Teaching W.W. I through Art, a Game, Poem, and Superhero Film


David Seelow, Ph.D.©

                By fortuitous circumstances, as a group in my class on “Superheroes and the Millennial” were presenting on Patty Jenkins path breaking Wonder Woman film (2017), I came across a guest blog called “Tension and Fear” by historian Mary Gross (2018) about a game addressing the trench warfare aspect W.W. I A version of the game “Over the Top” allowed to finally root this superhero film in real history and help overcome the popular misconception that superhero films are only escapist in nature.

                I begin an admittedly literary approach to a historical lesson with some background about W.W. I and the nature of trench warfare. I think nothing better crystallizes the horror and absurdity of the Great War than this nasty in the mud experience of combat. For a non-History class, and even for a History class, I think literary scholar and veteran Paul Fussell’s classic book The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) with an emphasis on “The Trench Scene” (36-63) section of Chapter Two, serves as an excellent introduction or induction to the lesion. Descriptions of the trenches, the line the drawn between the allied and axis powers down France and Belgium, the conditions of living in the trenches with its fixture of fear, insomnia, shell fire, boredom, hunger, and rat infestation are harrowing and will have a strong impact on students. (43). Many of Fussell’s descriptions about sunrise and sunset routines, such as “Stand to Arms” will be concretely realized in the art that follows the introduction.

                From this introduction, I play the online game “Over the Top” produced by the Canadian War Museum. This short, moving game about Canadian soldiers’ experience in the trenches gives students a real eye-opening account of living under extreme conditions. I play in class on a projector but also ask students to play on their own and report back with a short blog post or 1 -minute paper.  The game uses art based on historical photographs and captures the look and feel of the trenches quite well. Game play is simple. It is a form of interactive fiction where the player makes choices at key moments in the narrative and immediately experiences the consequences of those decisions.

                Students responded very passionately about this short game, and its reality of mundane daily routines mixed with life or death decisions. “In this game I was killed by toxic gas when I realized my mask was cracked and decided not to put them on” (Zach). Any little flaw in equipment could prove disastrous. Troops moved only feet at a time, and, even then, at great peril.  Most students reacted to the sense of hopelessness, the danger of sentry duty, and the endless waiting for the call to attack or the need to defend an attack. Lexi writes, “They [the game] also detailed how rigorous the work and sentry schedules were, allowing you to see into the lives of the soldier around that time. Lastly, it also shows how hard it was to cross no man’s land as you have to choose whether to help your fellow soldiers or stay in the trench; I chose to help and ended up dying in the game.” This last decision point really brings home one of Fussell’s major points about the war.

Decision Point in “Over the Top” on the Western Front in W.W.I

                Like Lexi, and most others who play this short game, the end game is death. For college students that stark realization of death while role playing a soldier, who is nearly the same age as the student, really has a lasting and sobering affect. Do not take anything in life for granted. As for Fussell’s larger point, W.W. I brought an end to the enlightenment idea of progress. Eight million deaths for nothing (p. 21). The absurd philosophy articulated by Camu, Kafka and others begins with the historical absurdity of the Great War.

My Fate in “Over the Top”

                From the game “Over the Top,” I like to move to an even more authentic experience of W.W.I through Wilfred Owen’s great poem “Spring Offensive.” A British officer from Shropshire, Owen (1893-1918) died in battle at age 25, only a couple years older than most of my students. The students’ previous experience of playing the game as a soldier in the trenches gives students a much deeper appreciation of the poem and brings them into a conversation with the value of poetry at a time when poetry’s deep voice most needs listening to.

                The poem (1917) contrasts the beauty of spring’s awakening- the seasonal rebirth, with the imminence of death, as the soldiers wait for the call to go over the top and attack- running into a maelstrom of bullets and straight into the mouth of hell.

                                So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together

                                Over an open stretch of herb and heather

                                Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned

                                With fury against them; and soft sudden cups

                                Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes

                                Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space. 

You could spend an entire class discussion on the poem in the context of how the students experienced the game “Over the Top”. Perhaps, read letters of Owen about the war or have students write reactions to their initial reading of the poem. How would they [the students] imagine war? Perhaps, have them write a descriptive letter from inside the trenches as they imagine it to family back home.

