Thursday, February 22, 2018

"Our American Boys in the European War" (USA, 1916)

Long before the United States entered the First World War, American films capitalized on the notion of an active involvement of their country in the Great War. One of the best examples is Our American Boys in the European War, a four-reel film released by the Triangle Film Corporation in the summer of 1916.


Film poster of Our American Boys in the European War (USA, 1916) 

This documentary film pictures the American Field Service, an organization of volunteers driving ambulances behind the French frontlines, as well as the American pilots that joined the Lafayette Escadrille on the French side of the war. Long considered a lost movie, the film has been partially retrieved. Two reels of a revamped version were found recently in the film collection of the Library of Congress. This version was released in the United States in 1917 as Our Friend France and has some additional scenes.

The American Field Service

For a country that was strictly speaking neutral at the time when this film was first shown, it is somewhat surprising that this movie was released. But one should not forget that when the German army closed in on Paris in 1914, many members of the American colony rallied to the French cause. Its two prime movers, former U.S. ambassador to France Robert Bacon and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, persuaded the French government to provide facilities for taking care of wounded French soldiers at the American Hospital at Neuilly-sur-Seine, a little suburb northwest of Paris. The next step was to set up operations for an American ambulance service, which came into effect around June 1915.

Somehow in 1916 the American Field Service managed to close a deal with the Triangle Film Corporation and with the assistance of the French authorities Our American Boys in the European War was produced. According to Ed and Libby Klekowksi in their excellent book Eyewitnesses to the Great War, the film was shot in the vicinity of Pont-à-Mousson, in the Lorraine, which was a relatively quiet frontline sector. Although the Triangle Film Corporation in some press releases claimed the company had sent its own cameramen to Europe this is highly unlikely. Most of the footage was probably made by official cinematographers of the French army, and some scenes were spliced in that were also used in other American films, notably Donald C. Thompson's War As It Really Is (USA, 1916).

Preparedness Movement

Our American Boys in the European War premiered in July 1916 at the Hotel Majestic in New York City. Special benefit shows for the American Field Service were arranged that summer for members of the East Coast high society at fashionable seaside resorts. The film not only was an important fund raiser for the American Field Service. It soon also became a significant propaganda instrument for the preparedness movement in America. Although the enemy was not mentioned in the speeches that accompanied the presentation of this film, it is clear the movie was used for pro-French publicity, as well as promoting a stronger national defense in the United States. As an example, the trade paper Moving Picture World reported the film was shown in September 1916 at the Plattsburg military training grounds in New York under the auspices of the 9th Regiment.



Scene from Our American Boys in the European War (USA, 1916) 



When in 1917 America entered World War I the Triangle film was shown again and soon a new version was edited, which included additional shots such as a scene showing the French General Rageneau conferring the Cross of the Legion of Honor upon A. Piatt Andrew, organizer of the American Field Service. This revamped film also has an appropriate introduction by General Joffre, commemorating French-American friendship dating back to the American Declaration of Independence. This footage must be a compilation of at least three different film versions, because there are at least three different styles of intertitles.  A number of shots in the first film (about the first 20 minutes) are also scattered through the John E. Allen Collection at the Library of Congress.

Here is a copy of this 1917 version of Our American Boys in the European War, which can also be found on the website of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs (AFS Archives.)



                             

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