Shoulder Arms (1918) starring Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Sydney Chaplin
Shoulder Arms is a silent film made by Charlie Chaplin, released at the end of World War I. It details the adventures of Chaplin’s world-famous Little Tramp character, Charlie, as he is drafted. The film begins with the little Tramp in boot camp. It’s a very funny bit where he’s trying to learn the basics of using a gun, pointing it every way except the correct way, dropping it on a fellow soldier’s foot, and his large feet getting in the way of his marching. Exhausted, he falls asleep at the first opportunity … And Charlie is rudely awakened to find out that he’s being shipped overseas, to fight in the trench warfare of the first World War.
Much of the film deals with Army life in the trenches, and has numerous laugh-out-loud moments. Such as the little Tramp hanging a cheese grater on the wall – to scratch his back with. The cramped corners of the barracks giving Charlie Chaplin ample room to work gags on. To the discomfort of his fellows in the barracks. And dealing with the flooding of the barracks. There are some of the melancholy moments that we’ve come to expect from Charlie the Tramp as well, such as everyone else receiving a letter or package from home.
Charlie tries to be brave, but it’s obvious how hurt he is … It’s a very funny moment is when he sneaks behind a fellow soldier, reading his letter from home, and he mirrors the soldier’s surprise and happiness while reading the letter. Finally, Charlie does receive a package — of Limburger cheese. He quickly puts on a gas mask, and after a moment throws it away … only for it to land on the face of a German soldier in a nearby trench!
Battle comes next, with several funny moments as soldiers climb up ladders to leave the trench, giving Charlie another comic prop to work with — and surprisingly, the Tramp has become an amazingly good soldier, capturing 13 enemy soldiers! How? “I surrounded them.” Soon, a volunteer is needed, and Charlie the Tramp hasn’t learned the first rule of Army life — never volunteer. Charlie volunteers, instead of another soldier, for the mission. After being told that he likely won’t return, he tries to change places with the other soldier, but it’s too late.
We next see Charlie behind enemy lines, “cleverly” disguised as a tree. This gives room for some comic play, as wandering German soldiers need some firewood. At first, Charlie is able to knock them down without giving himself away. But soon a chase begins, with a portly German soldier chasing Charlie through a nearby woods. The German shoots and bayonets the wrong trees, as Charlie hits him from behind. Eventually, Charlie is chased out of the woods, and narrowly escapes through a drain pipe. Which the chasing soldier becomes stuck inside. Interspersed with this, we see another American soldier behind enemy lines, trying to send a message back to his troops, only to be captured by the German soldiers.
In the meantime, Charlie finds shelter in a bombed-out shell of a building, where he collapses on a bed. Moments later, a French girl, played by Charlie Chaplin regular Edna Purviance, returns to her home and finds the American soldier collapsed on her bed. She sees his bloodied hand, and begins washing away the blood. Charlie wakes up to this pretty sight, and pretends to be asleep. After a moment of comic play, he awakens, and since the Tramp doesn’t speak French, he attempts to pantomime that he’s an American soldier. Unfortunately, German soldiers arrive, and in a very funny scene, with Charlie gaining and losing the upper hand, he escapes from the enemy soldiers. But Edna isn’t so lucky.
She’s taken to the local German headquarters, where an officer orders the other men out while he intends to “interrogate” her; fortunately for her, Charlie (in the midst of escaping from pursuing German soldiers) arrives. He takes the officer (and his clothes) captive. At this time, the captured American soldier arrives as well, as does the Kaiser, who apparently is inspecting the troops at the front. In an extended scene, against all odds, Charlie, Edna and the other soldier (played by Sydney Chaplin, Charlie’s real-life brother) escape in the Kaiser’s car, with the Kaiser in the back, turning him over to Charlie’s superiors, and ending the war!
Except, as we all know, that’s not how the war was ended … And that’s made obvious as Charlie the Tramp is awoken from this pleasant dream by his fellow soldiers. Shoulder Arms is an excellent silent short film, very funny. My daughter laughed out loud many times with me as we watched it together. I recommend it highly, and rate it 4 clowns out of 5. Shoulder Arms is available on DVD as part of The Chaplin Revue, where Charlie Chaplin strung together several of his short films along with new footage to make a feature-length film. Also, the entire film is available for viewing online at The Internet Archive.
Trivia for Charlie Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms
- Originally planned at five reels; outtakes were preserved in Chaplin’s private collection. Alf Reeves portrayed a draft board sergeant and Albert Austin a doctor in a cut scene at the draft board office.
- Many in Hollywood were nervous that one of their most famous peers was going to tackle the subject of WWI. It was released shortly before the Armistice so it did not help boost national morale. But it did end up as one of Charles Chaplin’s most popular films. It was particularly popular with returning dough boys.