Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Lost & Found: "The German Curse in Russia" (USA, 1918)

Among the World War I films considered "lost" there is one movie we would particularly like to find and see again: Donald C. Thompson's The German Curse in Russia. Distributed by Pathé in January 1918, the film documents Thompson's extraordinary adventures during the Russian Revolution. Although no footage has been found so far, Thompson has left us with a remarkable collection of still photographs.

Russian volunteers for the front, photographed by Donald C. Thompson

Filming the Russian Revolution

As described in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, Thompson reached Petrograd in February 1917 on an assignment for Leslie's Weekly. Just one month later the Petrograd regiments rebelled and the Tsar was replaced by a Provisional Government under the leadership of Kerensky. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks agitated for peace, bread and land. Thompson's camera not only captured the leading politicians, including Lenin and Trotsky. He also filmed the demonstrations in the streets of Petrograd and in July 1917 he went to the front to cover the summer offensive against the German army. With chaos increasing in the country he left Russia in September 1917, shortly before the Communist regime took over.

Thompson (left) with Russian soldiers at the Dvinsk frontline 

Thompson's film The German Curse in Russia is of great historical value. Contemporary footage of the Russian Revolution is extremely rare and Thompson was by all accounts the only American cinematographer to witness these events. The opening title of his movie gives a distinct impression of its message: "Since March 1917, the world believes that Russia forsook her allies, but records from my diary and camera will show that Russia's anarchy was not willed by her people, but was caused by vile German intrigue working in the unthinking masses." How this message was conveyed into pictures has been described in our latest book

Advertisement for Thompson's film The German Curse in Russia, copied from the Oakland Tribune, 11 May 1918

Despite the loss of his films many of Thompson's still pictures taken during the Russian Revolution have been preserved. A selection of 201 photographs was published in his book The Crime of the Twentieth Century in 1918. For those of you who would like to see more here is a link to a weblog on Thompson's remarkable picture book.


In February 2017, the authors found footage from Thompson's film The German Curse in Russia.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Durborough War Film Premiere Set For October 9

Wilbur H. Durborough's historical film On the Firing Line with the Germans (1915) has been scanned, digitized and restored by the Library of Congress. Nearly one hundred years after it was first shown the movie will be thrown on the screen again in all its former splendor. This will be on Friday October 9, at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy. After the exhibition authors Jim Castellan and Ron van Dopperen will answer any questions on the making of this remarkable World War I feature film which has been described in their latest book American Cinematographers in the Great War. Unfortunately, co-author Cooper Graham can't join us.

American reporters at the Adlon Hotel, a lost scene now restored in Durborough's World War I film

As a teaser, here is a short clip from Durborough's war film showing scenes that were considered lost. The authors found these segments in the U.S. Signal Corps collection at the National Archives in Washington, DC. As a result, the film is almost complete now and will be shown as originally edited in 1915 when first released in America. You will have an intimate view of the German Imperial family, see a group of American war reporters - including camera correspondent Durborough - at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin, and witness Durborough interviewing the Prussian general and military writer, Friedrich von Bernhardi.

For more information on this special exhibition go to the website of the Pordenone Film Festival.

The authors would like to thank the staff of the Library of Congress for a great job well done!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Adrian C. Duff, the Camera Kid

Because he was primarily a still photographer we only mentioned him briefly in our book on the American film cameramen of World War I. Also, as a result of his untimely death, Adrian C. Duff's name and reputation soon vanished into oblivion after the Great War had ended. This weblog is another attempt to set the record straight and give a long forgotten American war photographer the credits he deserves.

Adrian C. Duff (1918), when he was an officer in the U.S. Signal Corps

Shooting the First Aerial Pictures Above New York City

Born in New York City in 1893, Duff made national headlines in February 1912 when he got in a plane with aviator Frank T. Coffyn and for the first time in history photographed New York City from above. Because of his youth - he was only 21 at the time - he was nicknamed "The Camera Kid". These remarkable pictures were taken above Manhattan with a small hand camera and Duff had considerable difficulty in steadying it because of the turbulence. Duff was on the staff of the American Press Association when he made these photographs. In a special press release Duff explained how he managed to make these historical pictures.

The American Press Association sent Duff to Vera Cruz, Mexico, in April 1914 and he covered the landing of the U.S. Marines. Shortly afterwards, when war broke out in Europe, he crossed the Atlantic and made his way into Belgium. He was in Antwerp when the Germans bombed the city with their Zeppelins, witnessed the destruction of Termonde and covered the siege of Antwerp in October 1914 with his camera. Because of his experience as a war photographer his employer sent him into Mexico again to cover General Pershing's 1916 expedition against Pancho Villa.

When America entered the First World War, Duff was assigned to the 26th U.S. Division and sent to Europe. He was commissioned as a Sergeant and later promoted to Lieutenant in the Photo Unit that accompanied the 35th Division. A number of pictures in the Signal Corps collection of the National Archives in Washington, DC, are credited to Duff. Here is a special selection, all taken in the final months of the war when Duff was stationed at the western front:

Wounded soldier, receiving first aid. September 26, 1918

Elderly French couple, greeting American soldiers. November 6, 1918

Medical corps, carrying wounded soldier. July 22, 1918

Fearless Photographer

Duff was, by all accounts, a fearless photographer and always ready to get into the thick of the fight to make a good picture. Together with one of the Signal Corps operators, he crawled out into No Man's Land just before an attack was scheduled to take place, and, though exposed to both German and American fire, set up his camera in order that the people at home, seated comfortably in motion-picture theatres, might actually see the boys going "over the top." On another occasion during the Battle of Chateau-Thiery, Duff became separated from the troops to which he was attached and found himself under the fire of a German machine- gun, but in spite of the hail of bullets he stuck to his work, made his pictures, and returned to the American lines herding in front of him a group of Germans whom he had captured at the point of an empty revolver. He twice received a citation for bravery as result of this.

Adrian C. Duff died unexpectedly on March 7, 1920, at the age of 28 in a car crash in Brooklyn, New York City. At the time of his sudden death he was working as a motion picture cameraman for Gaumont. Apart from his war pictures there is probably also film shot by Duff during World War I, but no research has been done on this so far.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Air Raid Over Venice! (1915)

Sent to Europe to cover the Great War by William Randolph Hearst, Ansel E. Wallace filmed the German offensive on the eastern front, was captured by a German submarine when he tried to cross the English Channel and finally made his way to Italy to report on the Italian entry into the war. One of the first newsreel cameramen in American film history, Wallace had a major scoop in 1915 with his pictures of the new super submarines that were deployed by the German Navy.

A.E. Wallace, copied from the Boston American, 29 August 1915 

Bound for Venice

Wallace's experiences during World War I feature in a special chapter on the Hearst cameramen in our latest book American Cinematographers in the Great War. Among the footage shot by Wallace in wartime Italy are some remarkable scenes of the Italian declaration of war, taken in Rome. He also filmed Italian troops that were ordered to protect the Austrian Embassy from the crowds. Heading for the war zone, Wallace left Rome bound for Venice on May 26, 1915. The people in the city, Wallace said, were "spy mad", and he had a hard time taking his pictures because of the strict censorhip by the Italian authorities. But he was in Venice in time to report on one of the first Austrian air raids on the city in the summer of 1915.

Here is his personal account on this historical event, as printed in the Washington Herald of July 11, 1915:

A.E. Wallace returned to his hometown Evansville, Indiana, and started his own photographic business. He died in Evansville on December 20, 1941 and was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery.