The Biograph in Battle


A few weeks ago, we reported on the marvellous book digitisation project by the Cinémathèque française, the Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma, and said that we would return to the collection to describe some of the highlights (and put them in the Bioscope Library). So we start with one of the truly notable publications of the early cinema period, W.K-L. Dickson’s The Biograph in Battle: Its Story in the South African War (1901). This is both the first account in book form by a motion picture operator describing his work, and the first book about the filming of war. Its subject is the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, often described as the first media war, because film cameras were there to record it.

William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson had already earned his place in motion picture history by being the man who effectively invented motion picture films, when he worked as an engineer in the Edison labs 1883-1895. Dickson left Edison to join the KMCD Syndicate, formed to exploit a 70mm film system used both for screen projection (the Biograph) and for exhibition on a flick-card peepshow (the Mutoscope). The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, as they became, was the major American rival to Edison in the 1890s, and it pushed its product abroad in an ambitious campaign of proto-motion picture globalization which included the formation of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Dickson went over to his homeland in 1897 to serve as chief camera operator, filming news and travel subjects in the main. The most notable adventure he undertook while with Biograph was to film the Anglo-Boer War.

The Anglo-Boer War (more popularly known as the Boer War) was, like most wars, unclear and unnecessary. It was fought between Britain (specifically the forces of the British Empire) and the two independent Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, in southern Africa. The immediate cause of the conflict was the refusal by the Boers (Afrikaners) to grant political rights to a British immigrant workforce, known as Uitlanders, but the real impetus was British imperial ambitions and South African gold and diamonds. The Boers invaded the British colony of Natal on 11 October 1899, and Britain launched an invasion force under Sir Redvers Buller. This force met with several embarassing reverses, and Buller was replaced by Lord Roberts, who took Pretoria on 5 June 1900. Many felt the war was over by this point, but instead it turned into a guerilla campaign for the next two years, characterised by some brutal tactics and the British use of concentration camps to imprison Boer civilians, until victory was gained by Lord Kitchener in May 1902.

The war occured at just the point where the young film industry had the resources, and the eager audience, to make covering the war a most welcome opportunity. Four British companies sent cameramen to the Transvaal: Biograph (Dickson), Paul’s Animatograph Works (Walter Calverley Beevor and Sydney [?] Melsom), the Warwick Trading Company (Joseph Rosenthal, Edgar Hyman, John Benett-Stanford and Sydney Goldman) and Gibbons’ Bio-Tableaux (C. Rider Noble). Goldman and Noble are believed to have filmed the latter stages of the war (post-June 1900), for which no film survivies today. The others filmed the war in its first dramatic months. Other companies, notably Edison, Pathé and Norden Films (Mitchell & Kenyon) fed an audience thirst for images of the war by dramatising heroic actions, but what audiences most wanted to see was war’s actuality.


Dickson’s Mutograph camera at Chieveley filming a naval gun battery. Note the bicycle wheel which drove a suction pump that flattened the unperforated film against the aperture plate. From The Biograph in Battle.

Dickson sailed from Southampton on Buller’s ship the Dunottar Castle on 14 October 1899, accompanied by two assistants William Cox and Jonathan Seward, and equipped with a Mutograph camera. He also wrote a diary, originally for newspaper serialisation (Pearson’s Illustrated War News), and then for publication in book form, illustrated with many images from the films that he and his team took between October and June the following year. He started filming immediately upon arrival in Cape Town on 30 October. He travelled to the combat area in late November, and was present at the battles of Colenso (15 December 1899) and Spion Kop (24 January 1900).

It is not difficult to imagine the trials of trying to film a war with camera equipment that literally weighed a tonne. Aside from the bulky Mutograph itself, the tripod weighed 100 pounds, the four boxes of batteries needed to drive its electric motor weighed 1,200 pounds, and the whole caboodle had to be carried around in a Cape cart pulled by two horses. It was equipment hardly designed for the agile filming of war’s actuality, and it made Dickson a less than welcome presence among the troops because the camera made such a good target. Dickson describes some of the problems he operated under:

Getting back to a safer position, we watched the valiant attack of our men as they gradually pushed on. Had we a light camera these movements could have been secured, and many others of a valuable nature, but the enormous bulk of our apparatus which had to be dragged about in a Cape cart with two horses, prevented our getting to the spot. The difficulties were aggravated by the absence of roads, while the huge gullies we had to cross and the enormous boulders we had to get over made the enterprise almost impractical.

It is important to be aware of the limitations Dickson laboured under. He could not go about filming war in the raw. He was constricted by the technology, army officialdom and his independent status. Though not subject to official censorship as he was not a newspaper journalist, his movements were always under the eye of one officer or another, yet because he was not sanctioned by the War Office he could not benefit from army supplies and had considerable battles simply fending for himself and his team. His films are composed documents which record places and activities rather than the heat of battle. Indeed, owing to the range of the Mauser rifles employed by the Boer, the two armies seldom saw much of one another except for occasional assaults or mad cavalry charges. No film was going to get taken showing the fighting itself (Dickson experimented with telephoto lenses but had little success). So we see troops marching, bridges being repaired, signalmen at work, big guns firing, cavalry at the gallop, encampments. The films document the everyday, while at the same time documenting the step-by-step progress of Buller’s army as it progressed from optimism to disaster in its quest to relieve the besieged town of Ladysmith.


The Battle of Spion Kop, a frame still from The Biograph in Battle.

The Biograph in Battle records Dickson’s experiences on a day-by-day basis, particular attention given to films with which audiences were to become familiar back in Britain, where the latest motion pictures dispatches were avidly followed in the music halls and variety theatres. Most notable of these was Battle of Spion Kop: Ambulance Corps Crossing the Tugela River. This remarkable film records the retreat of British troops following the disastrous assault on the heights of Spion Kop, the culmination of Buller’s ill-fated campaign. Dickson’s film (which exists as three separate shots from the same position,one taken with telephoto lens, in the copy held by the BFI National Archive) shows an ambulance train aspart of a long line of troops passing down a winding path, while in the forground troops in an entrenchment give a palpable sense of conflict which some of these 1890s war actualities lack. Dickson describes the filming thus:

We were not long in following with our Cape cart, and after several hours’ severe work for horse and man succeeded in getting a good picture of the Ambulance Corps crossing the Tugela River over a hurriedly spanned pontoon bridge. In the immediate foreground may be seen trenches filled with our men to guard against any sudden attack should the wounded be fired on by the enemy. A little below the Tugela wends its way through great boulders and a rocky bed, over which our sick and wounded must be driven as they make their way down the opposite side across the pontoon bridge and up the embankment where we now are, the worse cases being carried by innumerable volunteer stretcher-bearers, mostly coolies. On the other side, as far as the eye can reach the Red Cross ambulances are seen waiting their turn to make their perilous descent, nearly all of them having been previously emptied of their worst cases of wounded for fear of an upset, the patients being carried over and replaced after arriving at the other side, when comparatively on safe ground. The picture has an additional value that in the background is part of the battlefield where Warren’s men fought so gallantly as they advanced towards and up Spion Kop to the right.

