Researching World War I On Film

Ron van Dopperen

21 November 2017


The centennial of the First World War has brought about a renewed public interest in this major military conflict.  When I first visited Belgium as a history student in the 1980s there were still veterans around who had been in the trenches. They were there to hear the Last Post under the Menin Gate, and I remember vividly how impressed I was by the ceremony and the sight of all these names of the soldiers who had found an anonymous grave in the Ypres Salient.

As the saying goes ‘Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away’. It is the same with the films of the Great War. Stored on highly flammable nitrate stock, the film legacy of World War I presents scholars and film fans all over the world with an amazing historical source. The footage to be sure is slowly fading away. Unless preserved on safety stock or digitized we are losing by decomposition an invaluable part of our cultural heritage. I recall the first time I went into the nitrate vaults of the Library of Congress in Culpeper, Virginia, with my esteemed fellow author Cooper Graham, looking for lost film of this war. I was feeling like a kid in a candy store. In one of the cans we found footage mentioning The German Side of the War, a movie that had been produced by the Chicago Tribune in 1915. When reeling that film on a viewer we found ourselves in underground bunkers on the Eastern Front, and that’s when we discovered the film had been misplaced. We were looking at a completely different film that was shot by Albert K. Dawson, cameraman with the Austro-Hungarian army!

Albert Dawson directing war films on eastern front 1915

My fascination with these old war films started when as a history student I first read Kevin Brownlow’s book The War, the West and the Wilderness. Kevin is one of the first historians to research World War I films. He also was fortunate enough to interview some of the cameramen who  recorded the Great War, at a time when they were still around. We dedicated our book American Cinematographers in the Great War to Kevin Brownlow because as film historians we all stand on his shoulders. These war pictures, as described by Brownlow, were a window on a different world. This was a time when cars and planes were the latest thing, when women could not vote, when it took ten days to cross the Atlantic, when trench warfare devastated a way of life that belonged to the 19th century. Despite the static shots and primitive camera technique these films and newsreels are truly mesmerizing.

The First World War was a modern war that surprised all combatants as well as the people at the home front just because it was so ‘modern’. It was also the first media war. Film propaganda was not invented by Goebbels but by Wellington House, UFA and the Committee on Public Information in America. Admittedly, wars had been filmed before 1914 but this was the first time in history when the huge publicity potential of this young medium was discovered and exploited.  As I dug deeper into my film research together with my American colleagues Cooper Graham and Jim Castellan I also got intrigued by one simple question: how did these guys do it? How did they manage lugging these cumbersome movie cameras with tripod and all to the battlefield? How did they deal with censors, military red tape and the risks of having their movie camera mistaken for the equipment of an artillery spotter? Why did they even run the risk of becoming a prime target? We were on uncharted territory basically, as most of these cameramen – like the soldiers of World War I – had slowly faded away. We interviewed relatives in the US and many of them did not even know that their Granddad had been a cameraman in World War I. But the stories that we found on their photographic work and their life are definitely worth preserving, just like their films. In some rare instances we could even match their personal story with the pictures that they made at the front. It’s a strange experience to watch a movie that was made one hundred years ago, as seen through the eyes of the cameraman you get to know so much. As a writer you feel transported back in time. For a brief moment you become the cameraman.

Just like these cameramen who had been pioneers in their trade – the first film correspondents – we had to start most of our film research from scratch. I should give proper credits here to Cooper and Jim for their outstanding work on reconstructing Wilbur H. Durborough’s  feature film, On the Firing Line with the Germans, a unique film report made during the German drive on the Eastern Front in 1915. By using the paper roll collection at the Library of Congress they managed to identify each separate scene from that movie, not including the lost scenes that were retrieved in TV documentaries and the World War I Signal Corps collection. This is another aspect of this kind of film research: how to piece all of these segments together? World War I film research is a giant jigsaw puzzle because a lot of contemporary footage has been recycled or cut into stock footage. It takes a lot of patience to get the bigger picture.

