From 'Downton' to 'War Horse,' First World War stories endure in popular culture

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TORONTO - Whether you're a devotee of the delectable drama "Downton Abbey" or swept up in the heartwarming saga of "War Horse," there seems to be a keen interest in the First World War lately, placing the pivotal historical event in the pop culture spotlight.

"Downton" has made a splash on both sides of the Atlantic with its window into the lives of aristocrats and servants at an Edwardian country home, providing ample fodder for spoofs on "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."

"War Horse," meanwhile, started out as a children's novel about a boy whose cherished horse is sold to the cavalry, and has since become a lavish theatrical production and an Oscar-nominated film by Steven Spielberg.

So why the sudden focus on the Great War?

"Some generous part of the answer has to be sheer serendipity and the coming onto the scene of a great writer, a gifted playwright or a filming opportunity," said Dean Oliver, director of research and exhibitions at the Canadian War Museum. "I think there are some things that are beyond the opportunity of social science and historical analysis to predict."

For its part, the Canadian War Museum has several of its artifacts on display at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre where "War Horse" is currently being staged, including a Canadian cavalry uniform and materials that would have been used to aid and rehabilitate horses.

Oliver said one possible reason for ongoing interest in both world wars is the commemoration of key anniversaries. He anticipates there will be an "enormous outpouring" of books, plays, scholarly publications and the like to mark the centennial of the start of the Great War in 2015.

"There's something about the 25th and the 50th and every substantial anniversary that comes along that sparks interest," he said. "People see an opportunity for potboilers and good fiction accounts, so there's a lot of that that simply's turned by the calendar; and the First World War industry, in that regard, is very old and very deeply-rooted.

"There's an expectation that the first of the great wars — the Second World War being the second — will somehow be commemorated and marked in important ways."

Beyond stage and screen, there have been additional contributions in literature inspired by the First World War like John Boyne's "The Absolutist," which documents the fictional love story between two male soldiers.

The Irish writer said he doesn't think the Great War has ever fallen out of people's interest. But Boyne thinks historically it has been less in the culture than the Second World War, which is the subject of more novels, films and TV shows.

"Not to sound facetious, but there's a manner in which the Second World War is clearer to define," he said in a recent interview. "It has a recognizable enemy and a recognizable evil at the centre of it, whereas the First World War, historically, I think people are not so conscious of the issues around it.

"I think when people think of the First World War, they think of the trenches, if they think of it at all."

The Historica-Dominion Institute created a national education campaign centred on the Canadian war film "Passchendaele," teaching high school students about the First World War through excerpts and scenes from the 2008 movie starring Paul Gross.

To complement the campaign, there was also a national essay writing contest which received more than 3,000 submissions in three weeks. The entries were letters written by students from the perspective of someone that was involved with the war.

The institute also runs a program called The Memory Project, Canada's largest veterans' speakers bureau, where more than 1,500 veterans go into schools and share their stories with youngsters.

A digital archive has also been created, and the institute was able to record the stories of some of the last surviving First World War vets in Canada. John Babcock, the last known Canadian veteran of the First World War, died in 2010.

"There's no real substitute for these real stories,'' said Jeremy Diamond, director at the Historica-Dominion Institute. "You can only get a certain glimpse into history by reading books or watching documentaries; but (when) you have a real personal attachment to this, it really resonates with young people and all Canadians.

"These are the stories that are so important for us, and we hope to keep them alive during the First World War anniversary and through other conflicts as well."

Still, Diamond sees a value in dramatic accounts pertaining to war and other landmark events.

"Teaching history is about storytelling, and storytelling is engaging, it is exciting, it's adventurous, it's romantic, it's all of those things," he said. "If we can use our historical events to teach about stories, then we need to do more of that.

"I think that a lot of young people, especially, have many distractions these days — more than they did a generation ago," he added. "If you can tell an effective story, I think you're going to hook them in."


- With files from reporter Andrea Baillie in Toronto

Organizations: Canadian War Museum, Wales Theatre, Historica-Dominion Institute

Geographic location: TORONTO, Atlantic, Canada

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