If only Dickson’s lens had been sharper or the film longer than a minute. Somewhere in that scene was a journalist on the cusp of fame, Winston Churchill, and serving as a stretcher-bearer was the future Mahatma Gandhi.

Following the debacle of Spion Kop, the British army withdrew, regrouped, took Colenso, finally crossed the Tugela river, and raised the siege at Ladysmith, Buller making his formal entrance on 3 March. Dickson had had to deal with both of his assistants falling ill during this period, taking them to a sanatorium in Durban, but with a new assistant (name unknown) he was back in time to record the entry into Ladysmith, arriving in the town ahead of Buller himself. Dickson was exhausted by this time, and having journeyed back to Durban he succumbed to a fever. By mid-April he and his original crew had recovered, but filming priorities had changed with the uncertain progress of the war. Dickson’s next major film would be the annexation of Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, which surrended to Lord Roberts on 13 March. The annexation ceremonies took place on 28 May, after which Dickson travelled on to film Roberts’ capture of Pretoria on 5 June. Both films represented the moment of triumph by the raising of a flag in the town square, though Dickson’s film of the latter was a cheeky restaging (he had arrived too late to record the actual event), featuring a larger flag than had been used in the ceremony. This piece of deception was spotted at the time by local audiences and came in for much criticism.


At this point, many believed the war to be over. Dickson (left) and his London employers certainly did so, and he left Cape Town for Southampton on 18 July 1900. His films had been a regular feature at the Palace Theatre (the London showcase for Biograph films) and at theatres around the world equipped for Biograph films. The films generally took three to four weeks to get back to Britain, and did so on such a regular basis that audiences could follow his reportage as a form of news, albeit delayed news. Although attempts had been made to film earlier conflicts (Frederic Villiers was present with a cine camera during the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, John Benett-Stanford filmed at Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898, and Billy Bitzer and Arthur Marvin filmed scenes during the Spanish-American War of 1898 for American Biograph), the films of Dickson and his fellow Anglo-Boer war cameramen – none of whom he mentions in his text, incidentally – were the first successful motion picture records of a war from the battlefront, and the picture that they gave to audiences back at home altered forever what was expected of the motion picture camera, and what audiences could demand to see on their screens.

The Biograph in Battle is an enjoyable, informative read, full of character and sharp-eyed observation. Some of the attitudes expressed, particularly towards the native population, are unfortunately characteristic of their time, but overall this is a remarkably detailed account from the earliest years of motion pictures. In 1894 Dickson had been filming fleeting variety acts for the Edison Kinetoscope peepshow; it is evidence of how rapidly the medium developed in scope and ambition that it could, just five years later, take on the documenting of a war and, incidentally, the demise of an Imperial dream.

There is a catalogue of Anglo-Boer War films held by the BFI National Film Archive, which lists most of the extant films of Dickson and his rivals, which I compiled many moons ago.

The Biograph in Battle is very rare (and very expensive) in its original form. A facsimile publication was produced by Flicks Books in 1995, with a new introduction by Richard Brown. This is now out of print but can be found second-hand. The PDF copy on the Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma (49MB in size) comes from the Will Day collection and is inscribed to collector and historian Day by Dickson himself.

The is a new biography of Dickson by Paul Spehr, which covers the Anglo-Boer War period in detail: The Man Who Made Movies: W.K-L. Dickson. Spehr will be giving an illustrated talk on Dickson and film at the Barbican in London on 5 June, and again at the BFI Southbank on 10 June.

(There are no examples of Dickson’s war films online that I can find, except included in television programmes which have been uploaded without the broadcaster’s permission)



Every film is an archive. The actuality to which it is witness is embedded in every frame. All we need is are the eyes to see it and the intelligence to express it. A model example that will hopefully become an inspiration to others is Alastair H. Fraser, Andrew Robertshaw and Steve Roberts’ Ghosts on the Somme, an archaeological study of the 1916 documentary The Battle of the Somme. It is as revelatory a piece of film scholarship as you are likely to find, and this has been achieved by the simple expedient of experts from another field examining the film with the same methodological principles as they would apply to any other historial artefact.

The story behind The Battle of the Somme was covered by a recent post on The Bioscope, coinciding with its release on DVD in a digital restoration by the Imperial War Museum with both original score and new orchestral score from Laura Rossi. In short, it is a feature-length documentary recording the build up to the opening day (1 July 1916) of the Battle of the Somme, the day itself, and its immediate aftermath (all from the British perspective).It was produced by the British Topical Committee for War Films, a film trade body working at the behest of the War Office. The two cameramen were Geoffrey Malins and J.B. McDowell.

Most histories which discuss the film have chiefly considered its production and reception. The authors of Ghosts on the Somme, all military historians, have instead viewed the film itself as a piece of hisorical evidence, examining it frame by frame (in some cases literally so) to determine precisely what it shows. There has long been controversy over the authenticity of parts of The Battle of the Somme. One of the book’s major accomplishments is to confirm that the greater part of the film is quite genuine – indeed, that some scenes previously believed to be faked, or rather shot away from the front line, are not so.

In analysing the film, the authors considered seven major elements of evidence:

  • The film itself, and not just for its photographic evidence – a lip reader helped identify some conversations;
  • The Imperial War Museum’s collection of stills, many of them taken by Ernest ‘Baby’ Brooks, who worked alongside Malins (though the captions are frequently inaccurate);
  • Malins’ autobiographical book How I Filmed the War, a somewhat boastful account whose evidence needs treating with care;
  • A ‘tie-in’ book, Sir Douglas Haig’s Great Push:The Battle of the Somme (1916/17) which has photographs taken from the original film, including sequences which no longer exist;
  • The ‘dope sheet’, compiled between 1918 and 1922, a record of each of the shots from the film in caption order – now known to be highly inaccurate;
  • Assorted war diaries for the identification of men and units, plus other original documents in The National Archives;
  • The present-day landscape of the Somme battlefield.

The result is extraordinary. The authors identify not only locations, units and dates, but people. The grey figures whose faces point at the camera as they march cheerily to war and return shaken are, in a few, precious cases, given names, ages, a past history and – for some of those who survived – a subsequent history. There is such power in being able to put a name to a face. Previously, perhaps we have been guilty at times of sentimentalizing the film when we see those ghostly faces; this book humanizes it.


Men of B Company, 1 Lancashire Fusiliers, in a sunken lane in front of Beaumont Hamel, filmed by Geoffrey Malins, 1 July 1916 (frame grab from DVD)

This is a book chiefly for the military history enthusiast. The film historian will welcome the attention paid to the practicalities of the film’s production (there is a chapter on the cameras used and the limitations of orthochromatic film stock, which was not sensitive to the full spectrum, though more could have been said about lenses), while expressing surprise that the book refrains from saying anything about the film’s history once it had been released to an astonished British public (more than half the population saw it). It is pedantic in its dogged desire to identify and list every place, every unit, leaving no scene of the film unturned – a tabulation at the end of the book lists each shot (extant and lost) in order, with timing, date, camera operator, location, subject, date and caption. It is not a history for those who crave narrative.

