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Much More Than Gangsters and Guns. Boardwalk Empire's Richard Harrow and the Real Faces of War


TV critics have argued that we are in the midst of a "golden age" of episodic television with shows such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Sons of Anarchy. Boardwalk Empire should be included in that list, but the show's playing with both "pulp" and "serious" storytelling conventions have caused it to run afoul of those "expert" viewers who watch television for a living.

Boardwalk Empire is one of the most literate shows on television, and a great example of "the hidden history" that was the post World War One era made real for contemporary audiences. Will most viewers sit back and reflect on how that era's changing norms of race, gender, ethnicity, nationalism, and "Americanness" were formed in the crucible of the 1920s? Unlikely.

Boardwalk Empire has gangsters, booze, violence, nudity, and sex. The challenge of making "socially relevant" popular culture is that a creator has to appeal to the lowest common denominator among the public while still trying to hold true to the rule--consciously or subconsciously--that all "art" is trying to say "something" about society.

Boardwalk Empire's Richard Harrow is one of the most interesting and complex characters on television. Facially disfigured during World War One, he is quite literally the horror of war brought home to the public. As alluded to repeatedly by Boardwalk Empire, he is like the Tin Man, or perhaps some other type of misunderstood monster, with a heart of gold, amazingly loyal, loving, fragile...and who also happens to be a very efficient killer.

Harrow is a device through which the writers of Boardwalk Empire are able to comment on violence, the human soul, and the lost generation of World War One. He carries his scars on the outside; the other characters on Boardwalk Empire wear their's inside. Harrow's soul is damaged. But, it is not corrupted. With few exceptions, he is the most "beautiful" person among the characters on Boardwalk Empire even while many of those "normal" people often shun him, pitying Harrow, and commenting on his facial injury in order to demean him.

World World One made too many men like Richard Harrow.

I worry that the viewers of Boardwalk Empire may admire Harrow's deftness at killing, but remain willfully ignorant of the real people who suffered similar (and worse) injuries.

World War One maimed and broke human bodies on a scale not seen before in human history. As a result, artists were needed to make an effort at fixing those broken bodies.

These doctors and surgeons would be the founding mothers and fathers of plastic surgery. The Smithsonian website and magazine has a wonderfully written and moving piece on the soldiers who suffered facial injuries during World War One, and the great humanitarians who tried to help them return to some type of normalcy.

While I wish that the Richard Harrows of World War One were a fiction, sadly, such injuries were all too real:

Stage by stage, from the mud of the trenches or field to first-aid station; to overstrained field hospital; to evacuation, whether to Paris, or, by way of a lurching passage across the Channel, to England, the wounded men were carried, jolted, shuffled and left unattended in long drafty corridors before coming to rest under the care of surgeons. Multiple operations inevitably followed. "He lay with his profile to me," wrote Enid Bagnold, a volunteer nurse (and later the author of National Velvet), of a badly wounded patient. "Only he has no profile, as we know a man's. Like an ape, he has only his bumpy forehead and his protruding lips—the nose, the left eye, gone."

...Today, the only images of these men in their masks come from black-and-white photographs which, with their forgiving lack of color and movement, make it impossible to judge the masks's true effect. Static, set for all time in a single expression modeled on what was often a single prewar photograph, the masks were at once lifelike and lifeless: Gillies reports how the children of one mask-wearing veteran fled in terror at the sight of their father's expressionless face. Nor were the masks able to restore lost functions of the face, such as the ability to chew or swallow.  

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