WWI Centennial: Nivelle Offensive Fails, Lenin Arrives In Petrograd

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 274th installment in the series. 

April 16, 1917: Nivelle Offensive Fails, Lenin Arrives In Petrograd 

The French General Robert Nivelle experienced a meteoric rise and fall in 1916 and 1917, soaring from his original position leading the Third Army Corps to command of the Second Army, then commander of all the French armies in northern France, before plunging to discredit and disgrace – all in a little over a year. The massive offensive that bore his name, launched on April 16, 1917, was supposed to be Nivelle’s crowning achievement, a master stroke that would shatter the German lines, end trench warfare and reopen the war of movement; instead, it was a disaster that nearly destroyed the French Army.

Nivelle’s rapid rise through the ranks reflected the desperation of France’s civilian leadership, as successive Ministers of War and the Chamber of Deputies cast about for anyone with a plausible plan to break out of the bloody stasis of trench warfare. Nivelle appeared to be just such a savior, having first captured the nation’s imagination amid the horror of Verdun, where he won fame for the stunning success of his push to retake Fort Douaumont, the strategic linchpin of the battle. 

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Nivelle’s victories at Verdun relied heavily on artillery. Like most of his peers, Nivelle was convinced that infantry assaults should be preceded by a punishing bombardment of enemy positions to break up barbed wire entanglements, flatten trenches, knock out machine guns, and put the opposing artillery out of action; after the infantry went over the top, bombardment of the enemy’s rear areas would disrupt communications and block reinforcements from arriving.

Nivelle went further by massing long-range artillery on a few narrow areas of front during the preparatory bombardment, in order to totally destroy German defenses to a depth of several miles, creating corridors of devastation through which French infantry could advance in relative safety behind a “rolling barrage.” The barrage – actually a double bombardment by both heavy artillery and 75-millimeter field guns – was intended to create a sweeping wall of fire in front of advancing infantry, forcing the enemy to take shelter or abandon their trenches, thus shielding the attacking troops from counterattacks.  If his plan worked, French infantry would be able to cross multiple German trench lines, now virtually undefended, and penetrate all the way to the enemy artillery, achieving a “breakthrough.” 

After this, the infantry would turn to the sides and attack the exposed enemy flanks in both directions, widening the breach even further and enabling fresh troops to rush forward and wreak havoc in the enemy’s rear. In fact, in addition to the three French armies making the main attack along the Aisne River near Reims (the Sixth, Fifth and Fourth) Nivelle held two entire armies, the Tenth and First, in reserve to exploit the planned breakthrough, hoping ultimately to reopen the “war of movement,” in which the Allied armies would cut off and destroy all the German forces in northern France. 

Last-Minute Doubts 

It was a breathtakingly ambitious plan, based on innovative tactics that had worked at Verdun, and Nivelle’s personal confidence and charisma helped persuade many French civilian leaders that the game was finally about to change. In fact the Nivelle Offensive was tragically out of step with reality, as some skeptics warned at the time, including Philippe Petain, who had organized the defense of Verdun and now commanded the Central Army Group, and Alfred Micheler, commander of the new Reserve Army Group, which would make the main attack. 

For one thing, Petain argued that Nivelle’s plan for concentrated bombardments, which had worked so well in the 40 square miles of the Verdun battlefield, was unworkable on the much larger scale of the Western Front: there just wasn’t enough long-range artillery to guarantee destruction of the enemy’s defenses in widely separated corridors. Further, the Germans had adopted a new defensive doctrine for the entire Western Front to counter this very threat, called “defense in depth.” 

Formulated by chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his close collaborator, quartermaster general Erich Ludendorff, the new defensive strategy included the construction of a third and fourth line of trenches behind the existing ones, manned by troops freed up by the withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. Perhaps most importantly, the new doctrine minimized losses by moving troops back from the frontline trenches, holding them in reserve in the rear trenches, from which they could stage counterattacks on exhausted attackers. 

However Nivelle brushed these concerns aside, arguing that the British attack at Arras would help pin down German defenders – and warning that canceling the offensive would ruin the Allies’ first real attempt at close strategic coordination, making it unlikely the British would submit to French demands again. Meanwhile the Russian Revolution in March 1917 made it necessary to attack as soon as possible, before the Germans could take advantage of the chaos in Russia by shifting troops to the Western Front. Finally, Nivelle dismissed the idea that France should wait for help from the United States, noting (correctly) that American entry into the war wouldn’t have any real impact on the ground before 1918. While Petain continued to argue against the offensive, at their final meeting with Nivelle on April 6, 1917, France’s civilian leaders reluctantly agreed to proceed. 

“Worse Than Verdun” 

On April 9, 1917, the same day the British infantry went over the top at the Second Battle of Arras, 5,350 French artillery pieces of various sizes, including 1,650 heavy guns, began shelling German positions, firing an astonishing 11 million shells by May 5. At 6 a.m. on April 16, 1917, a total of 33 infantry divisions in the French Fifth and Sixth Armies, along with a smaller number of troops and 63 new Schneider tanks from the Fourth Army, attacked German positions on 45 miles of front along the Chemin des Dames (the “Ladies’ Road,” named for the path along the heights of the Aisne used by the daughters of Louis XV, and the battlefield where trench warfare began in 1914), preceded by the all-important creeping barrage. Ten more divisions in the Tenth Army waited to plunge into the breach behind them, bringing the total number of men involved to 1.2 million – if all went according to plan. 