So it may not find a place on any film studies shelf, but for the factual historian, it opens up a medium for study. As Roger Smither, Keeper of the Film and Photograph Archives at the IWM, says in his foreword, “Ghosts on the Somme sets a new standard for the examination of archive documentary film”. The convention has always been to distrust the record the actuality film provides, to emphasise film’s propensity for lying. Ghosts on the Somme shows that, ultimately, film records reality, and that we can uncover that reality, if we have eyes to see. Perhaps it really should be on a few film studies shelves.

War Brides


USA 1916

Director/producer: Herbert Brenon
Production Company: Herbert Brenon Film Corporation
Cinematographer: J. Roy Hunt
Art director: George Fitch
Film editor: James McKay
Script: Herbert Brenon, Marion Craig Wentworth
Based on the one-act play by Marion Craig Wentworth

Cast: Nazimova (Joan), Charles Hutchinson (George), Charles Bryant (Franz), William Bailey (Eric), Richard S. Barthelmess (Arno), Nila Mac (Amelia), Gertrude Berkeley (The Mother), Alex K. Shannon (The King), Robert Whitworth (Lieutenant Hoffman), Ned Burton (Captain Bragg), Theodora Warfield (Mina), Charles Chailles (A financier)

Distributed by Lewis J. Selznick Enterprises
Eight reels


Nazimova, in War Brides

Welcome one, welcome all, to the Bioscope Festival of Lost Films! Over the next five days we will be bringing to you five feature films (with accompanying shorts), selected from around the world, each a silent film now considered lost, untraceable in any of the world’s film archives or private collections.

We are opening with War Brides, Herbert Brenon’s pacifist masterpiece. Our venue is the Theatre de Luxe, in London’s The Strand. This select venue, star of the Electric Theatre circuit, lies adjacent to the Tivoli theatre (itself now no more) and seats 170 in the finest comfort. You will have noticed the luxuries of the foyer, and the special feature of a writing room, with complimentary notepaper, postcards and envelopes at the disposal of patrons. In such a modestly-sized venue, we must have musical accompaniment to match, so we are delighted to welcome as pianist Mr W. Tyacke George, author of that estimable and essential work for the aspiring silent film accompanist, Playing to Pictures (1914), who should certainly know what he is doing.

We are living in a time of war. We are always living in a time of war. The conflict in this case is the Great War, and while at the time of this film’s release Britain has been part of the fighting for two years, the United States has followed President Woodrow Wilson’s policy of neutrality. The British and the Germans have each plied the arts of propaganda to gain American sympathies, and the British have hopes that America will eventually side with it militarily. Some in America are thinking this way, and their call is for ‘preparedness’ should the need to fight arise. Others are appalled by the European folly, and speak out against war in all it forms. Already in 1916 American producers have given us Intolerance and Civilization, and now at the end of the year comes the most acclaimed film the year, and the strongest plea against war that we have yet seen on the screen, War Brides.

It has its basis in a one-act play, of the same title, written by Marion Craig Wentworth, which was such a success in the American theatres in 1915. Its star was that extraordinary Russian actress Alla Nazimova, who has been performing in America since 1905, excelling in Chekhov and Ibsen. Such was the sensation created by War Brides on the stage that producer Lewis J. Selznick persuaded Nazimova (she prefers to be known), for the handsome fee of $1,000 a day, to make her screen debut based on the stage success.


The 1915 stage production, with Nazimova (as Hedwig, the original name for her character) second from the right

As is the case with many anti-war tales, the setting is an unidentified country which could be anywhere. Four brothers are called up to join a war. They leave behind their mother, sister and the wife of one of them (Joan, the Nazimova character). All four are killed. Joan tries to kills herself, but it persuaded not to do so because of her unborn child. Then the government decrees that all unmarried women must be compelled to marry returning soldiers to ensure a new generation of manpower for the war. Joan leads a protest movement of women against the decree, escaping from imprisonment to confront the king. On being told by him that war never ends, she kills herself and her unborn child.

This is an undeniably powerful theme. Nazimova proves herself as a great a tragic actress on the screen as she is known to be on the stage, managing both to be a symbol and a person at the same time. Gertrude Berkeley, as the mother, joins her from the stage production, as does Charles Bryant, playing one of the sons, who happens to be Nazimova’s husband. Among the actors playing the other sons, we are advised to look out for one Richard Barthelmess, whose first picture this is. A great future is predicted for him.


Herbert Brenon and Nazimova on the set of War Brides

The director is that talented Irishman Herbert Brenon. We have all admired his previous works, among them Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Ivanhoe, Neptune’s Daughter and Sin, but Mr Brenon calls this his greatest work. Interestingly, we hear rumours that there are those within the British political establishment that agree with him. Can it be true that this producer of an anti-war masterpiece could be persuaded by the British War Office to produce a propagandist epic in favour of the British war effort? We shall await any such developments with the greatest interest.

Critics have been almost unanimous in their praise of War Brides. Few pictures in recent years have received such general acclaim. Yet there have been some adverse comments. The New York Times, while full of praise for Nazimova, who it says, ‘is a good subject for motion photography … she knows how to express herself in terms of the film’, was less enamoured of the film’s attempts to expand itself beyond the stage original.

The first half … in some respects is very bad indeed. It is palpably padded to make a holiday movie, some of the padding consisting of typical movie comedy, and is unnecessarily jerky and artificial. With such pictures as those of the battle of the Somme on view there should be a law against photoplay directors photographing sham martial scenes, or else to force them to make them depict scenes approximating reality. A bogus battle scene is included in “War Brides,” in which the defensive army occupies a system of trenches which rise from the foreground up and up into the background. All that an attacking army would have to do creep up to the edge of the top trenches and roll bombs down upon the helpless enemy, while if those in the trenches wishes to assume the offensive they would have to scale heights as high as the Palisades.

It is as curious to see a newspaper dramatic critic advise us on military strategy as it is to see a Hollywood studio attempt to depict it. As it is, the critic should perhaps read something of the futile Italian military campaign of the war, attempting to attack Austrian troops by scaling mountains while their enemy is securely positioned above them, before dismissing War Brides’ own illustration of military madness. However, it is telling that the critic compares its attempt to portray reality with the actual scenes of conflict in the remarkable films taken by British official cameramen of the battle of the Somme. It is difficult for the dramatic film to compare with the sober reality of conflict as depicted so honestly in The Battle of the Somme, and War Brides is strongest where it shows war’s consequences.

