As the movie begins, Charlie is already in uniform and being drilled at boot camp. The men in his squad are of various heights and builds, but Charlie is the shortest and skinniest. The other men all move and turn with military precision, but Charlie is always a bit behind them. The sergeant tries to show him how to properly “volte face,” but Charlie turns it into a funny dance move. They march for a very long time and Charlie returns to his bunk. The scene fades out and when it begins again, he is in a trench, carrying a ridiculously overloaded pack. The camera dollies to follow him down the trench, then dollies back when he turns around and returns, finding the cubby in the wall that opens in to his new digs. Inside are his two roommates (one of them is Sydney Chaplin, Charlie’s brother). He moves in and secures his bunk, then we get a view of the enemy trench. The Germans are all large and rough-looking men, but their officer is a dwarf (Loyal Underwood). He is very strict with them, and they all appear to be terrified of him.
We see various day-to-day activities in the trenches, like eating lunch under shell fire and standing guard in the rain. When the mail call comes, everyone in the unit seems to get a care package except for Charlie. He refuses the offer to share food with one of his bunkmates, trying to make it seem as if he doesn’t care. He gets very involved in reading over the shoulder of one man who has a letter, desperate for any news from home. Finally, the postal carrier does find a package for him. It includes stale bread and limburger cheese. He tosses the cheese into the German trench, and they react as if it were a chemical weapons attack. When it is time for Charlie to go to bed, the rain has flooded his bunk, and he has to lie in the water. He uses the horn from a gramophone as a snorkel so he doesn’t drown. The next day, his unit is called to make an attack on the German trench. They capture it and Charlie brings in the entire enemy squad as prisoners. When asked how he did it, he says, “I surrounded them.” He gives the short German officer a spanking, which gets applause from his men.
We see a bombed-out French house with a dejected resident (Edna Purviance), who represents all the strife France is going through in the war. Charlie volunteers for duty behind the lines, and is camouflaged as a stump. He hides out as some Germans set up camp. One comes over with an axe, looking for firewood, but Charlie knocks him out by bonking him with a limb, then bonks each of the other Germans in turn. Sydney is captured doing similar behind-the-line spying, and is put before a firing squad, but Charlie saves him by bonking the Germans. A fat soldier chases him through the woods, but often mistakes real trees for Charlie. Charlie escapes into a pipe, and the soldier is too fat to follow.
Charlie finds his way to Edna’s house, and she finds him there and begins a flirtation before the Germans show up and capture them both, wrecking what’s left of the house in the process. Edna is taken to the German headquarters, where she meets a taller German officer who is enjoying local wine. Charlie manages to rescue her and dresses as the officer, just in time to meet the Kaiser and two of his generals (one is fat and looks like Hindenburg, the other is thin and looks nothing like Ludendorff). He knocks out their chauffeur and drives them into Allied territory, where they are taken into custody.
Then he wakes up again, still in hiss bivouac from the first scene, not yet deployed. The entire war sequence is shown to be a dream.
As I stated, this movie was wildly popular when released. It was also a critical success on a level far above what Chaplin usually managed. No one seems to have thought it “vulgar” (although there are some decidedly adult gags once he meets Edna). Reviewers for the next decade compared each new Chaplin release to it – often deciding that classics like “The Kid” or “The Gold Rush” were not quite so good as “Shoulder Arms.” It’s easy to see why it was popular in the United States as the country prepared to finally join the long slog of trench warfare, and it was also popular in Britain and elsewhere, where the fighting had been going for years. The movie identifies with the common soldier doing his bit in awful circumstances, not necessarily motivated by any great patriotism or ideology, just wanting to his best and help out the fellow next to him in the foxhole (Sydney). It suggests that even the lowliest soldier can become a hero, at least in his own mind, and it lets people laugh at their own worst fears. Chaplin’s famed pathos is also on display – the forlorn look on his face when he thinks he hasn’t received any mail must have inspired hundreds of letters from mothers and sweethearts.
Today the laughs are just as strong. The problem I have is mostly with the caricatured depiction of the Germans, who for the most part were just simple soldiers sitting through the same Hell as the Allies, whatever the mistakes of their leaders, and many of them would soon be joining revolts against those leaders. The one moment that humanizes them is when they applaud seeing their officer spanked. Particularly the final sequence in which Chaplin captures the Kaiser comes across as overwrought propaganda. Of course, all of Chaplin’s “bad guys” are caricatures, and there’s no reason to expect gallantry toward the enemy in a war comedy, and the gags and pratfalls are still brilliant. The Wikipedia article claims that, “[t]his is believed to be the first comedy film about war.” I find that hard to believe, although I haven’t thought of a definite counter-example (Chaplin was in uniform in “Burlesque on Carmen,” but there’s no war going on). Certainly it set the stage for others to come, being a huge success and critical darling.
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Camera: Roland Totheroh
Run Time: 36 Min