Monday, December 4, 2017

Mobilizing Movies! The U.S. Signal Corps Goes to War, 1917-1919

To mark the centennial of the First World War an international conference was organized recently on the birth of military cinematography. Authors Cooper Graham and Ron van Dopperen for this occasion were asked to prepare a presentation on the film program by the U.S. Signal Corps during World War I.

Lieutenant Ira P. Gilette, photographic officer of the 1st Division, A.E.F., in France, April 1918. Signal Corps photograph, courtesy Harry B. Kidd

The conference The Birth of Military Cinemas was organized in Namur, Belgium, on November 30 and December 1 by the Royal Belgian Film Archives, in cooperation with ECPAD, the Mission Centenaire 14-18 France and the Universities of Namur and Picardie. With contributions by leading film historians representing most of the European countries that were belligerents during the Great War our presentation focused on the official military cinematographers that accompanied the American Expeditionary Force in France, how these men were trained, improvements in camera technique, the conditions at the front while filming the Great War and the uneasy relationship between the U.S. Signal Corps that was officialy assigned to cover the war and the Committee on Public Information (CPI), America's wartime propaganda agency.


As demonstrated in our presentation, the work done by these military cameramen from the United States improved significantly as a result of the CPI film efforts. At the time of the Armistice in November 1918, the Photographic Unit of the U.S. Signal Corps had become a remarkable powerhouse, with seven photographic field units on duty in the combat zone on the Western Front. At the National Archives in Washington, D.C., there is also a huge amount of footage available that was shot by these cameramen. The American film legacy of the Great War is impressive.

Based on our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, we did additional research for this presentation on the Signal Corps films of World War I. We edited the results into a film presentation and showed this short documentary for the first time during the conference on December 1. Enjoy this web launch!

A publication in print containing all presentations for this conference on the history of military cinematography will be published early 2018.

Also, here is an abridged version of the film script for this documentary, translated into French. 


Monday, November 27, 2017

Shooting the Desert War in Iraq, 1917-1918

In January 1917, American cinematographer Ariel Varges accompanied the British army to cover the desert war in Mesopotamia (Iraq). Advancing on both sides of the Tigris river, forcing the Ottoman army out of a number of fortified positions along the way, the British on March 11, 1917, entered Baghdad where they were greeted as liberators.

Captain Varges, the official Cinematographer, in a forward post near Ramadi, 1917. Photograph from the collection of the Imperial War Museum

Varges' film work during World War I has been described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. As mentioned in a previous weblog, as a result of a new resource website on the history of British newsreels we are now able to pinpoint Varges' film work with the British, starting with his coverage of the Great War at Salonika, Greece, right down to the desert war in the Middle East. Commissioned as a Captain in the British Army, Varges was in a unique position to cover the First World War with his movie camera.

"With the British in Baghdad"

The newsreels shot by Varges were released by the British War Office and appeared in the Official Topical Budget series that was shown twice a week in British theaters.  The footage was probably syndicated to other newsreels both in Europe and in the U.S.A. Based on the records available, Varges is credited as cinematographer for 13 newsreel scenes showing the desert war between the British and the Turks in 1917-1918. He was in Baghdad around the time when the city was captured and his first newsreel contribution "With the British in Baghdad" appeared in Topical Budget No. 323-2, that was released on November 3, 1917. Varges' newsreel coverage shows that he followed the military campaign quite closely.

Battle of Ramadi

In September 1917, Varges covered the second Battle of Ramadi. With artillery support, British forces advanced up two ridges to the south of Ramadi in the face of Turkish machine gun, rifle and artillery fire. Both were taken by the early afternoon of September 28, 1917. The Turkish surrender came just in time, as a powerful sandstorm began shortly afterwards which reduced visibility to a few metres. Had it struck earlier, the garrison could easily have slipped away. The British were now able to drive the Turks completely out of Mesopotamia. The capture of Ramadi also led to the local Arab tribes switching sides and supporting the British.

