Pen and pictures no. 5 – John Buchan

For the next in our series of literary figures who became involved in their various ways with silent films, we turn to John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir (1875-1940). Assorted films and television programmes have of course been made of Buchan’s popular novels, in particular The Thirty-Nine Steps, but it is not the adaptation of Buchan’s work that interest us here (almost all of which come after the silent era), but rather his probably unique contribution to film production – unique, that is, for a novelist. For during the First World War Buchan served as the head of the Department of Information, with responsibility for British propaganda, and consequently was the person ultimately responsible, at least for a time, for British official films of the war.

Though these things are partly a question of much contested definition, it is generally held that the arts of state propaganda, through use of the mass media, were established during the First World War, and that the British were the masters of those arts. Certainly the British were quick off the mark, seting up the covert War Propaganda Bureau under MP Charles Masterman within days of the outbreak of war. One of Masterman’s first acts was to invite a number of Britain’s leading authors to Wellington House (the Bureau’s London headquarters) to discuss how they could use their arts secretly (i.e. without anyone knowing that they were being guided by the government) to promote British interests. Those invited to the meeting on 2 September 1914 included Thomas Hardy, Arnold Bennett, G.K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling (who was unable to attend), H.G. Wells, John Galsworthy and J.M. Barrie.

The War Propaganda Bureau wanted to use the literary intelligensia for all the influence on hearts and minds that they could command, but Masterman was also interested in using film to target other audiences, and commissioned Charles Urban to produce a documentary feature, Britain Prepared (1915), which was exhibited around the world.

John Buchan was not yet of sufficient literary eminence to be named among Masterman’s greats, but he had political experience, having served as private secretary to Alfred Milner, the High Commissioner for South Africa. His African adventure novel, Prester John (1910), enjoyed great popularity, and The Thirty Nine Steps in 1915 made him famous. Buchan was increasingly courted by the British authorities, leading delegations and delivering lectures on behalf of the Foreign Office and the War Office. Meanwhile, the somewhat elitist approach of the War Propaganda Bureau was coming under increasing internal criticism (the public knew nothing of its existence). Buchan’s former mentor recommended Buchan to the new Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and after Buchan had written a memorandum on propaganda for the cabinet in January 1917, a new Department of Information (DOI) was set up, with Buchan as its head.

British propaganda policy had originally targeted neutral nations, particularly America, with the hope that America might join Britain as combatant. Not long after Buchan took over, America did indeed join the war, but the need for a propaganda policy was felt all the more, now to persuade America of Britain’s contribution to the fighting, while seeking to keep a war-weary home audience convinced of the necessity of the struggle. Film had become an increasingly important aspect of this work, particularly as the emphasis shifted from convincing influential elites to persuading the masses.

Buchan was therefore in charge when an official newsreel was established, the War Office Official Topical Budget, a wide variety of actuality, documentary and instructional films were produced and distributed around the world (including the feature-length documentaries The Battle of the Ancre and The Battle of Arras), and production started on the fiction epic Hearts of the World, directed by D.W. Griffith. This was bold and committed policy, a world away from the general suspicion – if not contempt – that most of those in authority felt towards film (and its lowly audiences) at the start of the war. However, the DOI Cinematograph department battled throughout 1917 with the War Office Cinematograph Committee (WOCC), which produced most of the films, for overall control. The WOCC was run by Max Aitken, soon to be Lord Beaverbrook, who ultimately had greater political clout than Buchan. He took charge of British propaganda when he became head of a new Ministry of Information early in 1918, for the first time unifying the various conflicting strands of British war information policy (including film). Buchan became Director of Intelligence under him.

Buchan therefore had a strategic eye over film as a part of propaganda policy in 1917, but Beaverbrook (later to be a notorious newspaper magnate) was closer to the actual production of films, and ultimately did more with them. Nevertheless Buchan recognised the necessity and the potential effectiveness of film as a medium of persuasion. But, like most of his class, he found the medium had its ridiculous side. This sense of the absurd comes out in the Richard Hannay novel (Hannay is the hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps) that Buchan published in 1919, Mr Standfast.

In the novel, Hannay is being pursued and is running across Yorkshire moorlands when he stumbles across a peculiar scene, which gives us some insight into Buchan’s view of the industry with which he had to tangle:

Suddenly from just in front of me came a familiar sound. It was the roar of guns – the slam of field-batteries and the boom of small howitzers. I wondered if I had gone off my head. As I plodded on the rattle of machine-guns was added, and over the ridge before me I saw the dust and fumes of bursting shells. I concluded that I was not mad, and that therefore the Germans must have landed. I crawled up the last slope, quite forgetting the pursuit behind me.

And then I’m blessed if I did not look down on a veritable battle.

There were two sets of trenches with barbed wire and all the fixings, one set filled with troops and the other empty. On these latter shells were bursting, but there was no sign of life in them. In the other lines there seemed the better part of two brigades, and the first trench was stiff with bayonets. My first thought was that Home Forces had gone dotty, for this kind of show could have no sort of training value. And then I saw other things – cameras and camera-men on platforms on the flanks, and men with megaphones behind them on wooden scaffoldings. One of the megaphones was going full blast all the time.

I saw the meaning of the performance at last. Some movie-merchant had got a graft with the Government, and troops had been turned out to make a war film. It occurred to me that if I were mixed up in that push I might get the cover I was looking for. I scurried down the hill to the nearest camera-man.

