July 28th marks the anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. In commemoration, blogger Liz discusses the history of the conflict on the ground and in the media. By reviewing the films in the World War I Films of the Silent Era collection, she takes an insightful look at how the war-themed films audiences would have viewed during WWI would have shaped the public consciousness and attitudes towards the war. The post originally appeared on the blog Now Voyaging: Journeys Through Life and Classic Film as part of Classic Movie History Project Blogathon and is reprinted here with permission.
The world shattered in 1914. The conflict that would become known as World War I would destroy not only a generation of men, but it would forever change how we view the world. No longer would there be a feeling that something like that could never happen, that a global war was some kind of fiction and the horrors suffered by the men who fought were mere figments of our imagination. Less known and talked about today than World War II, the First World War is a huge topic that deserves much more time and introspection than I can offer it here. But for this blogathon I wanted to take a small look at a collection of films offered by Flicker Alley, that show us a glimpse of what movie goers experienced during World War I and what affect they had on them.
Let’s start with some history. World War I officially lasted from July 28, 1914 until November 11, 1918, killing nine million military combatants and seven million civilians. The Allied forces, consisting of Great Britain, France, and Russia, were engaged against the Central Powers of Austro-Hungary and Germany. Italy, though initially allied with Germany and Austro-Hungary, did not officially join the Central Powers and eventually joined the side of the Allies along with Japan and the United States. The triggering event of World War I was the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria by Gavrilo Princip, a Yugoslavian nationalist on June 28, 1914 which began a diplomatic crisis between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.
On July 28, 1914 Austria-Hungary declared war and invaded Serbia. Germany in turn invaded Belgium and Luxembourg before moving toward France, leading to Great Britain to declare war on Germany. The so-called Western Front, a long line of trenches stretching from the North Sea all the way to the Swiss border with France, was created with the halting of the German advance on France and remained mostly unchanged for the remainder of the war. The Eastern Front saw more action as Russia stopped the advance of the Austro-Hungarian army but were defeated in their attempted invasion of East Prussia by the Germans. The Russian government collapsed in 1917 and were brought to terms with the Central Powers. This was Germany’s greatest triumph until 1918 when after a stunning Spring Offensive by Germany, the Allied forces rallied back and forced the German army to retreat in a series of successful offensives. On November 4, 1918 Austria-Hungary agreed to armistice followed a week later by Germany, thus ending the war in an Allied victory. This is an extremely brief overview of World War I and does not begin to describe the death and destruction that came about as a result. For an example, imagine the population of New York City (approximately nine million people) disappeared one day. That is the amount of soldiers, flyers, and sailors who died in World War I. Now imagine the country of Hong Kong, approximately seven million people, also disappeared from the face of the earth. That is the amount of civilians who died in World War I.
Two other pieces of information that I want you to keep in mind. The first is the sinking of the RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915. A British ocean liner, and once the world’s largest passenger ship, she was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine while making her 202nd trans-Atlantic crossing. The Germans broke Cruiser Rules by firing on a non-military ship without warning, though they cited reasons for treating the Lusitania as a naval ship such as the fact that she was carrying war munitions and that the British had also been breaking international Cruiser Rules. Germany had declared the seas around Great Britain a war zone and had even gone so far as to place an advertisement in a newspaper warning Americans not to travel aboard the great ship. On the afternoon of May 7, 1915 the Lusitania was hit by a torpedo 11 miles off the coast of Ireland. A second explosion from the inside of the ship hastened her demise and the Lusitania sank in eighteen minutes, taking with her 1,198 crew and passengers of which 128 were American. This incident added to British propaganda and also began to sway America public opinion which helped influence the decision for American to enter the war in 1917.
The second thing to keep in mind is that movies were still very new and had not yet made the impact that they would in the next twenty or thirty years. There were also no personal televisions and radios were not as common as they would become in the 1940s and 1950s. Most people got their news from papers, letters, and word of mouth. Movie theaters were beginning to gain popularity but films were not yet the three hour epics that we are used to. When audiences went to the movies they were sometimes treated to newsreels which would become their first glimpse into the action transpiring on the battlefields.
This brings me to a terrific film collection from Flicker Alley. When trying to write this post I wanted to see some of the films that audiences during World War I would have actually seen. As we noted before, the movie making industry was still very new during the First World War. In fact the films we are most familiar with that deal with World War I, i.e. GRAND ILLUSION and THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, were made at least a decade or more after the end of the war. Luckily for me, Fritzi of Movies Silently pointed me in the direction of WORLD WAR I FILMS OF THE SILENT ERA and it was exactly what I was hoping for and more. The collection presents four very different films, each presenting unique aspects of the film industry during WWI.