It did not: almost immediately, it became clear that while long-range French artillery had succeeded in cutting corridors across the battlefield in some places, the Germans were frequently able to repair barbed wire entanglements before the French infantry attacked. Even worse, the Germans were expecting the attack, thanks to captured documents and aerial reconnaissance. And as at Arras – and so many First World War battles – bad weather just added the misery. 

The French attack was most successful on the right, where the Fifth Army advanced about six miles in its center by April 20, 1917, while the Sixth Army’s left wing advanced nearly four miles by the same time. The cost was astronomical, however, and everywhere else in the Aisne sector the French assault ran into a wall of German barbed wire and machine gun fire. One French tank officer painted a dramatic portrait of the initial assault:

It was still raining, and the already soft ground was progressively turning into sticky mud. How were we going to fare in such terrain at the time of the attack? Suddenly, a green star shell rose against the pale morning sky. It was followed by a second shell, but a red one… It was with deep emotion, in the dawn’s early light, that we saw at some distance the wave of tiny blue-coats rushing up the slopes of Mont Cornillet, whose top was shrouded by numerous explosions. We were holding our breath. Poignant moment! Our men’s wave, unbroken a moment ago, presently moved on in echelons, spread out again, and then progressed in a zigzag motion. Here and there, the men would crowd together without advancing, having met some obstacle we couldn’t see, most likely one of these accursed, still intact barbed wire networks. 

As the weather took a turn for the worse the first French wounded came streaming back, telling of hopeless attacks on impenetrable defenses, with heavy casualties:

A snow squall swept our position. Our first wounded soldiers were coming in, men from the 83rd Infantry Regiment. We gathered round them, and learned from them, that the enemy positions were very strong, the resistance desperate. One battalion did reach the top of the Cornillet… but it was decimated by fire from intact machine gun positions, and was unable to withstand the enemy’s counter-attack… “We just couldn’t keep moving,” an alert corporal shouted, while using his rifle as a crutch. “Too many blasted machine guns, against which there was nothing doing!”  “The Boches certainly knew we were going to attack there,” the lieutenant went on, “their trenches were jammed.” 

The first day of the Nivelle Offensive ended with over 40,000 French casualties (approaching the British toll of 53,000 on the first day of the Somme).  Over the next few days more appalling slaughter brought only minor gains, and by April 20 it was obvious the Nivelle Offensive had failed decisively. Fighting would continue until May 9, including a series of smaller operations to even out the line and secure observation posts, but by April 25 French civilian leaders were already planning to sideline Nivelle.

The debacle so complete that even mid-ranking officers were refusing to carry out orders for foolhardy attacks, according to the French soldier Louis Barthas, who noted one incident in his diary on April 19, 1917:

But fate had it that I would witness a conversation between our Colonel Robert and a general on horseback who told him, “Colonel, it’s your regiment’s turn to move up and attack. Head for the front line right away.” Our colonel yanked the pipe from his mouth, let fly a stream of saliva, and, to my great amazement, replied deliberately in a gruff voice, “General, look at these men and the state they’re in. Do you think they don’t know they’ve run into an insurmountable obstacle? The first day, they could have marched ahead. But not now. And me neither.” Not many colonels would have had the courage to make this kind of reply, to spare the lives of his men… 

The same officer objected again when ordered to attack a heavily fortified position on April 26, according to Barthas, who wrote: 

When the colonel learned about the mission assigned to his regiment, he rose up, eyes flashing furiously, in front of this parade-ground officer, and with a voice of thunder he roared to him… “Tell your general that he makes me mad as hell. I’ve had enough of these orders and counterorders the past week. Tell him that my regiment is not going to attack until the barbed wire has been blown to bits. Yes, and tell him that if I’m holding them up, let them come and tell me!”

But they were only able to avoid battle for so long. In late April Barthas took part in fierce fighting southeast of Reims: 

The Germans, having decimated our troops at the Chemin des Dames, brought up masses of artillery against us. They fired furiously upon our lines. It became worse than Verdun. I saw one soldier carried off, raving mad. The lieutenant commanding the 17th Company lost his wits and had to be evacuated. Right behind us, the 47th Regiment, which had ended up taking, or rather encircling, the German strongpoint, wasn’t able to capture all the defenders, who sought refuge in the underground corridors, no doubt expecting to be rescued in a counterattack by their own side. We blocked up all the exits with walls of sandbags and threw asphyxiating grenades into the strongpoint, which henceforth stood as silent as a tomb. Oh, isn’t war fine to behold?

In the first days of May, Barthas was present for a German counterattack, beginning as always with withering artillery bombardment: 

When we arrived at the wood’s edge, we stopped, terrified. Enormous, monstrous shells, more terrible than lightning bolts, were tearing up, shredding, decapitating giant, hundred-year-old trees. We saw them wrenched from the ground, twisted, and broken, as if by a giant cyclone. The whole forest seemed to be complaining, groaning, cracking under the blows of a Titan’s cudgel. Suddenly, from every corner of the wood, we saw artillerymen of the 47/2… fleeing as they had the Germans right on their coattails. “We’ve been sold out, betrayed!” they said. “As soon as we change our positions and camouflage them, they’re targeted and bombarded.” 

Altogether the ill-fated offensive cost France 187,000 casualties, including 29,000 killed and 118 tanks lost. The British contribution to the offensive, the Second of the Battle of Arras, cost France’s main ally on the Western Front 160,000 casualties, including killed, wounded and missing. On the opposing side, during the paired offensives the Germans suffered a total of 288,000 casualties in all categories, or about four-fifths the Allied total of 347,000. 

