Scen.: Charles Chaplin. F.: Roland Toteroth. Scgf.: Charles D. Hall. Int.: Charles Chaplin (la recluta), Edna Purviance (la ragazza francese), Sydney Chaplin (il sergente/Kaiser), Jack Wilson (il principe tedesco), Henry Bergman (il sergente grasso/maresciallo Hindenburg), Albert Austin (il soldato americano/soldato tedesco/autista del Kaiser), Tom Wilson (il sergente istruttore), John Rand, Park Jones (soldati americani), Loyal Underwood (un tedesco). Prod.: Charles Chaplin per Chaplin-First National 35mm. L.: 829 m. D.: 41′ a 18 f/s. Bn e col.
At the beginning of Shoulder Arms: a tracking shot shows Charlie walking along the trench, oblivious of the occasional blast. The camera follows him to the end of the corridor, then draws backward through the audience, not along an aisle but as if he is walking between the theatre seats. As if he was inviting us to join him at boot camp with the tacit promise that he will, ultimately, succeed in making us laugh hard about the least funny subject of all: the war. Technically speaking, this was one of Chaplin’s most advanced films to date: split narrative, impressive sets, sophisticated camera work and brilliant mise-en-scène. It is packed with comic moments that explode as often as grenades with some memorable scenes, namely the hilarious, celebrated occasion when he camouflages himself as a tree (not really ‘camouflage’ – Bazin would argue – more like “one of those little Indian insects that can take on the appearance of leaves” or an insect playing dead, the only difference between them and Charlie being “the speed with which he returns from his condition of spatial dissolution, into the cosmos, to a state of instant readiness for action”).
Shoulder Arms is the first of many films that Chaplin will shoot against his colleagues’ and friends’ advice: “It’s dangerous, at this time, to make fun of the horrors of the war”, DeMille had warned him. He went ahead, initially planning to make it his first feature, shooting extensive footage of the Tramp as a family man prior to enlistment, then cut it and released it as a three-reeler. Shoulder Arms was one of Chaplin’s greatest commercial successes, and for a long time both audiences and critics would measure subsequent films by its standards. But there’s more to it. It hit the public at exactly the right time, making them laugh about the idiocy of it all, and thus becoming an essential part of the World War experience. “How did you capture thirteen German soldiers by yourself?” – Charlie is asked by his superior – “I surrounded them”, he explains.