Sniper attack in Russian Poland. Scene from On The Firing Line with the Germans (USA 1915)

The last years researching World War I film have been a great ride. We have brought back on the screen Durborough’s war film which has been wonderfully restored by the Library of Congress. The premiere at the film festival of Pordenone together with Kevin Brownlow as a special guest was just great. This kind of film research never really stops, so after publishing our book we started a weblog Shooting the Great War which has the latest updates on the latest World War I films that we have found and identified. The blog has been seen now by over 100,000 people. So, we definitely have an audience out there!

Video trailer for Shooting the Great War:


Ron van Dopperen studied history at the University of Utrecht (Holland) where he wrote his Master of Arts Thesis on the American World War I documentary films. Since 2011 he publishes on World War I film, starting with a series of articles for Film History journal. He is also co-author together with Cooper C. Graham of Shooting the Great War: Albert Dawson and the American Correspondent Film Company (2013) and together with Jim Castellan and Cooper Graham of American Cinematographers in the Great War (2014) which was sponsored by the Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

Weblog: http://shootingthegreatwar.blogspot.nl


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

new books for review: Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Televisio

IAMHIST received copies of the following books and is looking for reviewers (Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television). If you are interested, just send a message (mentioning the full title of the book) to the associate and book review editors Ciara Chambers : iamhistreviews@gmail.com. It would help if you could tell us a bit about your own research and expertise and/or why you are interested in reviewing this title. Please do also communicate your full postal address in case the book is still available for review.

 

JUST IN:

Burke, Wendy. Images of Occupation in Dutch Film. Amsterdam University Press, 2017.

http://en.aup.nl/books/9789089648549-images-of-occupation-in-dutch-film.html

 

Chatterji, Shoma A. The Cinema of Bimal Roy. Sage, 2017.

https://in.sagepub.com/en-in/sas/the-cinema-of-bimal-roy/book258442

 

Deocampo, Nick (ed). Early Cinema in Asia. Indiana University Press, 2017.

http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?products_id=808851

 

Fischer, Thomas and Thomas Schuhbauer. Geschichte in Film und Fernsehen: Theorie-Praxis-Berufsfelder. UTB, 2016.

http://www.utb-shop.de/geschichte-in-film-und-fernsehen-9296.html

 

Handyside, Fiona. Sofia Coppola: A Cinema of Girlhood. I.B. Tauris, 2017.

http://www.ibtauris.com/books/the%20arts/film%20tv%20%20radio/films%20cinema/film%20theory%20%20criticism/sofia%20coppola%20a%20cinema%20of%20girlhood

 

Jacobs, Steven et al. Screening Statues: Sculpture and Cinema. Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

https://edinburghuniversitypress.com/book-screening-statues.html

 

Long, Christian B. The Imaginary Geography of Hollywood Cinema 1960-2000. University of Chicago Press, 2017.

http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/I/bo27342816.html

 

Mollet, Tracey Louise. Cartoons in Hard Times: The Animated Shorts of Disney and Warner Brothers in Depress and War 1932-1945. Bloomsbury, 2017.

https://www.bloomsbury.com/au/cartoons-in-hard-times-9781501328749/

 

Ostrowska, Dorota et al (eds). Popular Cinemas in East Central Europe. I.B. Tauris, 2017.

http://www.ibtauris.com/books/the%20arts/film%20tv%20%20radio/films%20cinema/popular%20cinemas%20in%20central%20europe%20a%20film%20history

 

Paulicelli, Eugenia et al (eds). Film, Fashion and the 1960s. Indiana University Press, 2017.

http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?products_id=808857

 

Ravetto-Biagioli. Mythopoetic Cinema: On the Ruins of European Identity. Columbia University Press, 2017.

https://cup.columbia.edu/book/mythopoetic-cinema/9780231182195

 

already assigned for review: Schulman Bruce J. and Julian E. Zelizer. Media Nation: the Political History of News in Modern America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15656.html

 

Schmid, Marion. Chantal Akerman. Manchester University Press, reprinted 2017.

http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9780719077166/

 

Strandgaard Jensen, Helle. From Superman to Social Realism: Children’s Media and Scandinavian Childhood. John Benhamins,

https://benjamins.com/#catalog/books/clcc.6/main

 