This brought total French losses in the war to date to around 3.3 million casualties, including a horrifying 1.2 million dead, equal to about 3% of its prewar population, and the country was now approaching the limits of its manpower. Unlike previous failures, no amount of Allied propaganda could persuade the French public the Nivelle Offensive was a success by any measure. Marjorie Crocker, an American serving as a volunteer nurse in France, struck a gloomy note in a letter home on July 4, 1917: “Every one now admits, even French officers, that the spring offensive was a failure, and the loss of life was something terrible, worse than Verdun; also that the Germans have the upper hand now in a military way.” 

It came as no surprise when the civilian leadership sidelined Nivelle in favor of Petain, the pragmatic pessimist of Verdun, who in May 1917 would find himself facing an even more dangerous task: quelling widespread mutinies in the French Army touched off by the disastrous defeat, which raised very real fears of revolution and defeat. 

Wresting Control of the Air 

Adding to the Allies’ woes, the month of April 1917 also brought a surge in German air power, as a new generation of German planes including the Halberstadt CL.II and Albatros D.Va, the latter armed with two machine guns, swept Allied aircraft from the sky. 

The onslaught was led by the German “ace” Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” whose “Flying Circus” (a group of 20-45 experienced fighter pilots, formally organized as the Jagdgerschwader 1, or “hunting wing” in June 1917) used wolf-pack tactics against outnumbered French and British rivals, scoring 644 kills of enemy planes over the course of the war. The unit adopted bright colors on their planes to ease identification in battle, although this also made them recognizable to enemy pilots, as Richthofen noted: 

It occurred to me to have my packing case painted all over in staring red. The result was that everyone got know my red bird. My opponents also seemed to have heard of the colour transformation… They were the first two Englishmen whom I had brought down alive. Consequently, it gave me particular pleasure to talk to them. I asked them whether they had previously seen my machine in the air, and one of them replied, “Oh, yes. I know your machine very well. We call it ‘Le petit Rouge.’” 

Richthofen alone scored 80 kills by the time of his death on April 21, 1918, sometimes claiming multiple victims in a single combat. He recalled one encounter on April 2, 1917: 

I was still in bed when my orderly rushed into the room and exclaimed: “Sire, the English are here!” Sleepy as I was I looked out of the window, and really there were my dear friends circling over the flying ground. My Red Bird had been pulled out, and was ready for starting… Suddenly one of the impertinent fellows tried to drop down upon me… After a short time I had got him beneath me… He tried to escape me. That was too bad. I attacked him again, and I went so low that I feared to touch the roofs of the houses of the village beneath me. The Englishman defended himself up to the last moment… He rushed at full speed right into a block of houses… My comrades were still in the air and they were very surprised, when we met at breakfast, when I told them that I had scored my thirty-second machine. 

Later that same day, Richthofen shot down another plane, although this time the pilot was lucky enough to survive and be taken prisoner: 

Although there were nine Englishmen and although they were on their own territory they preferred to avoid battle. I thought that perhaps it would be better for me to repaint my machine. Nevertheless I caught up with them. The important thing in aeroplanes is that they shall be speedy… My opponent did not make matters easy for me. He knew the fighting business, and it was particularly awkward for me that he was a good shot… A favourable wind came to my aid. It drove both of us into the German lines. My opponent discovered that the matter was not as simple as he had imagined. So he plunged, and disappeared into a cloud… I plunged after him and dropped out of the cloud and, as luck would have it, found myself close behind him… At last I hit him. I noticed a ribbon of white petrol vapour. He must land, for his engine had come to a stop… 

Losses in the Allied air forces reflected the new German air supremacy: the number of French and Belgian planes shot down more than doubled from around 75 in March to 201 in April 1917, while the number of British planes shot down soared from 120 to 316, including 75 lost in four brutal days from April 4-8 during the lead-up to Arras. Although both the French and British were hurrying production of new planes, including the French SPAD S.XIII and the British S.E.5, F.2.B. Bristol, and Sopwith Camel fighters, for the time being the Germans controlled the skies over the Western Front, including the Aisne sector. 

Lenin Arrives In Petrograd, Mass Desertions From Russian Armies 

Some 1,300 miles to the east, the Russian Revolution took another in a series of dramatic turns with the return from exile of the Bolshevik leader Lenin to Petrograd, adding another volatile element to the already combustible mix, as the Provisional Government competed with the Petrograd Soviet for legitimacy and authority. 

Lenin’s journey from Zurich to Petrograd was made possible by German intelligence operatives, who advised the government to provide transportation for Lenin and several dozen other Russian radicals, in the hopes that they would make trouble for Russia’s new Provisional Government,  thus paralyzing the Russian war effort. The German military arranged a special sealed train for Lenin and his compatriots across Germany to the Baltic, where the party took a ferry to Sweden. From here they proceeded by train to the Finnish border, where they crossed over into Russian territory in sleighs before boarding another train to Petrograd, arriving there on April 16. 

Immediately on returning to Petrograd, Lenin launched an attack on two fellow Bolsheviks, Stalin and Kamenev, for articles published in the party newspaper, Pravda, advocating cooperation with the Provisional Government. Scarcely off the train, Lenin lashed out: “‘What have you people been writing in Pravda ? We saw several issues and were very angry with you…” Lenin clearly meant to take a much more confrontational stance towards the “capitalist” regime, as revealed in his “April Theses,” which openly advocated the immediate overthrow of the parliamentary government, the end of the war, and “All power to the Soviets!” 

