Filming war, changing war

The Warwick Trading Company’s Joseph Rosenthal, with his Bioscope camera, at the time of the Anglo-Boer War

The latest addition to the Bioscope Library is a dissertation whose publication online is the most considerable, and perhaps the most significant, work yet from one of most important – though overlooked – writers on early cinema. Dr Stephen Bottomore’s dissertation Filming, faking and propaganda: The origins of the war film, 1897-1902 (2007) has been published online as a PDF by the University of Utrecht. Here is the abstract, describing its theme and intent:

In this thesis I present the first detailed treatment of war and early cinema, describing the representation of conflicts in film from the Greco-Turkish War of 1897 through the Spanish-American War, Boer War, and others up to about 1902. I show that in attempting to cover these events, early filmmakers faced a difficult task, for warfare at the end of the nineteenth century was changing, relying more on defence and concealment and less on highly visible offensives; there was also increasing regulation and censorship of reporting. With the new tactics making battle less visible, and with increasing official controls, how could wars be represented on film? Surprisingly, in just half a decade, filmmakers found ways to cope, by developing new ‘genres’ of films such as acted fakes, and new exhibition strategies, and in these ways managed to present wars to the public of the time fairly effectively.

This is a prodigious work. It runs to 565 pages, reaching to almost 300,000 words, suggesting that the University of Utrecht is fairly relaxed when it comes to word limits. Histories of the rise and fall of major civilizations have been written using fewer words, and Bottomore’s subject is not simply filming war, but restricts itself to only the very first films of war, and then only up to 1902, not daring to contemplate tackling the later Russo-Japanese War, Balkan Wars or the First World War. Instead what might have been a mere footnote in other histories expands into a major study of the impact of a new medium at a time when warfare itself was changing. It is a triumphant assertion of the footnote as the stuff of empirical history.

Indeed there are an amazing 1,804 footnotes, many of them not simply bibliographic citations but instead an overflowing of ideas with indications of avenues of great interest down which others might profitably travel. The sheer breadth of the references is awe-inspiring. Bottomore is an internationalist, whose work as a researcher and filmmaker has taken him to many countries, each of whose archives and libraries he has scoured and scoured again, putting to shame all of us who might think that a few trips to the British Library or the Library of Congress count as exhaustive research.

So, does the theme match the endeavour? Bottomore is interested in getting to the truth of how and why the first films of war were produced, and through this to demonstrate the richness of the early cinema period as a subject for study. At the time when motion pictures arrived and started to find their way in the world, the age of empires was coming to an end, with a host of conflicts that each in their way pointed to the great conflagration that was to be the First World War. Bottomore covers the Greco-Turkish War (1897), the Battle of Omdurman (1898), the Spanish American War (1898), the Philippine War (1899-1902), the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), and the Boxer Rebellion (1900). None of these was documented on film in the way that we might now expect. The technology was too limited – short film length, limited lenses, immobile cameras etc. – military censorship limited what could be filmed, audience expectations and sensitivies provided further constraints, as did the plain economic considerations of production in lands often far from the homes of film production in Europe and America.

Bottomore usefully defines the different types of early war film, showing how filmmakers adopted different strategies for documenting conflict – strategies which to a large extent exist still, even if moving image technologies have moved on vastly since 1897-1902. He identifies two main types of films: actuality and staged, then subdivides them as follows (paraphrased from pp. xxvi-xxvii):

A. Actuality war film: a film of real people and events, shot at an actual war-related location, i.e. a non-fiction recording of reality (not with actors, nor filmed in substitute locations nor a studio).

  • 1) Conflict-zone actuality: a film shot in the conflict zone showing military activity.
  • 2) Arranged actuality: a film shot in the conflict zone with genuine troops, but in which the action has been ‘set-up’ to be filmed.
  • 3) War-related actuality: a film which, while not shot in the conflict zone at the time of war, is somehow related to the war and shows military activity.

B. Staged war film: a film about the conflict, shot with actors or scale-models away from the war zone.

  • 1) Fake war film: a staged film which re-enacts an incident or event from the current conflict, and was not made at the real location nor with the real participants.
  • 2) Staged allegorical war film: this type, rather than reproducing specific military incidents, portrays wider allegorical or emblematic themes.
  • 3) Dramatised film about the conflict: a film made during or soon after the conflict which is more elaborate than a mere re-enacted battlefield incident.

There are qualifications and sub-classifications that Bottomore adds to this taxonomy, but the essential categories are useful enough. The early cinema approached the documenting of conflict in different ways, variously determined by technology, taste, opportunity, prior example (including ‘pre-cinema’ image technology such as the magic lantern), economics and censorship. One does not simply film war – one makes a significant choice in how the war should be filmed, and how such films should be shown. Audience understanding of what it was being shown – in particular the issue of so-called ‘fake’ films which recreated war scenes away from the battlefield in a form that would appeal to audience expectations of what should look like – therefore becomes crucial to understanding what these first war films were.

The difference between war imagined and war in reality is key to the argument. Motion pictures arrived at a point when war itself was changing. The era of hand-to-hand combat and romantic cavalry charges was over. Long-range artillery meant that opposing armies were positioned further apart and often the one side could not even see the other. Battlefields expanded, and the long-range rifle and the sniper took over from the close fighting which was many people’s picture of how war was fought. Camouflage and the use of smokeless powder further conpsired to make war less visible. Bottomore quotes Fredric Villers, war correspondent and the first person to attempt to document a war as film actuality (for the Greco-Turkish War in 1897), who was further disillusioned by the change in war’s display:

… there was no blare of bugals [sic] or roll of drums; no display of flags or of martial music of any sort… It was most uncanny to me after my previous experiences of war in which massed bands cheered the flagging spirits of the attackers and bugals rang out their orders through the day. All had changed in this modern warfare: it seemed to me a very cold-blooded, uninspiring way of fighting, and I was mightily depressed for many weeks till I had grown accustomed to the change.