 

BOOKS THAT ARE STILL AVAILABLE FROM EARLIER LISTS:

 

Hagener, Malte, Vinzenz Hediger and Alena Strohmaier (eds). The State of Post Cinema. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137529381

 

Casetti, Francesco (ed). Early Film Theories in Italy 1896-1922. Amsterdam University Press, 2017.

http://en.aup.nl/books/9789089648556-early-film-theories-in-italy-1896-1922.html

 

Zimmermann, Patricia R. and Scott MacDonald (eds). The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema. Indiana University Press, 2017.

http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?products_id=808635

 

Carlsson, Ulla and David Goldberg (eds). The Legacy of Peter Forsskål: 250 Years of Freedom of Expression. Nordicom, 2017.

http://www.nordicom.gu.se/en/publikationer/legacy-peter-forsskal

 

already assigned for review Schrey, Domink. Analoge Nostalgie In Der Digitalen Medienkultur. Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2017.

http://www.kulturverlag-kadmos.de/buch/analoge-nostalgie-in-der-digitalen-medienkultur.html

 

Frankel, Glenn. High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. Bloomsbury, 2017.

https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/high-noon-9781620409480/

 

Winston, Brian, Gail Vanstone and Wang Chi. The Art of Documenting: Documentary in the 21st Century.  Bloomsbury, 2017.

https://www.google.ie/search?q=brian+winston+the+art+of+documenting&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-b-ab&gws_rd=cr&dcr=0&ei=xdevWbr3LMjXgAbosoDYBg

 

Taylor-Jones, Kate. Divine Work, Japanese Colonial Cinema and its Legacy. Bloomsbury, 2017.

https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/divine-work-japanese-colonial-cinema-and-its-legacy-9781501306136/

 

Oldham, Joseph. Paranoid Visions: Spies, Conspiracies and the Secret State in British Television Drama. Manchester University Press, 2017.

http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781784994150/

 

Chaplin, Felicity. La Parisienne in Cinema: Between Art and Life.  Manchester University Press, 2017.

http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526109538/

 

Mai, Joseph. Robert Guédiguian. Manchester University Press, 2017.

http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9780719096471/

 

Macror, Alison. Rewrite Man: the Life and Career of Screenwriter Warren Skaaren. University of Texas Press, 2017.

https://utpress.utexas.edu/books/alison-macor-rewrite-man

‘Does it have Hitler in the title?’: Broadcasting History on Television

Michael Cove, Head Writer, WildBear Entertainment

14 November 2017


With the diversification – or, perhaps, fragmentation – of the broadcast television market, factual programming has found itself corralled into specialised outlets.  The fate of history-themed programs is typical, more hours are being produced, but the great majority of them are finding homes either on dedicated channels (“Yesterday”. “History”) or on subscription outlets which, equally, create and appeal to niche markets (Amazon Prime).  For the writer/producer in the history space this focusing of the market carries both opportunities and liabilities.

The opportunity, of course, is that there is a larger market for output, though this is moderated slightly by the limited budgets such outlets typically make available.  The liability is to offer material to an audience that has an established interest in, and knowledge of, the subject matter.  Mistakes are sure to generate emails from unexpected corners of the globe.

That all of this exists within a commercial reality confronts the program maker with a further fact – not all history is equally saleable.  Which, without too much exaggeration, could be characterised by the question: Does it have Hitler in the title?

Everywhere, Hitler, the Third Reich, more broadly the Second World War are seen as the most bankable of the history stories – which explains the existence of Uncle Hitler, Hitler the Junkie, Supernatural Nazis and many more (these are real titles).

This appetite is cheerfully fed by program makers because the content exists – in the form of archive material (pre-1900 and even pre-1920 life gets hard).  Of course, archive is not a limitless resource, there is only so much footage of Munich or Nuremberg, D-Day or Hiroshima.  Strangely, the dedicated core audience does not seem to mind this unduly and viewer feedback not infrequently includes a slightly surprised “even contains some footage I had not seen before!”