For all his pandering, Lenin’s program met with a skeptical response when he presented it to the Soviet in a speech at the Tauride Palace (above), where his proposals were greeted with heckling and boos; one deputy exclaimed that they were the “ravings of a madman.” Clearly, the time wasn’t yet ripe for Lenin’s planned second revolution. But the situation was rapidly becoming more favorable, thanks in part to a huge increase in the number of deserters streaming back from the Eastern Front to civilian areas. Desertion was nothing new in the Russian Army, with over a million men roaming the countryside and big cities by the end of 1916, but it rose sharply in the wake of the revolution, especially once the authority of officers to punish men was abolished. The president of the Duma, Mikhail Rodzyanko, estimated an additional 1.5 million men deserted in 1917, and some estimates put the number as high as two million for the year. Over a million more would join them in 1918 (below, a Russian soldier tries to stop a deserter). 

Despite the risk of execution, desertion was a fairly common event in all the armies fighting the First World War, with around 150,000 deserters from the German Army, 240,000 from the British and Commonwealth armies, 250,000 from the Habsburg Army (in large part reflecting Austria-Hungary’s myriad ethnic tensions) and an incredible 500,000 from the forces of the Ottoman Empire, or nearly one in five Turkish recruits. 

Of course, these numbers aren’t surprising in view of the extreme psychological duress experienced by most soldiers in the trenches, which also manifested in the growing incidence of “shell shock” (now recognized as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder). In 1917 a German psychiatrist describe a typical case of shellshock: 

Case 421. Officer at the age of 25… In 1917 dugout blocked by a direct hit. Tried to dig himself out with his comrades. These comrades were slowly losing their energy. They died presumably through suffocation. The patient cannot specify the way they died. He also felt the growing lack of breath. A second shell opened the blocked dugout, which saved the patient. Since then states of nervous anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares, general nervousness. Patient feels repeatedly breathless, thinks he has to die from suffocation.

Amid these horrors, the risk of execution often paled next to the prospect of further suffering. In many places desertion was relatively easy, especially in rural areas with minimal administration and policing. In many circumstances desertion was a desperate final resort for low-ranking soldiers who were powerless against abusive officers. These deserters weren’t necessarily disloyal, but were liable to extreme penalties just the same, as reflected in a diary entry by the British soldier Edward Roe for December 11, 1915, describing an execution in Gallipoli:

Execution of Private Salter at 7.15 am. This youth barely 19 years of age was shot by twelve of his comrades for taking “French Leave” from his Regiment on two occasions and attaching himself to the Anzacs. Not by any stretch of the imagination could my comrades or I catalogue it as desertion, as ‘twas impossible to desert from the Peninsula even had he so desired. Our position in comparison to the position that the Anzacs held was as heaven compared to hell. He therefore did not seek safety; he absconded because his life was made a hell by the CSM [Company Sergeant Major] of my Company [“D”]. In barrack room parlance he was “sat upon”. I was one of the firing party; he was marched from a dugout about 80 yards away, to a kind of disused quarry where the final scene was enacted… The doomed youth was tied up to a stake, his grave already dug. His last request was, “Don’t blindfold me”. 

Another British officer, T.H. Westmacott, recorded an execution for desertion in April 1916: 

The man had deserted when his battalion was in the trenches and had been caught in Paris. He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was remitted, and he was sent back to his battalion. He did so well in the trenches that he was allowed leave to England. He deserted again, and after being arrested was sent back to his battalion in France, where he was again sentenced to death. This time he was shot… The condemned man spent the night in a house about half a mile away. He walked from there blindfolded with the doctor, the parson and the escort. He walked quite steadily on to the parade, sat down in the chair, and told them not to tie him too tight. A white disc was pinned over his heart. He was the calmest man on the ground… On the word “Fire!” the man’s head fell back, and the firing party about turned at once… The company was then marched off. The body was wrapped in a blanket, and the APM saw it buried in a grave which had been dug close by, unmarked and unconsecrated. 

Altogether the British Army executed 306 soldiers for desertion and other crimes over the course of the war, while the French executed 918 and the Italians 750. The low number of executions in proportion to total incidents suggests that military officials were generally inclined to leniency whenever possible, doubtless out of fear of stirring up resentment among civilian relatives. In fact, some soldiers were chronic deserters, like the incorrigible Edward Casey, an Irish Cockney in the British Army, who cheerfully admitted to deserting whenever he got the chance in his memoirs. Casey recalled facing a drumhead tribunal after one incident: 

Later, I was standing before the OC [Officer Commanding] and the Batt. Sgt. Major read the charge, “Absent without leave. How do you plead?” [I said] “I admit I went for a little walk.” “Little walk!” roared the Sgt Major, “ten miles! You were running away! Right Casey, you are sentenced to five days Field Punishment No. One.” I said to myself, “That’s better than the front.” As usual I was wrong again… They varied the punishment. The first day I was placed on the ground. The guard then got tent pegs, with ropes attached… I was spread-eagled for one hour in the morning and one at night… Twice daily I was subjected to this punishment and, for variation, my wrists were handcuffed to my ankles. 