On top of all this, increased regulation and censorship controlling the movement of reporters from a military which distrusted the media and sought to control the flow of information (including visual) about its activities, added further limits what could be filmed.

Georges Méliès’ Combat Naval en Grèce (1897), a dramatised incident from the Greco-Turkish War

A war where there was little to see was quite a challenge for motion pictures, still more when there was such audience thirst to see something exciting. Small wonder that producers turned to dramatisation (Villiers found that his limited records of the Greco-Turkish conflict lost out in audience favour to the dramatisations of the same war produced by Georges Méliès), collaboration with the military (filmmakers such as W.K-L. Dickson and Joseph Rosenthal staged ‘actualities’ with the co-operation of British forces during the Anglo-Boer War), and downright fakery (Edward Amet’s use of models to depict naval battles from the Spanish-American War).

In these initial strategies and their outcomes we can see themes that have remained constant throughout the filming of war. What do we ever see of war? It is omnipresent on our television screens, but the stuff of war itself we seldom see. We see its build up, and some of its effects, but not the heart of war. No matter how much it may try, the camera cannot replace the gun. Instead we have talking heads, embedded reporters, incidents created for the purposes of propaganda, incidents reported but not shown, scenes selected, withheld or distorted. We may thrill at footage where a reporter seems to be in the thick of fighting, but they are caught at just one point, whereas the truth of war – if such a thing lies somewhere – lies at many points, reflecting multiple perspectives. As D.W. Griffith said of the impossibility of filming the First World War:

It is too colossal to be dramatic. No one can describe it. You might as well try to describe the ocean or the milky way. A very great writer could describe Waterloo. But who could describe the advance of Haig? No one saw it. No one saw a thousandth part of it.

Instead we often require drama to explain the actuality. Selectivity and creativity (and personable actors) bring across to audiences the lessons of war, transmuting its huge complexities into something that we can understand, something that entertains us. From which have we learned most about the wars of today – the television news, or Three Kings, Battle for Haditha and The Hurt Locker? It all depends on what you are looking for. Film can never be an open window on war’s reality. Instead it is a narrow and distorting mirror, and it is the job for us as the audience to understand that distortion.

But has film changed war? Bottomore references Paul Virilo’s argument, in War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, that the evolution of war over the twentieth century has been bound up with a change in human perception, itself profoundly linked to developments in photographic and cinematic technique. How war is seen impacts on what war is. This then begs the question what exactly war is. Are we still looking for hand-to-hand combat and those romantic cavalry charges? Is that really war? Or does the real fighting take place across desks, terminals, screens, and offices? The propaganda war is as powerful as the war itself, as we all know now. And that, ultimately, is what film has shown us. The real fighting has gone on elsewhere, and from 1897 all the way to 2012, the cinematic image has probably had no influence on that at all.

W.K-L. Dickson (centre) with Biograph camera and crew in South Africa in 1900 during the Anglo-Boer War, from Filming, Faking and Propaganda

Stephen Bottomore is a prodigious collector of information on early film from primary sources, but he is interested in ideas as well. He has read the theoriticans, and understands their work well enough to position early cinema within a broader world of ideas, while regularly expressing his disappointment at conclusions drawn by thinkers who have insufficiently examined the primary evidence. And it is the primary evidence to which he will always return: the quotation, the newspaper reference, the contemporary illustration, the catalogue – anything and everything that points not so much to the actuality of war as to the actuality of the films themselves. These films were made once; now we must understand them. That’s the simple message.

Will Filming, faking and propaganda contribute to ideas on how we understand war and how we understand the moving image? Bottomore’s ultimate goal is to champion early cinema in all its rich variousness, and this limitation, together with the work’s immense length, may restrict its influence. But its impeccable research and its appreciation of socio-political contexts will pay off in the long term. This is a work on which it will become essential to rely from now on. One hopes, of course, that it will make it into hard-copy format eventually, though it will have to be greatly reduced if that happens. In this form, at least, Bottomore’s work is uncontrained by the harsh demands of an editor.

Bottomore’s published books include I Want to See This Annie Mattygraph: Cartoon History of the Coming of the Movies (1995), an innovative study of early film through the cartoons of the period; and The Titanic and Silent Cinema (2000), a work much cited this year and increasingly admired (by Titanic-ists). His most influential work has been in articles, however, including ‘Shots in the Dark: The Real Origins of Film Editing’ (1988), ‘Out of This World: Theory, Fact and Film History’ (1994), ‘The Collection of Rubbish.’Animatographs, Archives and Arguments: London, 1896-97′ and most notably ‘The Panicking Audience?: Early Cinema and the ‘Train Effect’ (1999), on how people reacted to the first films. A collection of Bottomore’s best pieces would be most welcome, if some enterprising publisher were to take it on. It would certainly help cement the non-fiction film not just in early cinema studies but among the wider audience of historians working on this period who need a better understanding of just what film means to those times.

Bottomore was one of the founders of Domitor, the international body for the study of early cinema, and has been a frequent editor of Film History. Unlike most film writers he has a strong background in filmmaking (North South Productions, producers of many documentaries on environmental and development issues). He has been everywhere, his passion for the subject undimmed. Now we have his magnum opus. Do download it, and read it.

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