This is the first post of WWI in Film Month, commemorating the Great War’s centenary.
On this day back in 1918, the Battle of Soissons in France ended with the Allies retaking Soissons, and Japan landed troops at Vladivostok, Russia.
When the year 1914 dawned, few imagined it would be the game changer of the 20th century. Certainly the world had been rapidly evolving for some time, right before peoples’ eyes–transportation and communication had been accelerating, economies had been booming and entwining with other economies, and industrialization had been taking place on a huge scale. There was relative peace, most of the recent wars being smaller-scale conflicts. One such war was the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, the first war filmed by a movie camera (wielded by the adventurous Frederic Villiers).
For there had also been a rise in new art forms, most significantly, the language of cinema. Youth in 1914 were part of the first generation to grow up with moving pictures, and millions of those same youth would fight in the first major war to ever be captured extensively by moving picture cameras.
Before World War I began in that long-ago August, the development of cinema had been very much a team effort (or at least presented filmmakers with a challenge to “borrow” various ideas as fast as possible). Filmmakers in France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, the U.S., etc. churned out films in every genre imaginable, building upon each other’s innovations and setting different styles. Films flowed to and fro across the Atlantic and throughout the continents, making for a profitable and ever-growing global industry.
But once the war was in full swing, one of the many consequences was the flow of imports and exports being disrupted. A number of film exchanges and theaters in Europe had to close. France and Italy, once movie powerhouses, were hit particularly hard. And the U.S., whose film industry had already been booming, could now rise to the top of the heap. (Having stars like Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin certainly helped.) In December 1914, the New York Clipper declared: “The first early endeavors to exploit foreign markets, endeavors that have been greatly stimulated by the European War, have born fruit…The tremendous possibilities of the motion picture field offer a golden harvest.”
War pictures became very popular, from documentaries shot by intrepid photographers on the front lines (actual combat footage was difficult to get and lead to a rise of staged footage) to heart-rending dramas both pro- and anti-war.
And at the same time, a new phase of cinema’s development dawned–the rise of propaganda. Governments quickly realized what a powerful tool cinema could be to boost patriotism and convince the public to rally to “the cause.” Film had been used for propaganda purposes in the past–by labor unions, for instance–but it had never been wielded by governments for such a distinct purpose for such a great length of time.
Colonel Wilhelm Eisner-Bubna, head of Austria-Hungary’s War Press Office, observed in 1914:
The financial situation of large sections of the population means that more and more people can visit the cinema. A good film today is shown in over 3,000 cinemas and seen by 10,000 to 12,000 people. From this it is evident that film may be regarded as superior to any other propaganda medium. No other medium than film enables the state to reach the broad masses.
Britain’s propaganda department, Wellington, began making films in 1915, a highlight being The Battle of the Somme (1916). And Germany’s devotion to its own patriotic propaganda became so extreme that in 1916 it banned the import of films in order to better control every aspect of its media. (No doubt they also weren’t wild about the wave of anti-German propaganda films.)
Prior to 1917, the U.S. had been a keen observer of the “great war in Europe,” closely following the conflict affecting the old “home countries” while holding on to President Wilson’s promise that it would stay neutral. Some evidence of the country’s feelings can be gleaned from reviews like this one for Kaiser Wilhelm II (1914), a one-reel documentary of pre-war footage of the Kaiser. The fairly benign tone would’ve seemed very out of place amid the anti-Hun frenzy of a few short years later:
When it became clear in 1917 that the U.S. could no longer stay out of the war, it also began doing its part to spread propaganda, such as the many Liberty Loans films starring such luminaries as Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, and Roscoe Arbuckle. President Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) and tasked journalist George Creel to “sell the war to the American public.” D.W. Griffith would direct the epic Hearts of the World (1918), using footage he’d taken on location in war-torn France and England.
One of the most famous propaganda films was The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin (1918), both directed by and starring Rupert Julian. Ads for the film described the Kaiser in such restrained terms as “the lust-maddened wolf-hound of Potsdam” and “the cruel beast who sneers at life.” Anti-German sentiment was running high by that point, inflamed by the German army’s use of mustard gas as well as widespread reports of atrocities done to Belgian civilians in 1914. Films like The Heart of Humanity (1918) and the aforementioned Hearts of the World presented the typical German soldier or general as a lecherous, irredeemable villain capable of appalling cruelty.
On the flip side, U.S. studios also churned out many “cheerful” and “wholesome” films during the war, hoping to stay in the CPI’s good graces as well as present a positive picture of American life to foreign audiences. In Germany the film industry grew steadily in its isolation, becoming one of the largest and most sophisticated in the world by the time the war ended.
On November 11, 1918, after four endless years and the deaths of millions, the last shots of the war were fired in the same place they began: Mons, Belgium. As the world tried to move on from period of suffering and tragedy, war pictures were no longer in demand. Anti-Hun propaganda would cease, although unease about Germany persisted in the U.S. for a few more years.
And while it had been weakened in Europe, cinema itself emerged from the war years as a sophisticated art form and a strong industry, perhaps in part because it provided escape during that turbulent period. The first inklings of the big studio era were already apparent, but motion pictures still had that youthful aura of energy and inspiration.
And now cinema also had additional gravitas. Motion Picture Magazine recognized its incalculable value back in 1915: “Would you care to have this war end without letting future generations see it for themselves? Still photography can accomplish this end, but it pales into insignificance when placed alongside the graphic and appealing medium of Motion Pictures.”
As we know now, more than ever, cinema has never been merely entertainment. It can also be art, and even aside from this, it’s a powerful tool for recording history. It can preserve events like the Great War for our own eyes, taking us from those sterile textbooks with lists of dates and military operations and bringing us back to the rawness of the muddy trenches and shell-pitted fields of 1914-1918, “Lest We Forget.”
Dench, Ernest A. “Preserving the Great War for Posterity by the Movies.” Motion Picture Magazine, July 1915.
Lang, Arthur J. “The Great Development in American Motion Pictures.” New York Clipper, December 19, 1914.
Bowser, Eileen. The Transformation of Cinema: 1907-1915. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990.
Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1998.
Koszarski, Rchard. The Age of the Silent Feature, 1915-1928. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.
Ross, Stephen K. Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Thompson, Kristin. Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood: German and American Film after World War I. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005.