British officers interrogating a very young boy soldier in the desert. Photograph by Varges. Courtesy Imperial War Museum

Although a number of remarkable photographs by Varges have survived on this battle the newsreel references available do not mention any movie scenes taken by him at Ramadi. He did cover the Camel Corps during its operations in the Iraqi desert, and filmed French as well as Indian troops in action. The extant footage also has an interesting scene showing a spy who got caught by the British.

Varges spent the final months of the war around Baghdad taking pictures of daily life in the city. A letter from his personal collection that was sold recently on eBay indicates that he was hospitalized in December 1918. This letter was written from the "Officers Hospital" in Baghdad. Apparently Varges became ill with fever while being evacuated from Iraq and was gravely ill for several weeks. In this letter to his mother, Varges describes how he was "shell shocked" during an attack.  In March 1919, Varges returned to the United States and was discharged from the British army. He remained a globetrotting war photographer for the Hearst newsreels until shortly before his retirement around 1952.

Captured camouflaged Turkish guns in action against the enemy. Photograph by Varges, from the collection of the Imperial War Museum

Out of 13 newsreel scenes credited to Varges on the British desert war we were able to identify 4 scenes in the film collection of the Imperial War Museum. Apart from regular newsreel footage, the Imperial War Museum has much more film shot by Varges while he accompanied the British army in Mesopotamia (Iraq). We will return to this subject in another weblog.

The newsreel scenes shot by Varges on the British desert war have been uploaded on our YouTube channel.

Click this link for a complete list of all references to Ariel Varges and his films for the British during World War I.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Filming an Attack on Fort Lewis, Washington (USA, 1918)

In the National Archives the authors recently found a fascinating film that was shot in 1918 by Wilbur H. Durborough for the U.S. Signal Corps, showing a staged attack on Fort Lewis in Washington.

Wilbur H. Durborough in Signal Corps office, Washington, D.C., January 1919

On the Firing Line with the Germans (USA, 1915)

Durborough's film work during World War I has been described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. In 1915 he and his camera operator Ries went to Europe and filmed with the German army on the Eastern Front. Their film On the Firing Line with the Germans has been restored in 2015 by the Library of Congress, based on our film research. This previous weblog has a link to a TV show by American History TV with commentary by authors Cooper Graham and Jim Castellan on this film project.

We recently prepared a new, extended story on Durborough's photographic work during World War I. You can read this Durborough Film Annotation (2nd edition) here.

In November 1917 Durborough accepted a commission as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Signal Corps which had been assigned to cover the American intervention into the war. During his time in military service, Durborough produced a short film at Fort Lewis, Washington, to demonstrate how the troops there would defend against an attack. This clearly wasn’t a training film but intended to show the United States Army was well prepared for war. According to a contemporary report in the Seattle Star, Durborough's film was released through the Commitee on Public Information - America's wartime propaganda agency - to the state councils for defense for public exhibition.

As he did in his 1915 film, Durborough followed a story line. Initially troops are seen relaxing until the alert comes via semaphore and phone, then troops are mustered and deployed, followed by escalating displays of camouflaged infantry and artillery counterattack and concluding with evacuating and treating the wounded. Durborough appears to have believed it important for war film credibility to include casualties, real or staged. His film also emphasized how soldiers felt at home in camp, with scenes showing visits by their family and loved ones.

Scene from The Western Spirit  (USA, 1918) 

Original Film Script Found

We were extremely fortunate in having found Durborough's original script "The Western Spirit" for this short film. His personal script, as well as the footage, was filed by the Signal Corps in 1936 as part of their Historical Film Series on World War I under the title Training at Camp Lewis, Washington (NARA, RG 11-H-1245).

Here is a download link to the complete production file on Durborough's film. 

The Signal Corps documents not only have Durborough's list of titles for this film project, but also a revised list that was used for the final edit in 1918. The file shows that Durborough's input was used for almost all of his film. Contemporary press reports mention Durborough made this movie together with press photographer Edward N. Jackson who worked for the New York Daily News after World War I. But the Signal Corps film file does not credit Jackson, so it seems likely he only did still photography for this project.

By using Durborough's list we could identify almost all scenes in this short film and reconstruct the original movie.

We have uploaded Durborough's reconstructed film on the attack on Fort Lewis on our YouTube channel and have added contemporary World War I music to this clip. Enjoy!