The first film is FIGHTING THE WAR (1916) which is the work of American adventurer Donald C. Thompson. This film was taken during the Battle of Verdun in France, during which the French army suffered great losses in their defense of the town and its surrounding forts. Thompson shows not only the great war machines and technology of the day, but also trench life, troop movements, and actual battles having set up only a few hundred feet behind the action. He was also able to film a dogfight in the air between German and British aircraft. It is worth noting that because of the emphasis on American neutrality, Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War”, most American filmmakers were not allowed on the battlefront. This did not prevent American filmmakers from making newsreel footage but it did mean that it was created rather than filmed, many European battles taking place in California and New Jersey.
THE LOG OF THE U-35 (1917) is the result of a German submarine captain’s penchant for filmmaking. The captain, Lothar von Arnold de la Perière used his own movie camera during a “cruise” in the Mediterranean while in a period of unrestricted submarine warfare. This offering is a combination of the 1919 British and the 1920 American versions of the German film THE ENCHANTED CIRCLE from 1917. We are able to see first hand the sinking of many Allied vessels, including trading convoys, as well as the surrender/negotiations of their crews. There is some truly stunning footage of ships sinking, some going slowly and quietly while others quickly go under in an explosion of smoke and flame. Interspersed between these moments are shots of the crew cleaning the guns and the submarine, and the captain crossing names off his list of ships on the register. Imagine what audiences seeing this footage must have felt, remembering the fates of the poor souls aboard the Lusitania.
Now we are going to move to America and the Committee on Public Information (CPI). After the United States decided to enter WWI, Woodrow Wilson established the CPI on April 13,1917. Prior to the United States entering the war the focus of the movie industry in America was making films and shorts that highlighted the importance of neutrality and isolationism. Films like CIVILIZATION and INTOLERANCE showed the glory that came along with the path of pacifism and neutrality. After 1917 the focus now shifted to mocking the pacifists in society, shaming the young men who refused to do their duty by joining the service. Silent stars of the day threw their considerable influence behind the selling of war bonds including such powerhouses as Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, as well as others such as Frances Marion. The CPI was created to influence American opinion about entering WWI, initially using material that was based in fact but that was spun to present a more upbeat vision of America at war. American films now began showing the glory of the American soldier and the idiocy of the foolish German, or the outright evilness of the terrible “Hun” who would go about taking milk from babies when they weren’t throwing them out of windows or raping their mothers. Another focus of films became that of the spy game, usually a German spy hidden within our midst. In 1917 director William C. deMille and producer Jesse Lasky released THE SECRET GAME, starring the smoldering Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa as a detective working alongside American soldiers to find a German spy hidden in the quartermaster’s office. The Germans are attempting to gain information about an American transport convoy in the Pacific and it is up to Detective Nara Nara (Hayakawa) to find out where the leak is coming from before it is too late. THE SECRET GAME is an interesting film not only for its WWI propaganda but also for its distinct lack of Asian stereotypes when presenting a Japanese character. While perhaps a somewhat simplified view of Japanese culture in parts it is a mostly respectable and fully realized characterization of one of our Japanese allies during WWI. The CPI termed it a “timely release”, which must have made deMille and Lasky happy as this allowed their film to be licensed for export and foreign revenue. In just eighteen months of life the CPI was able to use every available form of media to not only gain public support to fight against foreign attempts to undercut the war effort but to also boost morale of the American public and support of the American soldier.
The final offering of the collection is a 1975 documentary entitled THE MOVING PICTURE BOYS IN THE GREAT WAR. This documentary is narrated by Lowell Thomas and shows a compilation of films, including ones present on the DVD. This documentary gives a great picture of the influence of WWI on American filmmakers and the impact that the war had on the beginning of Hollywood, as well as the influence that Hollywood had on audiences. It is definitely deserving of a look and I would highly recommend watching it in the order that it is presented here. By that I mean watch all the films first before watching the documentary. Go into the experience as the audiences during WWI did, not knowing what to expect from what is about to be presented. Then watch the documentary and allow it to help place a historical context around what you have just seen.
WWI is a huge topic and one that changed the world forever. It was the first war to be fought in front of a motion picture camera and it was the first time that people in Britain, France, and America were able to see what was really happening on the battlefields so many miles away. Even the soldiers were unsure how to behave, as when you watch these films you will see that every single one of them has a moment where they look up into the camera with perhaps a smile or just a look of uncertainty.
Today we are so used to news at our finger tips, video games, TV shows, and movies depicting the horrors of battle and the terrible consequences that come as a result. These images are not so shocking to us but imagine what they must have been like for people who were not only just getting used to seeing moving pictures but who now had to try to understand why the whole world went mad from 1914-1918.
Liz has loved classic movies since she was a little girl watching Buster Keaton with her Dad. She hopes to share her passion for classic films with fans old and new, as well as her son and her husband (when she can convince him to join her). She blogs about movies at her blog, Now Voyaging, and tweets about them to! You can follow her @elizarbreath.
World War I Films of the Silent Era is now available on Manufactured-On-Demand (MOD) DVD from Flicker Alley.