HAVE TO CUT HIS HAIR.

The future Han Solo had become disenchanted with showbiz and was working as a carpenter to support his wife and two children when he got the American Graffiti audition. His character, Bob Falfa, was supposed to have a flattop, but since Ford didn't care much whether he made the film or not, he issued an ultimatum: He wouldn't do it if it required cutting his hair. A compromise was reached, and Bob Falfa wears a Stetson hat throughout the film. 

13. THERE WERE A WHOLE LOT OF SHENANIGANS ON THE SET.

Lucas worked hard and fast, shooting anywhere from six to 10 script pages a night (twice the norm), but there was still a lot of downtime for the large ensemble cast of young, energetic actors. Harrison Ford (who turned 30 during the shoot and was one of the oldest people there), Paul Le Mat, and Bo Hopkins drank a lot of beer between takes and were said to have been kicked out of the Holiday Inn for things like urinating in the ice machines and climbing on the hotel's rooftop sign. Someone set fire to Lucas' hotel room. Le Mat threw Dreyfuss into the swimming pool one night, gashing his forehead. Adding to the carnival atmosphere were the hundreds of local gearheads who were paid $25 each to lend their classic cars to the production and who hung around every night, gawking at the actors and drag-racing on the back streets. 

Additional sources:
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, by Peter Biskind
Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, by Dale Pollock

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