Deliberate self-injury was another popular gambit to escape service in the frontline, although it required special care to make it look like the wounds had been inflicted by enemy fire. Edward Roe, a British soldier stationed in Mesopotamia, wrote in his diary on February 8, 1917, wrote of an unsuccessful attempt: 

Two weak willed men who were unable to stand the strain shot themselves through the hearts of their left hands this morning. They were lacking in foresight, as they did not use a folded sandbag or a first aid dressing over the muzzles of the rifles, with the result that all around their wounds the flesh was badly scorched with cordite. This gave the ‘show away’. The empty cases were also found in the chambers of their rifles. Owing to shock they failed to unload. Blowing trigger fingers and big toes off is getting ‘played out’. Those wounds were inflicted with a view to getting away from the firing line. 

Resistance could also take a number of less dramatic forms, including lollygagging and cowardice on the battlefield. Paul Hub, a low-ranking German officer, described one incident at the Somme in September 1916, when his men suddenly proved hard to locate: 

We must have lost 40 per cent of our company today. Many of my men were so exhausted that I couldn’t get them to do anything. I ordered an NCO to follow me but he threatened to shoot me. I had him arrested. We were then ordered to defend Combles and dig trenches in the open, but it was almost impossible to persuade even a few of the men to come with me. As soon as I got them out of one ditch, they simply disappeared into another. We had managed to collect a few men when the firing restarted and they all disappeared again. There are no trenches here, only craters with waterproof covers pulled over the top. The men knew this and were reluctant to submit themselves to almost certain death. 

In extreme cases, disobedience might escalate to “fragging,” or the murder of officers by their own troops. While hardly widespread, and harshly punished whenever possible, the practice was not unknown – and in some cases the murderers got away with it. Louis Barthas recalled an incident in which French soldiers lynched military police officers when the latter stopped them from going AWOL to buy food: 

But this zeal in carrying out such a rigorous and absurd duty irritated the poilus, who went out in groups and administered some hard knocks to the gendarmes with stout clubs. But these reprisals went too far. One day they found two gendarmes swinging from the branches of a pine tree, with their tongues hanging out… Far up the chain of command, they were moved by this incident. At roll call, for three days straight, they read and reread a note from the general-en-chef praising the tough and thankless job that the brave gendarmes carry out, earning the respect of all. The officers couldn’t repress the guffaws and sarcastic comments which welcomed this reading. “If they find their jobs too tough and thankless,” said a voice, “then they should come up to an outpost one time.” 

Occasionally the attackers killed the wrong victim, according to the British author Robert Graves, who recorded one bloody mishap on May 23, 1915: 

Two young miners, in another company, disliked their sergeant, who had a down on them and gave them all the most dirty and dangerous jobs. When they were in billets he crimed them for things they hadn’t done; so they decided to kill him. Later, they reported at Battalion Orderly Room and asked to see the Adjutant… Smartly slapping the small-of-the-butt of their sloped rifles, they said: “We’ve come to report, Sir, that we’re very sorry, but we’ve shot our company sergeant-major.” The adjutant said: “Good heavens, how did that happen?” “It was an accident, Sir.” “What do you mean, you damn fools? Did you mistake him for a spy?” “No, Sir, we mistook him for our platoon sergeant.” So they were both court-martialled and shot by a firing-squad of their own company against the wall of a convent at Béthune.

See the previous installment or all entries.

The Dark Side: An Oral History of The Star Wars Holiday Special

Larry Heider
Larry Heider

Summer 1978: Over a year after its debut, Star Wars wasn’t through smashing box office records. Ushered back into theaters for a return engagement that July, it made $10 million in just three days. George Lucas had welded mythological structure, pioneering special effects, and a spectacular production design to create a cinematic phenomenon that redefined how studios selected and marketed big-budget spectacles. Movies would never be the same again.

Neither would television. That same month, filming began on The Star Wars Holiday Special, a 97-minute musical-variety show that featured Bea Arthur serenading a giant rat and Chewbacca’s father, Itchy, being seduced by a virtual reality image of Diahann Carroll. Originally, the show was intended to keep the property viable and licensed merchandise moving off shelves until the inevitable sequel. But with Lucas’s focus on The Empire Strikes Back and producers shrinking his galaxy for a television budget, the Holiday Special suffered. So did viewers.

Mental Floss spoke with many of the principal production team members to find out exactly how Lucas’s original intentions—a sentimental look at Chewbacca’s family during a galactic holiday celebration—turned to the Dark Side.

I. A VERY WOOKIEE CHRISTMAS


Thomas Searle via YouTube

According to onetime Lucasfilm marketing director Charles Lippincott, CBS approached Star Wars distributor 20th Century Fox in 1978 to propose a television special. Fox had seen a boost in box office returns after several aliens from the Cantina scene appeared on Donny and Marie Osmond’s variety show; CBS figured the success of the film would translate into a ratings win; Lucasfilm and Lippincott though it would be a good vehicle to push toys.

With all parties motivated to move forward, two writers—Leonard “Lenny” Ripps and Pat Proft—were brought on to write a script based on an original story by Lucas.

Leonard Ripps (Co-Writer): Pat and I spent the entire day with Lucas. He took out a legal pad and asked how many minutes were in a TV special. He wrote down numbers from one to 90. He was very methodical about it. He had at least a dozen stories he had already written, so we were just helping to fill in a world he knew everything about. His idea was basically for a Wookiee Rosh Hashanah. A furry Earth Day.

Pat Proft (Co-Writer): Wookiees played a big part of it. Stormtroopers were harassing them. I don't have the script. It sure as [hell] wasn't what it ended up being.

