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The Real History Behind Game of Thrones, Part 4: The White Walkers
By Ben Thomas Posted in Culture, History on May 18, 2019 0 Comments
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They rose from their graves to confront the living — and we still haven’t put them to rest. Meet the REAL Army of the Dead.

The dead are gathering. By the millions, they clamber forth from their graves and stand like a legion of silent sentinels, waiting for the signal to sweep over the countryside like an icy winter storm.

Meanwhile, the living persist in their petty feuds. Betraying, backstabbing and outmaneuvering one another, sipping wine by their firesides, they remain willfully ignorant of the shambling corpses that assemble on the edge of civilization.

The army of the dead on HBO's Game of Thrones
The army of the dead on HBO’s Game of Thrones

Until at last, one fateful night, the signal is sounded. The corpses begin their unstoppable march — and the living, who have ignored the dead all these years, can only watch as the slain emerge from the darkness.

But this isn’t Game of Thrones — and the ill-fated kingdom is not Westeros. It’s France, in 1918. And in Abel Gance’s film J’accuse, the dead don’t attack — they simply demand to be acknowledged.

The accusatory war-dead, in Abel Gance's film J'accuse (1918)
The accusatory war-dead, in Abel Gance’s film J’accuse (1918)

As nonviolent as this march of the dead might seem to us today, it was fraught with horrific meaning to a nation of film-goers traumatized by four years of war.

Most viewers of J’accuse had lost close friends and family members to the brutal fighting in Europe’s trenches. Many had recently survived their own traumatic combat experiences.

In fact, Gance recruited his actors from a unit of French soldiers on leave — many of whom would meet their very real deaths at the Battle of the Somme just weeks after shooting.

A soldier stumbles across the battlefield in J'accuse (1918)
A soldier stumbles across the battlefield in J’accuse (1918)

While World War I had begun with excitement and fanfare, that romantic vision quickly evaporated as battalions of brave horsemen were blown apart by landmines, and companies of childhood friends were torn to shreds in an instant of machine-gun fire.

War had always been terrible, of course — but never before had millions of unsuspecting soldiers been fed into automated “death factories” that chewed them up like so much meat.

Never before had bravery and skill been rendered so utterly meaningless in the face of mindless mechanized carnage.

Mortar cannons in World War I
Mortar cannons in World War I

As casualties for a single day of fighting skyrocketed into the hundreds of thousands, people found that they simply couldn’t get their heads around the true scale of the decimation. Economists insisted that this frenzied killing couldn’t possibly be sustained for more than a few months.

But in 1917, after three years of relentless butchery, no end to the Great War seemed to be in sight.

When the famed explorer Ernest Shackleton came stumbling out of an Arctic blizzard in the spring of that year, the very first questions he asked were, “Whatever happened with the Great War? How did it end? Who won?”

At first, none of his rescuers could figure out how to explain how disastrously wrong everything had gone during Shackleton’s absence. After a long pause, one of them finally worked up the courage to tell him:

“The war isn’t over, Shackleton.
Millions are dead.
Europe is mad.
The world is mad.”

A soldier in World War I (Frank Hurley/National Library of Australia)
A soldier in World War I (Frank Hurley/National Library of Australia)

Indeed, what word other than “madness” could possibly describe such prolonged, pointless, indiscriminate slaughter?

Heavy mortar cannons had transformed western Europe into a cratered hellscape, where thousands of men hung screaming, impaled on nests of barbed wire. Clouds of chlorine and mustard gas crept through the trenches: air itself had become hostile to life.

A soldier dies from a gas attack in World War I
A soldier dies from a gas attack in World War I

And still the shelling continued, convulsing the ground night after night — tearing men apart while they slept, and turning many survivors into gibbering lunatics (who were often shot in the head by their own commanders for “insubordination”).

By the time the Great War concluded in 1918, France alone had lost upwards of 1,700,000 people — including some 300,000 civilians. Percentage-wise, this would be like if the entire populations of Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco all died over a four-year period.

Wounded veterans of World War I
Wounded veterans of World War I

And apocalyptic death tolls were only the beginning of the trauma. Thousands of soldiers came home with missing limbs, disfigured faces, and lifelong post-traumatic stress.

Beautiful cities across Europe lay in shattered ruins. Cathedrals and palaces raised in the Middle Ages were reduced to heaps of crumbling brick and jagged glass. Countless corpses — of soldiers, civilians and animals alike — littered landscapes chewed and scorched as if by some great beast.

A shattered cathedral (Frank Hurley/National Library of Australia)
A shattered cathedral (Frank Hurley/National Library of Australia)

I recount these details not with morbid relish — but because you must understand why Western civilization has never stopped reliving the trauma of the Great War.

Gance’s film J’accuse — released shortly after the war’s end — was only the first in a long line of movies, books, poems and plays attempting to process the irreversible damage the war had inflicted on humankind.

Some of these works were set explicitly in war-torn Europe — while many others approach the same trauma through metaphor. Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis (1915), for example, was published at the war’s height — while T.S. Eliot’s poetry sings a lament for Europe’s “Waste Land” haunted by the shells of “Hollow Men.”

T.S. Eliot's "Waste Land" (Frank Hurley/National Library of Australia)
T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” (Frank Hurley/National Library of Australia)

The Great War’s most enduring fictional legacy, however, has been imprinted on film — particularly in the horror genre.

What is Nosferatu (1922), after all, if not an unstoppable “death factory” laying waste to Europe? What is The Phantom of the Opera (1931), if not a disfigured veteran? What is Frankenstein (1931), if not a mechanized corpse inflicting vengeance on its creator? And what is Dracula’s sidekick Renfield, if not a shell-shocked soldier driven mad by blood?

Frankenstein (1931)
Frankenstein (1931)

And of course, J’accuse would be far from the last film to raise an army of the dead to confront the living.

While Gance’s shambling corpses were satisfied simply to be acknowledged, the undead were soon demanding their (literal) pound of flesh from the world that had put them in the grave.

The idea of zombies didn’t originate with Gance’s film, obviously. Fears of the vengeful dead date back at least as far as ancient Sumerian culture.

In the story “Nergal and Ereshkigal” (written around 4,000 years ago), the underworld goddess Ereshkigal threatens the goddess Ishtar:

“I will shatter the door, the bolt I will break in pieces,
I will shatter the threshold, I will tear away the doors,
I will bring up the dead that they may eat and live!
And the dead shall join themselves to the living!”

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The Sumerian underworld goddess Ereshkigal

But J’accuse had struck a newly resonant chord — not only for French filmgoers, but for audiences around the world. A decade later, zombies had become permanent figures in Western film folklore.

In fact, it’s easy — once you know what you’re looking for — to trace a clear cinematic lineage from films like White Zombie (1932), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), back to Gance’s film J’accuse — and thus, to the Great War itself.

When the Night King leads the White Walkers out of the North, he stands at the head of a million war dead, whom we have still failed to put to rest.

The army of the dead on HBO's Game of Thrones
The army of the dead on HBO’s Game of Thrones

As the men of the Night’s Watch discover, fire can reduce White Walkers to ash. As the ancient texts say, a blade of dragon-glass can slay them. And maybe (no spoilers) the alliance of the living can put their differences aside long enough to stop the Night King’s advancing army.

But even if the heroes of Westeros manage to defeat the army of the dead, we must remember that Game of Thrones is, after all, only one TV series. The dead have been coming back for 100 years now — ever since our ancestors buried them alive without any satisfying explanation.

And if there’s one thing film and TV have taught us about the dead, it’s that — no matter how firmly we try to stick them in the ground — it’s never long before they come clawing back out again.

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