Friday, September 8, 2017

Film Propaganda in the U.S.A.

At the outbreak of war in 1914 the United States soon became an important target for foreign propaganda. Both the Entente and the Central Powers tried to influence public opinion in America. The years of neutrality between 1914 and 1917 in fact turned into a 'battleground' which also included the American movie theaters. For the first time in film history movies were used in a professional way by various agencies and governments for wartime propaganda purposes. Sometimes this even resulted in riots in the film theaters between pro-Allied and pro-German Americans.

Albert Dawson, war photographer. Copied from Deutsch-Amerika, 15 September 1917

Case study

As a case study for one of the earliest attempts to use motion pictures for this purpose, authors Cooper C. Graham and Ron van Dopperen in 2013 published Shooting the Great War: Albert Dawson and the American Correspondent Film Company. In this book we described the workings of a secret film campaign that was financed and set up by German officials in Berlin in 1914, and how the German authorities tried to use cinematographer Albert K. Dawson as a front man to make pro-German movies for release in the American theaters. Based on records from the German Foreign Office, the Austro-Hungarian military press office as well as personal information on Dawson's life and work, we offer the reader a unique opportunity to follow this American cameraman into the trenches of the First World War and witness his adventures at the front. The book also explains how Dawson's films were used as propaganda.

Scenes from one of Dawson's war films (1915)

A fifth edition of the book appeared in January 2015 and can be ordered on

For some fascinating background information on film propaganda in America during World War I, which also mentions Dawson and his film company, here is a link to another weblog.

Our book on Dawson has also been reviewed recently in this article online.

Monday, September 4, 2017

How the American Newsreel Men Invaded Mexico (1916)

In a previous weblog we mentioned how in 1916 newsreel cameraman Tracy Mathewson followed the U.S. Army into Mexico during the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa. The war in Mexico was an important training ground for a number of cinematographers who soon after went to Europe and filmed on the battlefields of France.

American film reporters in Chihuahua, Spring 1916. Copied from International Photographer, October 1933

Ignoring official regulations Mexico was invaded by many American cameramen, as this picture shows that we recently found in a 1933 edition of International Photographer. The U.S. Army had agreed on allowing only one official photographer to accompany the military expedition. But in the spring of 1916 - when Pancho Villa's border raid into the U.S.A. was making headlines across America - all the newsreels were represented. A false report had come in that Villa was assassinated at Chihuahua City and all the cameramen immediately grabbed a freight train and went down there.

The Men Behind the Movie Camera

It was on this occasion that this picture was taken. The cameramen from right to left in the back row are: Tracy Mathewson of the Hearst newsreels, Dick Burrud of Gaumont News, next to him Gilbert Warrenton working for the Universal Animated Weekly. The man cranking Warrenton's movie camera is United States consul Letcher. Next to Letcher we have Beverly Griffith of Universal and next to him behind the Universal camera is Nicholas McDonald of the Selig-Tribune Weekly. The Mexican cranking McDonald's camera is the general of the Chihuahua district. The men in the front row are all American newspaper reporters.

Nicholas McDonald (left) with the First Division, American Expeditionary Army, 1919. U.S. Signal Corps photograph from the National Archives. Courtesy Harry B. Kidd

Nicholas McDonald

Nicholas McDonald featured before in an earlier weblog. In February 1917, he got in a plane and with permission of General Pershing filmed the American operations in Mexico.

Here are some interesting contemporary newspaper stories on his film work in Mexico.

After the American entry into the First World War McDonald was attached to the 1st Division as a Lieutenant of the U.S. Signal Corps photographic unit. Later General Pershing promoted him to Captain and assigned him to GHQ of the American Expeditionary Force. McDonald filmed at Chateau-Thierry, St. Mihiel and the Argonne offensive and twice received citations for bravery. President PoincarĂ© awarded him with the Croix de Guerre. He reportedly did most of the principal photography for Pershing's Crusaders (1918), America's first official war film that was produced by the Committee on Public Information (CPI). After the war, McDonald worked for Walter Niebuhr's American Cinema Corporation. His photographic career came to a sudden end in February 1923 when his flashlight set off a huge explosion. As a result, McDonald lost his right arm.

McDonald (right) filming on the Western Front, October 1918. Signal Corps picture from William Moore's book U.S. Offficial Photographs of the World War (1920)

This news story in the Oregon Daily Journal of September 21, 1919, has more on McDonald's film work during World War I.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Censoring Official World War I Films (USA, 1918)

In World War I films were closely scrutinized by military censors. This happened to American cameramen who went to Europe to film the Great War, but it also happened to the official cinematographers of the U.S. Signal Corps who were assigned to cover the war after the United States had entered the First World War in 1917.

Lt. Edwin F. Weigle and Carl Akeley, inspecting new type of film camera (December 1917). Photo from the collection of the National Archives, Washington, D.C. 

"Star" cameraman

We recently came across a production file in the National Archives on a film that was shot in June 1918 by Lieutenant Edwin F. Weigle at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Shortly after Weigle had finished this report he went to Europe and filmed with the 35th Division in France. Weigle's war films have been described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. He was the "star" cameraman of the Chicago Tribune and filmed with the Belgian and German army in 1914-1916. When America came into the war Weigle was one of the first cameramen to join the U.S. Signal Corps.

The documents on Weigle's film report present us with some interesting information on how his movies were cut by the censors. Weigle had gone to Fort Sill on an assignment to film various scenes at the School of Artillery Fire. Apart from the handling of different types of guns, he filmed a night barrage with Browning machine guns, soldiers throwing hand grenades into barbed wire and the operation of trench mortars. The footage was shot for episode 62 of the series Pictorial History of the War of 1917 which was produced as an historical record for the General Staff.

Scene from Weigle's war film (1918) 

Although these films were not taken for publicity purposes there was no exception to the rule that all footage had to be censored at the War College in Washington, D.C. Both the film titles that were submitted by Weigle as well as the actual film scenes were all checked. Weigle had filmed French 37 mm artillery guns and these scenes were all deleted, presumably because these would show the Americans were dependant at the time on foreign military equipment. Any information that could be of interest to the enemy was also cut out of his films, such as a scene showing a comparison between the smallest and the largest gun in the U.S. Army and an intertitle mentioning how much time it would take to train an artillery officer.

Considering the fact that these films were made as an historical record it makes you wonder what the military censors did to the official war films that were shown in the American theaters at the time for promotional purposes.

Compilation film

In 1936 Weigle's footage was edited into a Signal Corps compilation film on World War I field artillery training. Unfortunately, as a result of this compilation, Weigle's original scenes showing machine gun operations and the exercises with trench mortars and hand grenades were not used and seem to have disappeared. But his film on different types of artillery in action has survived.

Here is a download link to the complete production file on Weigle's 1918 film project. 

We have uploaded parts of this film with scenes shot by Weigle on our YouTube channel.