Walter Niebuhr (right) on the Eastern Front
German "Rule by Might", designed and played by Walter Niebuhr
Opening shotsPershing's Crusaders begins with a shot of a mounted crusader in armor (Niebuhr’s work), holding a flag in one hand and a shield in the other. On either side of the crusader a doughboy in uniform marches. The narration next reads: "The mailed fist of the 'Rule by Might' (Niebuhr also played that part) lies heavily upon Europe. To it no contract is binding, no obligation is worthy of fulfillment, no word of honor sacred." A point of light appears on the center of the screen, moving outward, as though a drop of acid was spilled on the film, burning it from the center to its edges at a more or less equal rate. As the entire frame lightens, the viewer sees sand, nothing but sand, sand like that found in the Sahara or Mohave deserts. Suddenly, an arm emerges from the sand, wearing chain mail. In the throes of an unnamed agony, the arm stretches and contracts, before falling back, into the sand. Symbolically, the mailed fist, "Rule by Might," is defeated. It lies heavily upon the sandy wasteland, an apt visual metaphor for the defeat of Germany.
Viewed from a modern perspective, Pershing's Crusaders frequently appears dreary, but Niebuhr's work on the opening "punch shots" still stands out as a powerful piece of cinematography. After the war, Niebuhr set up the American Cinema Corporation and in the 1930s he tried his hand at documentary production. During the Second World War Niebuhr edited footage shot by the Signal Corps. He died suddenly in August 1946 as a result of a heart attack.
Cover picture from E.T. Paull's Pershing's Crusaders March
Here is a download link to the sheet music of Pershing's Crusader's March.
Footage from Pershing's Crusaders of good quality is hard to find on the internet, but we managed to locate the original opening scenes and uploaded the film with contemporary World War I music added to the film clip.