War Brides naturally speaks to the distaff side of the audience. It understands the suffering that war causes. Unlike some other films of pacifist intent, it successfully blends an idealised situation in a mythical land with the realities of home life and individual lives caught up in war’s inhuman machinery. It has touched a chord with audiences who may have found the melodrama or religiosity of Intolerance and Civilization unconvincing. Some states in America have banned the film because of its apparent pacifism, but we hear rumours that were America to join the war then the producers would find it is easy enough, with a judicious explanatory title or two, to make the film seem to promote the Allied point of view, a film not against war but against one side of the war. Thus do we see how powerful, and then how weak, the cinema can be.

To accompany our main film, we are showing Kiddies in the Ruins (UK 1918), George Pearson’s poignant portrait of the plight of French children in war-time. Pearson is an old friend of the Bioscope Festival of Lost Films, his work having appeared in last year’s festival. Here, inspired by a music hall sketch based on cartoons by that eminent French cartoonist Francisque Poulbot, he has shown us the lives and dreams of urchins in a bomb-shattered French city (enterprisingly filmed at Courneuve, near Paris). This touching three-reeler, starring Hugh E. Wright, may lack a little in narrative, but in sensibility alone it is a fine accompaniment to our main feature. We have seen the wretchedness of war, and yet the hopes that may arise even out of the ruins it has created.

Do join us again tomorrow night, when we will moving to the Soho district, and seeing a film of true mystery and daring, not only its in subject matter but in the extraordinary circumstances surrounding its production.

With our troops on the Yser


With Our Troops on the Yser, from

In this month, the ninetieth anniversary of the ending of the First World War, there have been many commeorative events, programmes and publication. The Bioscope has already reported on the Imperial War Museum’s DVD release of The Battle of the Somme. Now comes news of another important film, one originally released ten years after the war, issued on DVD for the first time. The film is With Our Troops on the Yser, a record of the war from the Belgian point of view, though a record of a quite particular kind. Here’s the blurb promoting it:

After four years of horror, the First World War ended on 11 November 1918. Ten years later, a Belgian veteran named Clemens De Landtsheer made With Our Troops on the Yser, a film on the ‘Great War’. The film is neither a triumphant retrospective nor an objective documentary, but a bitter protest in which the hardships of ‘our boys’, the simple soldiers at the front, are central.

As secretary of the ‘Yser Pilgrimage Committee’ De Landtsheer was part of a movement with a political agenda: to promote Flemish nationalism by emphasizing the purportedly disproportionate suffering and abuses endured by Flemish soldiers during the war. To this end, his film combines authentic archival footage from the war with staged images from existing fiction films, as well as a tendentious voice-over commentary. The result is both a unique cinematic experiment and a fascinating historical document, as Daniël Biltereyst (Ghent University) and Roel Vande Winkel (Ghent University – University of Antwerp) explain in the extras on the DVD.

With Our Troops on the Yser was screened more than 400 times in the interwar period. Its success inspired De Landtsheer to found the company Flandria Film. The fascinating story behind De Landtsheer’s film career is also illustrated in the extra documentary on this DVD, accompanied by several Flandria Film productions.

With Our Troops on the Yser was originally released in 1928, but was subsequently revised and augmented several times. The version on this DVD is the definitive colour version of 1933, restored by Noël Desmet (Belgian Royal Film Archive). The soundtrack is based on the original musical recordings used by De Landtsheer to accompany the images. The film can also be viewed with a scholarly audio commentary (in English, French or Dutch) co-written by Leen Engelen (Media & Design Academy), Roel Vande Winkel and Bruno Mestdagh (Royal Film Archive).


The film runs for 83mins, and comes with Dutch intertitles and English or French subtitles. Bonus features are three other Flandria Films productions by Clemens De Landtsheer: 10th Yser Pilgrimage (1929, 12 mins), Winter Has Come – Ice Festivities at Temse (1933-1934, 5 mins), Jules Van Hevel Tribute (1935, 9 mins); and a 25mins documentary Clemens De Landtsheer, by Daniël Biltereyst, Roel Vande Winkel and Erik Martens. Clearly this a pamphleteering film demanding contextualisation, particularly knowledge of Belgian nationalism, and the understanding of the experience of the war from the Flemish point of view. The commentary is provided by some of the leading lights in film and history today. Well done to all concerned for bringing out this title on DVD and widening our understanding of how film of the war was used and understood, not just during the conflict but in its aftermath. The DVD is Region 0, and is available from the Cinémathèque Royal de Belgique.

The dead

All images in this post are frame grabs from the DVD of The Battle of the Somme (1916)

Is it right to let us see men dying? Yes. Is it a sacrilege? No. If our spirit be purged of curiosity and purified with awe the sight is hallowed. There is no sacrilege if we are fit for the seeing … I say it is regenerative and resurrective for us to see war stripped bare. Heaven knows that we need the supreme katharsis, the ultimate cleansing. We grow indifferent too quickly … These are dreadful sights but their dreadfulness is as wholesome as Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’. It shakes the kaleidoscope of war into human reality … I say that these pictures are good for us.

Those words were written by James Douglas in The Star (25 September 1916, p. 2). He was reacting to a screening of the film The Battle of the Somme, a film whose impact upon audiences was unprecedented and – it could be argued – has never been repeated. Douglas, like many commentators, was trying to rationalise what he saw, to express the meaning and to find justification for a film whose stark images of the war that was still raging shocked audiences into a realisation of sacrifice and death. It was the images of death in the film that so disturbed many. If soldiers were not shown being killed (and some apparently were), then every face that stared at the camera was likewise facing death. The audience had been made witness to this, complicit in the soldiers’ fate.

While some called for the film not to be shown, for most it was justified, to the point of becoming almost a moral obligation. Through watching The Battle of the Somme, they gained a sense of the enormity of what troops in their name were undergoing, what the sacrifice (the optimum word) was that army and nation were making. Douglas’ evocation of religious feeling put the film in terms that many would understand. It is not a pure reaction to the film itself – that is not possible. Instead he saw the film through his own thoughts on the meaning of war. Any image, any film, is identified by us through expectations and understandings that are informed by time, place and culture. The Battle of the Somme in 1916 was a different film to The Battle of the Somme in 2008.

This we can now judge through the release of the film for the first time on DVD, produced by the Imperial War Museum, whose archive preserves the film. Alert to the complexities of authenticity, the IWM presents the film in a form that encourages us to question how we see what we see. Firstly, the film (for which no original negative survives) has undergone a digital restoration which has brought out details which were hitherto obscured. Even for those familiar with the film (and all of us must be familiar with it to some extent, given the widespread use of sequences from the film in television documentaries etc.), it is like seeing the film anew. But the major coup is the music. We are given two music tracks. One is a modern score by Laura Rossi, a symphonic work for full orchestra. The other is a recreation by Stephen Horne of a likely original score, taken from a contemporary cue sheet which suggested the sort of musical passages musicians might want to adopt in accompanying the film in 1916.