                After encountering the hopelessness expressed in the game and poem, I move to the no man land’s scene from Patty Jenkin’s film Wonder Woman (2017). The shift from game and poem to movie is a shift to an entirely different perspective on war, not exactly romantic, but certainly hopeful, and purposeful. Diana’s mission to serve the allies’ cause confronts the horror of war when Diana moves among the soldiers in the trenches facing the German threat and their use of lethal gas.  I show the scene in class and let the students experience the uplifting nature of Diana, disclosing her superhero identity  as she changes into her warrior costume, and  rises, in slow motion, up the ladder from the trenches to lead the troops into no man’s- shown in all its gruesome reality.  Wonder Woman uses her bracelets and shield to knock off artillery fire. The superhero, and the superhuman nature of this idealized scene, shows how superhero narrative operates as a modern mythos, a system of belief that favors hope and possibility. It also shows the leadership of women in the most hopeless of situations, and military leadership at that.  

                In an excellent discussion of Wonder Woman’s mythopoetic, George Denson describes the magic of the no man’s land scene:

                                The scene in the new Wonder Woman film that people are crying over in theaters and raving about afterward happens to be among the most powerfully mythopoetic scenes ever filmed, at the same time it is one of the oldest myths to have been utilized by artists and writers after it had been invented by early military strategists and leaders. And while the scene does have militarist undertones, it is used by director Patty Jenkins  in the name of raising the esteem for powerful yet compassionate women as heroes and leaders to a level equal with that of men for having won over a huge and adoring popular audience around the world. This is infinitely more significant to the lives of ordinary people than the milestone of the film’s having broken several glass ceilings for a female director, star, and fictional hero — though those accomplishments too are essential to the lives of modern women and men. Just the number of little girls and boys who will carry their memory of the magnificently courageous and assertive Diana of Themyscira defying the authority and violence of despotic men is likely to have a century of positive impacts on the future roles of women in politics, both as candidates and voters, as well as on the legislation of laws servicing and protecting women and their rights.

                Diana Prince is a warrior, and after discussing this magnificent scene, including the brilliant score, and cinematography (see Guerrasio, 2017), I would also spend some time linking Wonder Woman to the historical ‘Amazons’ by showing Adrienne Mayor’s excellent Ted Ed animation on the historical authenticity of ancient warrior women. This short lesson brings historical context to the superhero character and shows how the lost history of strong women can be rediscovered in contemporary  film making.

                Finally, Denson correctly identifies the iconographic proximity of Wonder Woman leading the soldiers into battle with Eugene Delacroix’s famous painting, La Liberté guidant le people (1839, oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris). In the painting, a woman carrying the French tricolor in one hand and a musket in the other leads a group of male soldiers over fallen bodies toward victory. Her bare breast echoes the Amazonian warrior mythos. The woman, like Wonder Woman, has allegorical significance. She represents liberty from oppression, and as a woman, a liberation also, on the symbolic plane, from male dominance. Finally, the painting’s iconography also foreshadows the famous Statue of Liberty gifted from France to America as a mutual symbol of democracy and a commitment to equality.

Liberty Leading the People, Eugene Delacroix (1830), Le Louvre, Paris, France, Public Domain.

                This constellation of artistic representations of war allows students to experience World War I from a variety of perspectives: both as futility, and as the triumph of democracy personified through a strong woman. Unlike a traditional historical lecture or reading, art as game, film, poem and painting will help students see and feel a distant war as something powerful and present.

Works Cited

Denson, Roger G., “The Wonder Woman “No Man’s Land” Scene Is Rooted In History, Myth and Art,”

06/23/2017  updated Aug 05, 2017, The Huffington Post, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-wonder-woman-no-mans-land-scene-is-rooted-in_us_59498fcae4b0710bea889a18, retrieved 1/14/2019.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford University Press, 1975.

Gross, Mary. “Tension and Fear” The CUNY Games Network, https://games.commons.gc.cuny.edu/2018/10/29/guest-blogger-mary-gross-tension-and-fear/, Oct. 29, 2018, retrieved 11/10/2018.

Guerrasio, Jason. “The ‘Wonder Woman’ cinematographer explains how he pulled off its most miraculous scene,” Business Insider, Jun. 20, 2017, https://www.businessinsider.com/wonder-woman-no-mans-land-scene-shot-2017-6, retrieved 16/2019.

Mayor, Adrienne. “Did the Amazons Really Exist,” Ted Ed animation, https://ed.ted.com/lessons/did-the-amazons-really-exist-adrienne-mayor, retrieved 11/16/2018.

Owen, Wilfred. “Spring Offensive,” (1917)The Poetry Foundation,https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57370/spring-offensive-56d23ad1f2c15, retrieved 1/8/19.

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