Ripps: Pat and I had written for mimes Shields and Yarnell, which is why we were brought on. We had written lots of non-verbal stuff. The challenge was how to get things across. Wookiees aren’t articulate. Even in silent movies, you had subtitles. Whatever we wrote, it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Proft and Ripps delivered their script several weeks after the meeting. It focused on a galactic holiday celebrated by all species, with the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk selected to host the festivities that year. Chewbacca’s family—father Itchy, wife Malla, and son Lumpy—were introduced, with the writers leaving gaps for executive producers Dwight Hemion and Gary Smith to insert celebrity guest stars and musical acts. For the latter, Hemion and Smith turned to producers Ken and Mitzie Welch to arrange original songs and enlist talent.

Elle Puritz (Assistant to the Producer): I was working for the Welches at the time. I remember hearing, “OK, we’re going to do a Star Wars holiday special,” and everyone laughing about it. I thought it was a terrible idea.

Miki Herman (Lucasfilm Consultant): Lippincott requested I be involved with the special. I did a lot of ancillary projects. I knew all the props, all the actors. I hired Stan Winston to create the Wookiee family. [Sound effects artist] Ben Burtt and I were there to basically provide authenticity, to make sure everything was kept in context.

George Lucas (via Empire, 2009): Fox said, "You can promote the film by doing the TV special." So I kind of got talked into doing the special.

Ripps: Lucas told us Han Solo was married to a Wookiee but that we couldn’t mention that because it would be controversial.

Herman: I do remember Gary Smith saying they wanted to have Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ann-Margret involved, high-caliber people that were popular.

Puritz: Ken and Mitzie called Bea Arthur. They wrote a song with her in mind.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Ripps: It never occurred to us to get Bea Arthur. We spent just that one day with Lucas, then got put in touch with [director] David Acomba. Our notion was Acomba was very much Lucas’s guy, so he spoke for Lucas.

Acomba was a Canadian filmmaker who had coincidentally gone to the University of Southern California around the same time as Lucas, though the two never crossed paths at the time. Lippincott knew him, however, and hired him to direct the special in keeping with Lucas’s spirit of finding talent outside the Hollywood system.

Larry Heider (Camera Operator): David came out of a rock 'n' roll world, a documentary world. Smith and Hemion had three different projects going on at the same time, so I think they felt they wouldn’t have time to direct just this one thing.

Puritz: David wasn’t used to shooting television. Using five cameras, everything shooting at the same time. He was very indignant about his own lack of knowledge, and he did not get along with the Welches.

Ripps: I got the impression it was not what he wanted, and had turned into something he didn’t want to do. I don’t want to say he was overwhelmed, but it would’ve been overwhelming for anyone.

II. FORCING IT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

With a budget of roughly $1 million—the 1977 film cost $11 millionThe Star Wars Holiday Special began filming in Burbank, California in the summer of 1978 with a script that had been heavily revised by variety show veterans Bruce Vilanch, Rod Warren, and Mitzie Welch to reflect the Smith-Hemion style of bombastic musical numbers and kitsch. Chewbacca was now trying to race home in time for “Life Day,” with his family watching interstellar musical interludes and comedic sketches—like a four-armed Julia Child parody—on a video screen. 

Ripps: Lucas wanted a show about the holiday. Vilanch and everyone, they were wonderful writers, but they were Carol Burnett writers. In the litany of George’s work, there was never kitsch. Star Wars was always very sincere about Star Wars.

Herman: Personally, I was not a fan of Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, or Art Carney. That wasn’t my generation. But they had relationships with Dwight Hemion and the Welches.

Heider: Bea Arthur was known for being a little cold and demanding. When she was asked to do something a second time, she wanted someone to explain what was wrong. When the script wasn’t making sense for her to say something, she had a hard time translating all of that. She was pretty much [her television character] Maude.

Bea Arthur [via The Portland Mercury, 2005]: I didn't know what that was about at all. I was asked to be in it by the composer of that song I sang—"Goodnight, But Not Goodbye." It was a wonderful time, but I had no idea it was even a part of the whole Star Wars thing … I just remember singing to a bunch of people with funny heads.

After shooting the Cantina scene, it became apparent that Acomba was an ill fit for the constraints of a television schedule.

Heider: David was used to a single camera—run and gun, keep it moving, a real rock 'n' roll pace. This show was anything but. There were huge sets, make-up, costumes. It was slow-paced, and it got to him.

Ripps: I didn’t go down for the filming, but Pat went down. He has a story.

Proft: Took my kid for the Cantina scene. All the characters from the bar were there. However, they forgot [to pump] oxygen into the masks. Characters were fainting left and right.

Heider: Characters would walk around onstage with just their shirts on to stay cool. We were shooting in a very warm part of the year in Los Angeles, and it was difficult, especially with the Wookiees. They took a lot more breaks than they had calculated.

Ripps: I knew how frustrated David was. It wasn’t his vision. He phoned me up and said, “I’m not going to be working on this anymore.”

Acomba left after only shooting a handful of scenes. A frantic Smith phoned Steve Binder, a director with extensive experience in television—he had overseen the famous Elvis ’68 Comeback Special—and told him he needed someone to report to the set the following Monday morning.

Steve Binder (Director): I was between projects and got a call from Gary basically saying they had completely shut down in Burbank and there was talk of shutting it down for good. The first thing I realized was, they had built this phenomenal Chewbacca home on a huge film stage, but it was a 360-degree set. There was no fourth wall to remove to bring multiple cameras into the home. I would think it would be impossible for a crew to even get into the set to shoot anything.