The latter will amaze many. Jaunty marches and popular airs accompany scenes of troops marching to the killing fields of the Somme, the scenes of battle and their aftermath. What were they thinking of in 1916? It is a complicated question to answer. Partly the musicians of the time were responding to what might have seemed just another war actuality film, which required patriotic accompaniment. But also the audience of the time saw heroism and uplift where we, after almost a century of awful contemplation of the futility of that war, bolstered by poems, novels and films, see something profoundly pitiable. It is with consciousness of such modern expectations, but equally with a sense of being true to the film’s original vision, that Rossi supplies a rich, subtle and binding score that connects 2008 to 1916. Which of these two very different scores will you prefer to listen to, and why? Or might your preferred option be to witness the film in silence?

The digital restoration, which allows us to see so much, is perhaps most striking when it comes to the famous ‘over the top’ sequence. This is the part of the film that will be most familiar. It is shown on television (at least in the UK) every time a shot is needed to evoke the First World War. Troops clamber over the top of a slope, then march slowly over barbed wire away from the camera, a couple of men falling down as they do so, shot dead.

Oh God, they’re dead!

a woman is reported to have exclaimed in a cinema showing the film, and it was this sequence that aroused the greatest comment at the time, the greatest need to explain the film’s significance. But they were not dead. As is now known, the sequence is a fake, set up in a trench mortar battery school some time afterwards, simply because the actual scenes taken of troops going over the top were deemed disappointing. At the time, no one knew of this subterfuge, and as far as reception is concerned, it did not matter. People believed they were witnessing death on screen; and producers and exhibitors felt this to be an acceptable thing to show. Which you may think is extraordinary.

What seldom gets shown on television is the shot that immediately follows the ‘over the top’ sequence in the film. This shows genuine footage of troops going over the top. But we see them only in the far distance. The cameramen (there were just two, J.B. McDowell and Geoffrey Malins, who shot both ‘over the top’ sequences) were greatly restricted in what they could shoot. Their hand-cranked cameras had single 50mm lenses with poor depth of field, they had no telephoto lenses, the orthochromatic film stock was slow, making filming action in the distance or in poor light difficult. But there was also military control and official censorship, each preventing them from filming anything other than officially-sanctioned images. And there was the danger. The most obvious indication of the ‘fake’ nature of the first sequence is that the cameraman would have been in absolute peril of his life had it been genuine. But for the above shot, Malins is a long way off, and far in the distance we can just pick out tiny figures on the horizon – British troops, coming over the top and marching into no-man’s land. Looking closer into the middle ground, the digital restoration now reveals to us a sight not previously detected in the film: a number of troops proceeding leftwards, one or two of whom fall down. Oh God, they’re dead.

Do we want to look that closely? Can they really seem dead when viewed at such a distance? Is the death we seek not in the falling bodies, or even in the corpses seen later in the film, but rather in the eyes of the still living, whose fate awaits them, and who are all dead now of course. That was a line the film historian Denis Gifford would sometimes come out with when we were in the basement theatre at the British Film Institute, watching some collection of British silent shorts. The figures would parade to and fro, some of whom he knew, having interviewed them in the 1960s, but then that sad moment of realisation:

They’re all dead now, of course.

This is a poignancy that seems particularly linked to the non-fiction film. Dramatic films, of whatever age, are attempting to entertain. Either they do or they don’t. But the film of actuality trades on the depiction of life, and then the distance created by time. This was recognised even in 1916. Sir Henry Newbolt wrote a poem inspired by the experience of watching the film, entitled ‘The War Films’, but made memorable by its opening line:

O living pictures of the dead,
O songs without a sound,
O fellowship whose phantom tread
Hallows a phantom ground —
How in a gleam have these revealed
The faith we had not found.

The Battle of the Somme captures the point of loss, the ghosts on the screen, the living pictures of the dead. Of course it is a deeply partial record. It shows no real fighting beyond shellfire, no serious injuries, no pain, little hatred (look for the shove that one British soldier gives to a captured German who stumbles past him). And of course it shows only the Allied point of view (the Germans would respond with their own film, Bei unseren Helden an der Somme, in 1917). But we recognise it for what it is able to show, not for what it leaves out. It is a profoundly memorably expression of the hopes and fears of its age.

The Battle of the Somme was filmed by Malins and McDowell, two experienced newsreel cameramen, who knew well how to capture plain packages of actuality. McDowell was the senior of the two, who ran his own film company (British & Colonial). Malins had been filming on the war front for longer, and is the better known, not least for his somewhat vainglorious memoir, How I Filmed the War (available from The Internet Archive). Malins co-edited the film with Charles Urban, to whom credit should be given for seeing that the footage Malins and McDowell has shot would work best at feature length, rather than as a series of ten-minute shorts which had been the practice up til then. His vision gave the film the presence it needed to capture the audience that it found. The producer was William Jury, and the film was made for the British Topical Committee for War Films, a trade body working under War Office sanction, which would be replaced by the War Office Cinematograph Committee once the film started to enjoy huge success. It has been estimated that it was seen by 20,000,000 people in the UK in six weeks – almost half the population.

The DVD comes with the alternative music scores, commentaries, interviews with archivists and musicians, and five ‘missing’ scenes and fragments. We do not know what the original The Battle of the Somme was like exactly; the version that survives was re-edited, and the footage used in multiple other films, during and after the war. Rather than insert these extra scenes where it is not quite certain they should go, the IWM has chosen to present these (without music) separately. There is a booklet as well, with information on the film’s production, reception, restoration and particularly its music. A website,, will provide viewing notes, additional information, suggestions for further reading and teaching resources. It is a magnificent achievement, one whose influence on research, teaching and the appreciation of First World War history is likely to be considerable. The only possible disappointment is the menu, which simply divides the film into its five parts, where a more detailed use of chapters could have helpfully guided researchers to particular points of action, regiments, location etc.

More will follow. The booklet notes the publication next year of Alastair H. Fraser, Andrew Robertshaw, and Steve Roberts’ Ghosts on the Somme, a book which analyses the film in great detail, overturning some of the traditional understanding of who filmed what, which regiments are shown, and which locations are featured, while confirming that the vast majority of the film is genuine actuality. There is still more to be discovered about The Battle of the Somme. It is a film we will have to return to, again and again.

The DVD is available from the Imperial War Museum Shop (Region 0, PAL, duration 74 mins with 58 mins extras).

A CD of Laura Rossi’s score is available from Virtuosa Records.

On the weekend of 15/16 November 2008 there will be two screenings of the film at the IWM in London, the ‘original’ score on Saturday, the Rossi score (not played live) on the Sunday. Both screenings are free, and start at 14.00.

The Battle of the Somme has been recognised by UNESCO by being accepted for inscription on its Memory of the World register.

Pordenone diary 2008 – day four

For those who may not know, the recumbent figure who supplies the Pordenone silent film festival logo is Donald O’Connor. That’s Donald O’Connor playing Buster Keaton in The Buster Keaton Story (1957). A curious choice, all things considered, but, hey, it works.

Were I a writer of any skill, I would look upon the films that we saw on Tuesday 7 October, and I would draw out unexpected themes and make thoughtful overviews. But diversity was the only theme on offer. For anyone with only general ideas of what silent films comprise, this was the day to have your eyes opened.

