Images of a forgotten war

Images of a Forgotten War is a site hosted by the National Film Board of Canada. The forgotten war in question is the First World War, which you might be forgiven for thinking is not quite as forgotten as some conflicts, but the theme here is in particular the history of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, whose key role in the conflict might not be so well known. The site seeks to redress the failings of collective memory through contemporary, non-fiction motion pictures.

The site comprises some 120 archival films (many of them from the Imperial War Museum), accompanied by photographs, historical essays, and teaching materials. A lot of attention has gone into creating an elegant, properly commemorative site. The films are arranged in five categories: Prologue, Building a Force (subdivided into Mobilization and Training), Wartime (subdivided into Support, Battles, Aviation and Behind the Lines), Postwar Period (subdivided into After the Armistice and Return to Canada), and Epilogue. Those divisions and subdivision may indicate that the site is a little on the elaborate side, and indeed it encourages patience in uncovering the histories it has to tell. Of course you can dip in, but you’ll miss much.

The films are in Flash, up to ten minutes or so long, with longer films are broken up into sections. There are small and full screen options, and each film comes with title, date, running time, production company and synopsis. It concerns me greatly that all titles and intertitles have been replaced by the same words (presumably) in a modern font. This is mistrustful of the medium. One cannot judge accurately the provenance of the films, a matter exacerbated by a failure to indicate which are actual release titles and which supplied titles – because these films are a mixture of commercial releases and archive/library material. In general, the site is not interested in film as film, but in film as a window on the past, and it is noticeable that the accompanying essays have little to say about film (one unfortunately chooses to tell us that “The first feature of a Great War-era movie to strike the modern viewer is the jerkiness of people’s movements, which stems from the low number of frames per second of the film of that time” – how could such a hoary myth be allowed get past?).

The Battle of Arras (1918), from Images of a Forgotten War

That said, there is a fabulous range of films here, all of it freely available, and most it not to be found elsewhere. It concentrates on the Canadian Expeditionary Force, but there is much film of general interest. The Canadian War Records Office, headed in Britain by Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook) was in the forefront of using film for state information and propaganda, and directly influenced the creation in Britain of the War Office Cinematograph Committee and ultimately the use of film by the Ministry of Information (formed in 1918 and headed by Beaverbrook). These films were produced by official cameramen working under military censorship – propaganda, therefore, but a modest propaganda by latter standards, and one which emphasised the plain ‘objective’ truth of the photographic record to show things as they were.

The films feature classic imagery of the war – not film of fighting as such, but recruitment, trenches, craters, ruined buildings and landscapes, troops on the march and behind the lines, gunfire, explosions, and mud, mud, mud. It is a rich lesson in the methods used to portray actuality in wartime through the film medium of the time. Among the key titles are Sons of the Empire, The Battle of Arras (in thirteen parts), With the Royal Flying Corps and The Royal Visit to the Battlefields of France June 1917. All are shown silent – and (contrary to that essay’s pronouncement) run at the correct speed.

As said, there are photographs, historical essays (focussing on the Canadian experience of the war), ‘other materials’ (diary extracts, letters, book extracts etc.) and teaching materials. The best place to start is the Search option, where you will find all the titles listed, and the option to search across all resources, or narrow down a search by films (i.e. searching across the catalogue data), the essays, visuals, other materials or teaching materials. The Display All option gives you a list of all resources under any one category, and reveals just how much lurks deep within this impressive site. Despite some qualms about the the treatment of the films, and the understanding of film history, this is a most impressive and welcome resource. Go explore.

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