Puritz: I think David was part of that plan.

Heider: I remember when that happened. I don’t think it was David’s idea. It was the way it was conceived by producers on how to make this look really cool, but it didn’t work. You have no lighting control. Steve got it. He’s really a pro. There’s no ego.

Binder: They FedExed me the script. The first thing I looked at was, the first 10 minutes was done with basically no dialogue from the actors. It was strictly Chewbacca sounds. The sound effects people would use bear sounds for the voicing. It concerned me, but there was no time to start changing the script.

Ripps: We had concerns about that. But George said, "This is the story I want to tell."

Binder: The Chewbacca family could only be in the costumes for 45 minutes. Then they’d have the heads taken off, and be given oxygen. It slowed everything down. The suits were so physically cumbersome and heavy. The actress playing Lumpy [Patty Maloney], when she came in, I don’t think she was more than 80 or 90 pounds and she a lost tremendous amount of weight while filming.

In addition to guest stars Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, and Art Carney, Lucasfilm approached most of the principals from the feature for cameo appearances. Feeling indebted to Lucas, they agreed to participate—reluctantly.

Puritz: They had made this big movie, and now they’re doing a TV special. Carrie Fisher did not want to be there.

Herman: They didn’t love doing TV. At that time, movie actors didn’t do TV. There was a stigma against it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Heider: Harrison Ford was not happy to be there at all. Carrie Fisher, I think part of her deal was she got to sing a song, and that was her draw to it. Because Lucas was involved, and if another movie is coming out in two years, there’s pressure to keep going. So they showed up, on time. Mostly.

Binder: My recall with the whole cast was that there was a little mumbling going on with a few of the actors who felt they should’ve been compensated more for the movie. I think Lucas did do that after the special, giving them small percentages.

Heider: We were doing a scene where Ford was sitting in the Millennium Falcon and he just wanted to get his lines done and he made that very clear. “Can we just do this? How long is this going to take?”

Harrison Ford (via press tour, 2011): It was in my contract. There was no known way to get out of it.

Heider: Mark Hamill was a good guy. He just had that normal-guy-trying-to-work vibe.

Mark Hamill (via Reddit, 2014): I thought it was a mistake from the beginning. It was just unlike anything else in the Star Wars universe. And I initially said that I didn't want to do it, but George said it would help keep Star Wars in the consciousness and I wanted to be a team player, so I did it. And I also said that I didn't think Luke should sing, so they cut that number.

Herman: I worked with the actors on a lot of the ancillary stuff. Honestly, they were just all so dopey.

III. BUILDING BOBA FETT


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

 

Before Acomba departed the production, he and Lucas reached out to a Canadian animation company, Nelvana, to prepare a nine-minute cartoon that would formally introduce one of the characters from The Empire Strikes Back: Boba Fett. The bounty hunter originated from a design for an unused Stormtrooper by production designers Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie; he was intended to make public appearances in the interim between films, initially popping up at the San Anselmo County Fair parade in September of 1978.

Michael Hirsh (Nelvana Co-Founder): David knew me personally. Lucas watched a special of ours, A Cosmic Christmas, that was just coming on air at the time. He asked people on his crew, including David, who we were. David said, "Oh, I know these guys." We were not a well-known company at time.

Clive Smith (Nelvana Co-Founder, Animation Director): Lucas supplied a script that he wrote. I think I probably had about two weeks to storyboard, then start character designs.

Hirsh: Frankly, I think the cartoon was more along the lines of what Lucas wanted to do in the first place—if he did the special, there was a possibility Fox and CBS would fund Star Wars cartoons. The variety show itself wasn’t something he was particularly interested in.

Smith: We ended up shooting slides of each storyboard frame. There must’ve been 300 to 400 frames. I loaded them up, put myself on a plane, and went down to San Francisco and did a presentation with a slide projector. I was in this room of people who were absolutely silent. Things that were funny, not a whimper or murmur. But at the end, George clapped.

Hirsh: CBS wanted him to use one of the L.A. studios, like Hanna-Barbera, who did most of the Saturday morning cartoons. But Lucas, from the beginning of his career, had a thing for independent companies, people who weren’t in L.A. The style of animation was modeled after [French artist] Jean “Moebius” Geraud, at Lucas’s request.


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

Smith: A lot of the designs and characters were inspired by Moebius, who did a lot of work for Heavy Metal magazine. We thought it was a good direction to point ourselves in. At the time, there was no Star Wars animation to follow.

Hirsh: There was a big deal made about the introduction of Boba Fett.

Smith: We needed to design Boba Fett, and all we had was some black and white footage of a costumed actor who had been photographed in someone’s backyard moving around. We took what was there and turned it into a graphic idea.

Hirsh: I directed the voice sessions. Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) had the most dialogue, and the other actors came in for short sessions. Harrison Ford and the other performers generally came in and nailed lines, whereas Mark Hamill was anxious to try different things. [Hamill would go on to a successful career in voiceover work.]

Herman: Michael got upset when I told him Princess Leia wore a belt. It was part of her costume, and they didn’t have it. Redoing it was going to cost them a lot of money.

Hirsh: That’s possible. Lucas was happy with how it turned out. After the special, we stayed in touch and we were developing a project with Lucasfilm and the Bee Gees. Nothing ever came of it.

IV. SPACING OUT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Nelvana had a relatively smooth journey to the finish line compared to the live-action production team. By the time Binder was prepared to shoot the climactic “Life Day” celebration with the entire cast and a group of robed Wookiees, there was virtually no money in the budget left for a large-scale spectacle.

