Monday, January 4, 2016

Fake the Footage!

Ever since films were first made war scenes have been staged before the movie camera. The expert in this field is no doubt film historian Stephen Bottomore. In his doctoral thesis Filming, faking and propaganda: The origins of the war film, 1897-1902, Bottomore presented the first detailed treatment of war and early cinema, describing the representation of conflicts in film from the Greco-Turkish War of 1897 through the Spanish-American War, Boer War, and others up to about 1902.

German infantry attack, captured by Albert K. Dawson. YouTube link to movie scene

Bottomore clearly demonstrated that in attempting to cover these events, early filmmakers faced a difficult task, for warfare at the end of the 19th century was changing, relying more on defence and concealment and less on highly visible offensives; there was also increasing regulation and censorship of reporting. With the new tactics making battle less visible, and with increasing official controls, how could wars be represented on film? Surprisingly, in just half a decade, filmmakers found ways to cope, by developing new 'genres' of films such as acted fakes, and new exhibition strategies, and in these ways managed to present wars to the public of the time fairly effectively.

German Infantry Charge

As we found during our research on the American cinematographers of the First World War, the situation in 1914-1918 had not changed much. As an example, here is a video showing how Albert K. Dawson staged a German infantry attack on the Western Front in February 1915:


Trench warfare in World War I didn't make for very exciting action scenes. With their bulky cameras and heavy tripods, and with no zoom lenses available to get closer to the actual scene, camera operators frequently decided to stage events. The classic scene from The Battle of the Somme (1916) - showing British soldiers going over the top - was filmed at a trench mortar school well behind the firing lines. By comparing film scenes with still photographs and press reports, we discovered American cinematographers sometimes used the same techniques.

On the other hand, the reasons for staging war scenes were complex. Since cinematographers such as Durborough and Dawson had great difficulty in getting to the front and then getting their actual combat footage past the censors, does this partially excuse their behaviour? As Signal Corps cameraman Joe Hubbel said: "Our idea was to make up propaganda films to show what we were doing. On one occasion they had hospital trains near us that could run up to the front and bring back the wounded. We took a company of men, bandaged them up and laid them in the sun on stretchers and loaded the train. I was brought up on charges that I was faking it. Well, that wasn't a good word.  I was representing an occasion that you wouldn't take the chance with a lot of wounded men. And it looked the same."

This raises the question and it is a significant one: when is a re-enactment justified?  The question is especially important when the documentary filmmaker is making a work that is designed to persuade the viewer to fight and die for a cause.

The website has more on the early history of faking war films.

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