How long have filmmakers been blending the genres of war movies and comedies? Released in 1918, just shortly before the end of the first World War, Charlie Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms is possibly the first example; certainly it’s one of the first. Chaplin, as was usual for his silent films, wrote, directed, and starred in the movie, though he is not playing his “Little Tramp” character here. Here, he’s the otherwise-unnamed recruit #13, fighting for the Allies in the trenches in France.
It’s a short film — depending on the cut it’s either 35 minutes or 45 — and easily digestible. Being of such a small length, and having only minimal dialogue through title cards, it doesn’t have a particularly complex plot, and instead feels more like a series of sequential vignettes. There’s a definite storyline, but it’s told in short acts instead of a continuous block. We see recruit #13 in training camp, then on the front lines, then on a dangerous spy mission.
World War I was known for heavy use of chemical warfare. Most textbooks omit the use of Limburger.
Being a Charlie Chaplin film, a few of his regular co-stars make appearances. Edna Purviance shows up as a French woman who provides shelter to recruit #13 during his spy mission. For once, Purviance gets to do a little more than just sit around and look pretty; while her character doesn’t get up to the same level of antics as #13, she does at least take a small part in the action. Syd Chaplin, Charlie’s brother (and namesake of Charlie’s son, actor Sydney Chaplin), plays both #13’s sergeant and the Kaiser, essentially playing the straight man to some of the shenanigans. Albert Austin plays a few small roles, most notably one of #13’s fellow soldiers that he rescues from captivity.
Despite the seriousness of the war, Shoulder Arms has the same lighthearted, goofy tone that most Chaplin short films have. It doesn’t take its subject matter seriously, treating the whole thing as a lark; it probably worked well as a piece of Allied propaganda as the war ended by mocking the German war effort. For modern audiences, it’s just a fun little romp. There are plenty of funny gags throughout, including some laugh out loud moments. The simplicity of the plot, and the lack of dialogue, may keep today’s viewers from getting completely into it, but it’s still worth a watch for some of the gags.