Ironically, if there’s one thing that the average person is able to associate with silent film, it’s slapstick, and that’s what we started with (or rather, what I started with, as I missed the Austrian film Kleider Machen Leute that began the day). Under the ‘Rediscoveries’ strand we were offered a barrage of Keystone Film Company comedies, most of them recent discoveries or restorations. For the festival, this marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Keystone-themed festival it ran in 1983.

Mack Sennett, Keystone’s presiding genius, ran his studio as an assembly line, pumping out comedies by the yard, with an accomplished, hard-wearing troupe of performers able to fit themselves perfectly into the rigours of whatever routine Sennett had dreamt up for them this week. Three things were particularly noticeable about the films: the unquenchable vitality of the performers, the opportunistic taste for sketches to be devised out of some local event or eye-catching piece of scenery, and the phenomenal speed. One knows all about the knockabout thrills of American slapstick, but looking at a film like Love, Speed and Thrills (1915), the sheer number of shots, angles and different set-ups was prodigious, and seemed to run counter to the demand for getting out the films cheaply and quickly. They made such work for themselves, simply by the pursuit of comic excellence. Not that one could call all of the films strictly funny as such – not funny now, that is – and that the grotesquely gesticulating Ford Sterling (left) was ever revered as a comedian has left posterity baffled. Sterling pulled every face known to man (and a few that man has now happily forgotten) in his efforts to draw laughter out of the curious Stolen Glory (1912), where he and Fred Mace play warring Civil War veterans, filmed interrupting a genuine war veterans’ parade, apparently without any protest from the participants.

Other Keystones that caughter the eye included A Deaf Burglar (1913), which drew some easy laughs from a situation readily inferred from the title, and A Little Hero (1913), which starred a cat (named Pepper), a dog and Mabel Normand, the dog saving a caged bird from the cat’s predations in a scenario that looked for all the world as though it were borrowed from that deathless British classic, Rescued by Rover. Love, Speed and Thrills more than lived up to its title. One could only look on with astonishment at the violent indignities to which Minta Durfee was put in this frenetic chase comedy. These comedies were the inheritors of the comedy series made by European companies, but in their difference to the works of Max Linder, Cretinetti et al one sees how it was that American cinema, and the idea of America, conquered the world. Their new world dynamism is overpowering. Love, speed and thrills sold America.

And then for something completely different. There is growing interest in European women filmmakers in the silent era, and among their select number is the intriguing figure of Elvira Giallanella, director of Umanità (1919). Not much is known about Giallanella, except that she established a film company, Vera, in 1913, which made a Futurist-inspired production, Mondo baldoria (1913), then formed Liana Film, with great ambitions for extensive production, but with just the one title seeing the light of day – Umanità. This thirty-five minute work is unique. It is an anti-war allegory based on a children’s poem by Vittorio Bravetta. The child protagonists are named Tranquillino and Serenetta, which gives you a fair idea of the filmmaker’s intentions. The children wake up in the night – Tranquillino smokes a cigarette (eye-popping stuff) and has a nightmare, in which the world has been destroyed by war and he and his sister are given the task of rebuilding it. Given the nil budget, we have to rely on our imaginations quite a bit. The futility of war is revealed, for instance, by a neat line of empty boots. Peculiarly, the children are guided by a gnome (the embodiment of one of their toys), across deserted, rocky landscapes. The action wasn’t all that easy to follow, chiefly because the Italian intertitles had been bravely translated by the festival into English verse, at the expense of some logic. Intriguingly, Tranquillino, discovers the seeds of violence in him as he wishes to throw bombs, but the two children resort to prayer and are comforted by a bearded God and Jesus (one of a number of appearances during the Giornate). A film of muddled meaning and technique – who saw it at the time, and what on earth did they make of it? – but out on its own among silent film. The film it reminded me of was Richard Lester’s post-apocalyptic comedy The Bed Sitting Room, the survivors wandering about a shattered, empty world, trying to recover meaning.

Shown in the ‘Film and History’ strand, Umanità was paired with the surviving reel of the five-reeler American film If My Country Should Call (1916). This was not anti-war as such, as its avowed theme was ‘preparedness’ for an America which would shortly join the conflict, but its central, sympathetic character was a mother (played by Dorothy Phillips) whose sentiments were anti-war. It was something of a shock to read a closing intertitle which denounced her attitude as selfish. Otherwise it was a tale of enfeebled manhood (and by extension the nation), redeemed by the promise of fighting. Lon Chaney appeared as a doctor, and scenarist was Ida May Park.

Right up my street was Paul Spehr’s special presentation on the films of William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson. As Spehr’s new book says it, Dickson was The Man Who Made Movies. The Edison employee who was assigned in the early 1890s to solving the problem of creating a photographic motion picture device, Dickson not only – more than anyone else – created motion pictures (the system he devised, with 35mm perforated film, is with us still) but he was a maker of movies in the artistic sense. His films, from the earliest experiments with Edison through to his bold adventures with the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company in the late 1890s, are hauntingly beautiful. I won’t got into every film here, but just to say that Spehr presented them as part of a combined film and computer slide show, and did so with wise aplomb. It is quite something for someone who has just written a 706-page book on his subject to express its essence so simply and clearly. Of the many films he showed, I’ll note just one – Dickson’s very first, Monkeyshines no. 1, miniscule images photographed and laid around a cylinder, before they realised that copying Edison’s earlier invention, the Phonograph, wasn’t quite the way to go. From a microphoto on a cylinder to the big screen of the Verdi – and it’s on YouTube too, the human figure in motion evolving out of incoherence, the ghost in the machine:

Monkeyshines no. 1 (1889), the first American movie

My prize for the most disappointing film of the week went to A Modern Musketeer (1917). This really ought to have been a gem. A complete copy was only recently discovered, and it represents a key point in the development of Douglas Fairbanks’ persona, from his young-man-about-town persona to the swaggering figures of his 1920s historical romps. It seemed to have a cast-iron premise. Fairbanks plays a young man whose mother was addicted to the works of Alexandre Dumas just before he was born, and he is imbued with the spirit of The Three Musketeers, which he then tries to take into modern American life as a twentieth-century D’Artagnan. Fabulous concept – what could possibly go wrong? Well, after overplaying the idea wildly in an energetic opening five minutes, the film then abandons it almost entirely for a muddled, uncertainly-paced comedy-thriller set in the Grand Canyon, with an unpleasantly racist undertone in its depicition of the native American villain. Pianist Ian Mistrorigo (a Pordenone masterclass alumnus) tore along at a terrific pace, trying to make the film what it ought to have been, but the film stubbornly refused to live up to his expectations. It’s great that the film has been found and restored, but it’s unfunny, unthrilling, and frankly clueless. Oh dear.