This limited amount of archive material – and each individual production further restricts its archive because of licensing costs – encourages reversioning.  Upscaling the material to HD perhaps, or “colourising” the B&W footage.

Where the program is being produced out of a market that is almost self-supporting, the use of on-camera talent – particularly of a name that helps to boost ratings – is a common practice in history programming.  But for an independent production company away from the main centres, like the one for which I work in Australia, international success across broad markets is an economic necessity.  And this speaks against the use of the onscreen presenter – regrettably, for such a device makes narrative structure and the filling of screentime a fairly straightforward business.  But onscreen presenters are not appreciated in the international market where foreign language versions that replace the so-called “voice of God” narrator are much easier to organise and to sell on to the viewer.

These, then, are some of the parameters that influence the choice of topic, its development and decisions concerning creative execution that someone like me needs to address.  They are not – or should not be – the only issues.  The greater the requirement on an individual to take carriage of the production, the more important it is that the subject matter encourages a personal investment.  My work practice, necessarily, means coming up with an idea, conducting the research, writing the script, finding the participants, conducting the interviews, creating the integrated script and overseeing all of the steps of production.  I cannot imagine being able to do that effectively with a topic in which I had no interest.

Having offered a topic – and been approved for development – I imagine that the next question is one with which academics are very familiar: what can I say about this that has not been said before?  The answer, to return to the point I made above, may partly be answered by a technical/creative initiative – first time in HD, first time in colour and so on.  Titles like World War Two from Space are in the same category and adding 3-D animation is a variant.  Another production novelty – not using the word in a pejorative way – could be the contributors, whether expert or eyewitness.

In my view, these features add marketing benefits to a program – they can be the USP that the agents and others whose responsibility it is to sell productions are so keen to identify.  But they are not a substitute for a perspective or point of view that validates the program.

The last four history-based productions for which I have been responsible were all traversing familiar territory and in a basically familiar way: each was substantially clip-based – that is, each drew heavily on the footage archives to which the production company had access – and each incorporated original interviews.  One of the two two-part series that I have made in collaboration with CCTV10 (China Central Television) had new, original footage of locations relevant to the story, the original material in the other three series was limited to interviews.  Other productions with which I have been involved as writer have additionally used historically informed re-enactment (particularly World War 1 narratives).

The longest of the series for which I have been responsible, The Price of Empire, was thirteen episodes attempting to tell the global story of the Second World War.  It was decided that a “USP” would be scaling all of the archive to HD.  I was not entirely persuaded of the benefits, but when I began to see the material in this form, and observe details in the image not previously clear, I was converted.  My own creative decision for the series was that the contributory interviews would be limited to eyewitnesses and I interviewed fifty people from fourteen countries, mostly veterans of the fighting, but also Holocaust and Hiroshima survivors.

My most recent program, in eight episodes, tells a complicated story of the years 1919-1939 under the title Impossible Peace.  All of the interviews for this program were with academics (38 of them) covering the spectrum of content.  There are limitations in terms of the archive and we settled on a strong, visual style of multiple screens which in part helps to accommodate the limitation and in part to refresh familiar images; more importantly, it was a visual way of reinforcing the thematic foundation of the program, the idea of many things happening, simultaneously, sometimes with connections, sometimes not, but always with some degree of effect.  To achieve such visual effects when I entered the industry, as a trainee assistant film editor at the BBC in 1966, would have been prohibitively expensive and have taken weeks in a film laboratory.  For program makers it is by exploring new ways of telling familiar stories that we can hope to hold, and add to, our audience.



Michael Cove was born in London, attended the London Film School and joined the BBC in film editing.  He worked in film editing following migration to Australia before becoming a full-time writer in 1974.  In a freelance career spanning 25 years, he wrote for every medium and every genre – feature film, theatre, radio drama and every type of television program.  In 1998 he joined a small production company in Canberra.  It is now a large production company outputting multiple hours of factual programming for international broadcast.  The company’s particular areas of interest are history, natural history, and science and technology.  Cove’s main contribution has been to the history slate.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

 

 

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