As I ran, the first wave of troops went over the top. They did it uncommon well, for they entered into the spirit of the thing, and went over with grim faces and that slow, purposeful lope that I had seen in my own fellows at Arras. Smoke grenades burst among them, and now and then some resourceful mountebank would roll over. Altogether it was about the best show I have ever seen. The cameras clicked, the guns banged, a background of boy scouts applauded, and the dust rose in billows to the sky.

But all the same something was wrong. I could imagine that this kind of business took a good deal of planning from the point of view of the movie-merchant, for his purpose was not the same as that of the officer in command. You know how a photographer finicks about and is dissatisfied with a pose that seems all right to his sitter. I should have thought the spectacle enough to get any cinema audience off their feet, but the man on the scaffolding near me judged differently. He made his megaphone like the swan-song of a dying buffalo. He wanted to change something and didn’t know how to do it. He hopped on one leg; he took the megaphone from his mouth to curse; he waved it like a banner and yelled at some opposite number on the other flank. And then his patience forsook him and he skipped down the ladder, dropping his megaphone, past the camera-men, on to the battlefield.

That was his undoing. He got in the way of the second wave and was swallowed up like a leaf in a torrent. For a moment I saw a red face and a loud-checked suit, and the rest was silence. He was carried on over the hill, or rolled into an enemy trench, but anyhow he was lost to my ken.

I bagged his megaphone and hopped up the steps to the platform. At last I saw a chance of first-class cover, for with Archie’s coat and cap I made a very good appearance as a movie-merchant. Two waves had gone over the top, and the cinema-men, working like beavers, had filmed the lot. But there was still a fair amount of troops to play with, and I determined to tangle up that outfit so that the fellows who were after me would have better things to think about.

My advantage was that I knew how to command men. I could see that my opposite number with the megaphone was helpless, for the mistake which had swept my man into a shell-hole had reduced him to impotence. The troops seemed to be mainly in charge of N.C.O.s (I could imagine that the officers would try to shirk this business), and an N.C.O. is the most literal creature on earth. So with my megaphone I proceeded to change the battle order.

I brought up the third wave to the front trenches. In about three minutes the men had recognized the professional touch and were moving smartly to my orders. They thought it was part of the show, and the obedient cameras clicked at everything that came into their orbit. My aim was to deploy the troops on too narrow a front so that they were bound to fan outward, and I had to be quick about it, for I didn’t know when the hapless movie-merchant might be retrieved from the battle-field and dispute my authority.

It takes a long time to straighten a thing out, but it does not take long to tangle it, especially when the thing is so delicate as disciplined troops. In about eight minutes I had produced chaos. The flanks spread out, in spite of all the shepherding of the N.C.O.s, and the fringe engulfed the photographers. The cameras on their platforms went down like ninepins. It was solemn to see the startled face of a photographer, taken unawares, supplicating the purposeful infantry, before he was swept off his feet into speechlessness.

It was no place for me to linger in, so I chucked away the megaphone and got mixed up with the tail of the third wave. I was swept on and came to anchor in the enemy trenches, where I found, as I expected, my profane and breathless predecessor, the movie-merchant. I had nothing to say to him, so I stuck to the trench till it ended against the slope of the hill.

It is gentle mockery, and there’s a degree of sympathy for the filmmaking process, in that Hannay thinks that the scenes will impress their target audience, but also a touch of naivety in how he believes the director could so easily lose control of his own film. Was Buchan thinking of any director in particular? Griffith hardly seems to be the target, but maybe there is an element of Herbert Brenon, who late in 1917 (during Buchan’s time with the DOI) began filming another officially-backed but ill-fated feature-length fiction film, which was to have been called Victory and Peace (it was unfinished at the end of the war and was never exhibited). It was filmed in Chester with British troops used to portray Germans (the scenario was provided by Hall Caine, a once famous and now unreadable author, who was one of those invited to Masterman’s meeting on 2 September 1914). But I doubt that Brenon ever wore a loud-checked suit.

Buchan had some connection with the film business after the war, joining the board of British Instructional Films in 1925, and contributing to the script of one of the company’s acclaimed semi-documentary recreations of events from the war, The Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927), directed by Walter Summers. His novel Huntingtower was filmed by George Pearson in 1928 (Prester John had been filmed in South Africa by African Film Productions in 1920).

Buchan could be argued to have had the greatest influence over film production of any author during the silent era, albeit for a year only. His political role in overseeing British official film production as an integral part of British propaganda policy had little connection with his fiction, but he treated the medium with greater respect than the comedy of the Mr Standfast scene might suggest. Nevertheless, the passage shows how Buchan intellectually remained at a remove from this popular, peculiar new medium, and it was Beaverbrook who showed the greater instinctive feeling for film, its audiences, and for the political arts of propaganda in general.

2 responses

  1. One of the personalities working under first Buchan, and then Beaverbrook, was Adrian Brunel; he writes of his time (in fairly vague terms but with his facility for namedroping) in his autobiography, Nice Work, pp39-45. He claims for himself the invention of the Film Tag, one-two minute PIF’s , the ancestor of the WW2 Food Flashes, as opposed to the more ornate (and wonderful) Henry Edwards/Chrissie White informational shorts…..but with Brunel, you can never be entirely sure.

  2. Indeed, with Brunel you never can be sure. I’d forgotten that he mentions working with Buchan – my feeling is that he would have had little contact with Buchan, and in any case seems to have joined late in 1917 when Buchan’s time at the head of the DOI was coming to an end. But he was involved in the production of the Film Tag public information films of 1918, which Cecil Hepworth directed (Hepworth also directed Food Flashes during World War II – appears in some of them too, as an elderly grocer). Brunel exaggerates his importance, and he’s a dreadful namedropper as you say, but he was there, and he is in all instances an observant witness.

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