Ed’s Co-ed, from University of Oregon

At this point I was planning to see two Sessue Hayakawa films, His Birthright (1918) and The Courageous Coward (1919), but the word had got round that Ed’s Co-ed (1929), which had been shown the day before to a minimal audience in the Ridotto, was getting a second screening because people really had to see it. Dutifully I went, and I’m very glad I did. There was a fascinating story behind it. In 1928 a University of Oregon student, Carvel Nelson, got to work on the set of F.W. Murnau’s The City Girl. Bitten with the film bug, he decided to make his own film, working with fellow students and an English professor, and raising finance locally. The Nelson and his eventual co-director James Raley made so bold as to approach Cecil B. DeMille for advice. DeMille put them in touch with his cinematographer, James McBride, who amazingly joined the production as technical director and got paid for it as well. With a 35mm Bell & Howell camera rented from Hollywood, and a cast recruited from across the university, Ed’s Co-ed went into production in February 1929 and had its premiere locally in November of that year.

Ed’s Co-ed is a strikingly accomplished film. McBride’s presence clearly aided the fluid, expressive cinematography, including a number of vivid sequences (a punt drifting on the waters through trees, a close shot of women students looking through a window enraptured by some violin playing), but he could not have claimed responsibility for the immaculately engineered script with central and sub-plots artfully interwoven, nor the highly capable performances from the entire cast. There is not a trace of amateurism about Ed’s Co-ed. The story is that of every college movie you ever saw – country boy Ed comes to college, is picked on by other students, he falls for the girl but is rejected by all after he admits to a crime to cover up for someone else who actually committed it, his talents are recognised (he plays the violin, he’s top in all his grades), he wins through at last. It’s so like ever college film made that you could be fooled by its ordinariness, but this is a college film that actually came from a college, and it is a treasure trove of period attitudes, codes, fashions and language.

The 35mm original of Ed’s Co-ed was destroyed in the 1960s when a 16mm dupe was made. We were told that the university hadn’t shown sufficient interest in the film to want to fund a restoration, which is a shame if true because though it might be a hard sell, a DVD edition could reach both silent film fans and those with an interest in American social history. However, there must be some interest from the university, because you can find the whole of Ed’s Co-ed online (87mins). It’s available in streamed and downloadable forms from the University of Oregon’s Scholar’s Bank website – no music track, but otherwise it’s a good quality encoding, and I warmly recommend it. Praise, by the way, for the accompaniment at Pordenone from Neil Brand (piano) and Günter Buchwald (violin, to match Ed’s playing), overlapping beautifully.

Helen Jerome Eddy and Sessue Hayakawa in The Man Beneath, from

I missed most of the evening screenings, owing to a genial supper with a gaggle of pianists, but I returned for the last film of the day, The Man Beneath (1919). This is one of the films recently discovered and restored by the Nederlands Filmmuseum of Sessue Hayakawa, the Japanese-American star who has attracted such critical and archival interest of late. Hayakawa is fascinating not just for his star presence and position as an Asian performer in the heart of Hollywood, but for his thinking about his role and the degree to which he tried to combine positive images of himself as a representative Japanese figure with the demands of the box office, through his position as an independent producer.

The Man Beneath was made by Hayakawa’s own Haworth Pictures Corporation, and it came at a time when he felt it was right to expand his range somewhat. Hence the peculiar set-up, where we get a Japanese actor, playing a Hindu doctor, in an American film, set in Scotland. Hayakawa plays Dr Chindi Ashuter, who is in love with the Scottish Kate Erskine, and she in love with him, though she is held back by the fear of the social consequences of a mixed marriage. Her sister is married to an associate (white) of Ashuter’s, whose entrapment by a secret society and rescue by Ashuter forms the main action of the film. But it is Ashuter and Kate’s thwarted love that is the real theme. He returns to Scotland, but she sorrowfully rejects him, and he leaves sadder and wiser. Of course, a mixed marriage was never going to be shown upon the screen in 1919, so the plot had nowhere else to go, but what lingers in the mind is the intensity of the feelings, particularly as expressed in a luminous performance by Helen Jerome Eddy as Kate. Hayakawa is less of a presence, curiously enough, but one shot where he stares in anguish at his reflection in the mirror and tears at his face, drawing blood, says everything.

And so we saw farewell to Day Four, and look forward to the morrow, bringing us smouldering South American passions, Austrian troops scaling mountains, a near-lynching presented as comedy, a Mozart-free Figaro, a gold digger triumphant, and bare knuckle boxing accompanied by the harp.

Pordenone diary 2008 – day one
Pordenone diary 2008 – day two
Pordenone diary 2008 – day three
Pordenone diary 2008 – day five
Pordenone diary 2008 – day six
Pordenone diary 2008 – day seven

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.


Hot on the heels of Flicker Alley’s release Abel Gance’s La Roue earlier this year comes another Gance masterpiece, J’Accuse. Described by Flicker Alley (erroneously, I feel) as “the first major pacifist film” (what price Civilization, War Brides, or the Danish films Lay Down Your Arms and Pax Aeterna?), Gance’s World War I film is released as a 2-DVD set on 16 September. The DVD presents the 1919 original version (a re-edited and shortened release was produced in 1922), 166mins in length, restored by Lobster Films, working with the Netherlands Filmmuseum, using materials from Lobster, the Filmmuseum, the Czech film archive, and the Cinematheque Francaise. The film comes with a symphonic score composed and conducted by Robert Israel. The extras include Paris Pendant La Guerre (Paris During the War), a 1915 comic view of life in Paris in wartime; Donald Thompson’s war reportage from the Battle of Verdun, Fighting the War (1916); and a booklet that includes an extensive essay by Abel Gance’s most dedicated champion, Kevin Brownlow.

This is the Turner Classic Movies description of the film and its restoration:

France’s pioneering filmmaker Abel Gance said that his definitive anti-war work J’Accuse (1919) “was intended to show that if war did not serve some purpose, then it was a terrible waste. If it had to be waged, then a man’s death must achieve something.” After seeing the film, a Czech journalist declared that if it could have been seen around the world in 1913 the First World War might not have happened.

J’Accuse was the only “peace film” to be made in Europe during World War I. Gance, who had served briefly in that conflict, returned to active service in 1918 to film harrowing battle scenes of soldiers actually under fire. Parts of the film were shot during the battle of St. Mihiel, one of the most significant of the war. Also, for the famous “March of the Dead” sequence at film’s end, Gance used real soldiers home on leave from the front – most of whom were killed within the following weeks. Some titles are taken from real letters written by soldiers to their families.

Gance had secured enthusiastic support from the wartime French government, which saw the project as a call to patriotism. When it finally occurred to a government official to question the title and ask exactly who or what was being accused, Gance replied: “The war and its stupidity.”

The film stars Maryse Dauvray as Edith, a young Frenchwoman who is in love with a poet (Romuald Joubé) but is forced by her father (Maxime Desjardins) into a marriage with a much older man (Séverin-Mars). Edith is captured by the Germans and endures multiple rapes that result in her becoming pregnant. Edith’s husband initially thinks that the poet is the father of her child, and the story ends in tragedy with both men seeing action in the trenches.

