Monday, November 16, 2015

Found! Merl laVoy's "Heroic France" (USA, 1917)

Merl la Voy, circa 1920

Long considered lost, Merl la Voy's war film Heroic France (USA, 1917) has been partially retrieved by authors Cooper C. Graham and Ron van Dopperen. La Voy is credited as the only civilian cinematographer from the United States who filmed on the battlefields of the Somme and Verdun with the French army. The authors located four reels of La Voy's war footage, including some fascinating aerial pictures taken above the frontline and scenes showing a German gas attack on the Western Front.

"The Modern Marco Polo"

Motion picture cameraman Merl la Voy (1885-1953) traveled the four corners of the world for Pathé, earning him the title of the Modern Marco Polo. His adventures during the First World War are described in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. When we finished this project, we closed our book with a final observation saying none of la Voy's World War I films had been found. We were wrong about this. On the Internet we located a collection of World War I newsreel segments which could be traced to the CBS Collection at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The intertitle references to La Voy pointed to Heroic France, his first war film made in 1917. We were able to confirm this by checking contemporary reviews for this film.

Merl la Voy filmed with the French army in 1916. On his return to America his film was first shown in Chicago on March 19, 1917. Heroic France was sponsored by a group of pro-French business men from Chicago and exhibitions supported war charity organizations such as the American Red Cross and the American Relief Clearing House. This eight-reel movie was released nationwide in June 1917 by Mutual, shortly after the American intervention in the Great War. The footage that we found comes from reels 3, 4, 5 and 6. It has a total playtime of a little over 35 minutes. The inclusion of pictures showing the Serbian army, as well as the double "5 Series", showing both aerial scenes and footage from the French front on the same reel, is intriguing. La Voy in 1917 went to Serbia for the Red Cross where he shot film at the front. These observations suggest that the four reels found with film from Heroic France had been re-edited by La Voy at a later date, perhaps for lectures.

German prisoners of war, gathering grain, 1916. Photograph by Merl la Voy. Author's collection.

CBS Series on World War I

CBS obtained the original footage from the Sherman Grinberg Collection while assembling film for their World War I TV series in 1964. After the series was edited CBS in a magnificent gesture turned its unused footage over to the National Archives - a real boon for researchers. We also found scenes in the CBS episode on Verdun from this series, which were probably taken by la Voy, featuring the American Lafayette Escadrille pilots who had volunteered to fight for France. Famous aces such as Raoul Lufberry who had been filmed by la Voy appear in this CBS episode, together with his pet lions Whiskey and Soda.

Gardening at the front, 1916. Photograph by Merl la Voy. Author's collection.

Getting mail in the trenches, 1916. Photograph by Merl la Voy. Author's collection. 

We have edited these CBS scenes into the video on our YouTube channel, showing all of la Voy's World War I films that we found, rearranged according to the orginal series of numbers of the reels and scenes on the intertitles.



  1. Sir

    Where can I get a copy of this Film on DVD!?

    1. Sorry to say no DVD release is available at this moment. The segments that we found have been upgraded to high res video. Will be back when we find more!


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