Binder: No one ever mentioned there was no set for the closing. I was told by the art director we had no money for it in the budget. So I said, "No problem, just go out and buy every candle you can find in the store." We filled an empty stage with candles. I had experimented with this on another special, maybe a Victor Borge ice skating show. Candles in a dark environment give off an incredibly creative effect.

Herman: The sad truth is, everyone was so overwhelmed. Ken and Mitzie knew that last scene was a disaster. They came to me saying, "Help us." But George was out of the picture. It was a runaway production.

Ripps: Acomba and Lucas had walked away from it. They weren’t there to fight for anything.

Lucas: It just kept getting reworked and reworked, moving away into this bizarre land. They were trying to make one kind of thing and I was trying to make another, and it ended up being a weird hybrid between the two.

Heider: They were spending a lot of money for stage rental, lighting, a TV truck, and everyone was putting in really long hours. It translated into a big below-line budget problem. 

Herman: Honestly, a set wasn’t going to save that scene. All the Wookiees were wearing [consumer licensee] Don Post masks.

Premiering November 17, 1978, The Star Wars Holiday Special was seen by 13 million viewers, a significant but not overly impressive audience for the three-network television landscape of the era. It came in second to The Love Boat on ABC for its first hour, with a marked drop-off following the conclusion of the cartoon at the halfway point. Gurgling, apron-clad Wookiees, low-budget Imperial threats—they do nothing more sinister than trash Lumpy’s room—and an appearance by Jefferson Starship proved too bizarre for viewers.

Binder: I felt you have to open with a bang, really grab the audience, make it worth their time to sit and watch. The opening scene going on as long as it did was a killer for the TV audience.

Ripps: I had no idea what had happened to it. When it was broadcast, I had a party at my house and ordered catering. After the first commercial, I turned it off and said, "Let’s eat."

Binder: The day I finished shooting, I was on to other projects. It’s the only show I never edited or supervised the editing of. The Welches had the whole weight of the unedited special in their hands, and I questioned how much experience they had at that given they were songwriters.

Heider: Somebody made choices in terms of how long each scene would be on TV, and it's really painful.

Herman: I remember I was moving to Marin County the next day. I was staying at a friend’s house, and their son was a Star Wars fan. I had given him all the toys. Watching him watch it, he was really bored.

Binder: What I realized was, the public was not told this wasn’t going to be Star Wars. It was not the second movie. It was going to be a TV show to sell toys to kids. That was the real purpose of the show. It had nowhere near the budget of a feature film. [Lucasfilm and Kenner produced prototype action figures of Chewbacca’s family; they were never released.]

Heider: I didn’t watch it when it was on, but I do have a copy I bought several years ago on eBay. It’s not a great copy, but it’s enough to show how it was cut together. I haven’t been able to sit through whole thing at one time.

Herman: George hated it, but he knew there was nothing he could do about it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Binder: I never met Lucas, never got a phone call, anything. Which was disappointing to me. It was his show, he developed it. To totally walk away from it and critique it negatively was, I felt, not cool.

Ripps: One of the reasons I took the job was I thought it would be an annuity. Every year, I’d get a check for Star Wars.

Hirsh: I did watch it. I was happy with our contribution. It was a phenomenal opportunity for our little company. We got to work on the Droids and Ewoks animated shows later on.

Ripps: I still go out to dinners on the stories. Once, at a dinner party, one of the waiters had Star Wars tattoos up and down both of his arms. When he found out I wrote the special, we got better service than anyone in the restaurant.

Lucas: I’m sort of amused by it, because it is so bizarre. It's definitely avant garde television. It's definitely bad enough to be a classic.

Herman: The interesting thing is, the day after the special aired was the day of the Jonestown Massacre. It was just a bad time for everyone.

Dwight Hemion (via NPR, 2002): It was the worst piece of crap I’ve ever done.

This article originally ran in 2015.

YouTube Is Now Streaming Free Movies—as Long as You'll Sit Through Some Ads

iStock.com/hocus-focus
iStock.com/hocus-focus

If Netflix doesn’t have that movie you’ve been wanting to watch, try searching YouTube instead. The popular video platform is now streaming feature-length movies for free, but you’ll have to endure ads “at regular intervals,” The Verge reports.

The selection is limited to just 100 films for now, but YouTube plans to expand its offerings at a later date. They’re mostly older action films and rom-coms, but there are some crowd-pleasers on offer, including the first five Rocky movies, The Terminator, a few Pink Panther films, and Legally Blonde.

You can find these gratis selections in YouTube’s “Free to Watch” category, which was quietly rolled out last month. It falls under the Movies & Shows section, which was previously reserved for renting and buying movies.

"We saw this opportunity based on user demand, beyond just offering paid movies,” Rohit Dhawan, YouTube's director of product management, told AdAge. It’s also a good opportunity for advertisers, he added. This could pave the way for companies to start sponsoring movies, resulting in exclusive screenings for YouTube viewers.

According to Gizmodo, YouTube's ability to offer free movies stems from its already-existing partnerships with major Hollywood studios. And YouTube isn’t the only company trying to become a bigger player in the streaming market. Nickelodeon launched its NickSplat channel earlier this year, and Disney plans to release its Disney+ service in 2019.

Meanwhile, Amazon's Prime Video has grown to become a worthy rival of Netflix. As of September, it had the largest movie library of all the major streaming platforms, with more than 10,700 films in its collection.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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