Historian Kevin Brownlow, who dedicated his book The Parade’s Gone By to Gance, described J’Accuse as “a miracle film.” It introduced techniques developed by Gance including rapid-cut editing and expressionistic camerawork and lighting. The film, a huge success in Europe, originally ran 14 reels (three hours) but was truncated to ten reels for its American release, damaging its continuity and preventing it from becoming a success in the U.S. The re-editing blunted the anti-war slant and gave it a happier ending.

The reconstruction, a Flicker Alley Digital Edition from the Lobster Film Collection, began when Gance’s friend and heir Nelly Kaplan provided a 35mm master print of a restoration by the Cinematheque Francaise, taken from a shortened reissue in 1922. Incomplete original prints were sourced from the Lobster Collection and the Czech archive in Prague. Happily, an almost complete copy of the original edit (although in poor condition) was found in the Netherlands Filmmuseum. All these elements were transferred to high-definition video and conflated by the Netherlands Filmmuseum to make the best and most complete edition possible.

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.

Shell shocked

War Neuroses: Netley 1917, Seale Hayne Military Hospital 1918, from

I’ve been reading (well, skimming through) Philip Hoare’s Spike Island, which is a poetic, not to say rococo history of the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley, Hampshire. This is a building with a rich cultural history centring around its role during the First World War, where it was home to many casualties of the war, including Wilfred Owen, and became well known for treating victims of shell shock.

You’ll find many an account of the experiments and therapies for shellshock at Netley and elsewhere, from the sentimental to the Freudian. What concerns us here is the contemporary film record. One of the most notable films of the First World War, by what ever criteria you care to mention, is War Neuroses: Netley 1917, Seale Hayne Military Hospital 1918, made by Pathé (British branch) in 1918, which Hoare covers in some detail. War Neuroses shows the psychotherapeutic treatment of shell shock victims at Netley and Seale Hayne (Devon) military hospital, featuring the treatments undertaken by Doctors Arthur Hurst and J.L.M. Symns of the Royal Army Medical Corps. The catalogue of the Wellcome Trust Moving Image and Sound Collection describes the film thus:

Shows the symptomatology of “shell-shock” in 18 British “other rankers” and its treatment by two leading R.A.M.C. neurologists in two British military hospitals towards the end of the First World War. Captions tell us the men’s names, rank, medical condition, details of their symptoms and how long it took to complete the cure, which in one case was in two and a half hours. Clinical features shown include a variety of ataxic and “hysterical” gaits; hysterical paralyses, contractures and anaesthesias; facial ties and spasms; loss of knee and ankle-jerk reflexes; paraplegia; “war hyperthyrodism”; amnesia; word-blindness and word-deafness. Although there are no precise details of the kind of treatment given, apart from the description ‘cured and re-educated’ we do see a little physiotherapy and hypnotic suggestion in treatment, and of ‘cured’ men undertaking farm-work, drill and a mock battles entitled ‘Re-enacting the Battle of Seale Hayne / Convalescent war neurosis patients’.

At least three versions of the film exist. There are copies at the Wellcome, the BFI National Archive and the Imperial War Museum, but the ones to draw your attention to here are the versions held by British Pathe (currently managed by ITN). Pathé were the original producers, but not everyone might think to find it in the British Pathe online newsreel library, but there it is – or there they are – available for free download, albeit in low resolution.

Private Ross Smith (above), facial spams, and Private Read, hysterical gait, swaying movement and nose-wiping tic

There are five parts of the films on the British Pathe site: War Neuroses Version A reel 1, War Neuroses Version A reel 2, War Neuroses version B reel 1, War Neuroses version B reel 2 and Wonderful Shell Shock Recovery. For some impenetrable reason only two come up if you type in the words ‘war neuroses’ into the search box; type ‘netley’ instead and you’ll get all five. As indicated, there are two versions available (Wonderful Shell Shock Recovery is a fragment repeating scenes from the other films). The different versions, however, appear to be simply re-edits of the same material, with Version B being the most complete, with opening titles and scenes of some patients that Version A lacks. In its fullest form the film last around 25 mins. It is necessary to download the films (i.e. they won’t play instantly), with the site requiring you to fill out personal details before you do so.

The film demonstrates the symptoms of those suffering from shell shock, and are often quite heartbreaking. Private Preston, aged 19, we are told suffers from ‘Amnesia, word blindess and word deafness, except the the word “Bombs!”‘ He is shown sitting up in bed talking to one of the doctors, the key word is spoken, and immediately hides under the bed, and only reluctantly coming out again. Private Meek, aged 23, suffers ‘complete retrograde amnesia, hysterical paralysis, contractures, mutism and universal anaesthesia’. We see him seated in a wheelchair outside the hospital, legs rigid, leaning sideways, mvoing in awkward jerks and biting his thumb, while a nurse attends to him. It is a characteristic of War Neuroses that we see see before-and-after cases. So, after unseen treatment, we next meet Private Meek walking stiffly towards a group of patients weaving baskets (his peace time job), and later walking completely normally.

There are numerous such examples, the men shown with various forms of uncontrollable nervous spasms, next shown moving more or at less at ease, their return to normality sometimes illustrated by their performing tasks around the hospital as occupational therapy. One of the most distressing sequences is that of an unnamed patient (illustrated at the top of this post) suffering from hysterical pseudo-pseudohypertrophic muscular paralysis. We see the man in a dormitory, dressed only in a loin cloth. He walks with pathetic, angular awkwardness in a circle, before falling down, unable to get up without huge struggle. Next we see him in hospital uniform, walking calmly towards the camera. The reassuring scenes of rehabilitation seem almost as disturbing as the scenes of affliction. How can such mental wounds be healed so easily?

The purpose of the physical and psychotherapeutic treatment was not simply to cure, but to make the men literally fighting fit once more. Four-fifths of men who had been entering hospital suffering from shell shock were unable to return to military duty; the military authorities wanted to reverse this. What happened to the named and nameless soldiers seen in War Neuroses? One hopes fervently that none were returned to the battlefield. So what to make of the final scene from the film, where patients are shown taking part in a re-enacted battle scene: ‘The Battle of Seale Hayne, directed, photographed and acted by convalescent war neurosis patients’? Innovative psychodrama aimed at a final cure, or rehabilitation for war? Have we seen an actuality record, or a dramatisation of recovery to satisfy the wishes of those who chose to commission the film?

I don’t know enough of the history, either of the film (no one knows who the cameraman was, or much at all about the film’s production) or of the treatment of shell shock. It’s a subject that some have written about in great depth, yet it seems a subject where we still have much to learn. The film – which I urge you to see – provides no answers, only asks searching questions. Which is what films are there to do, whether they realise it or not.

Update (April 2009): A higher resolution copy of the film is available from the Wellcome Trust site, at, as complete film and as four segments, plus a detailed catalogue record. Also, British Pathe is no longer managed by ITN Source.