Monday, July 25, 2016

Available on Kindle - "American Cinematographers in the Great War"

Last October, when authors Jim Castellan and Ron van Dopperen paid a visit to the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy, our publisher John Libbey mentioned to us that he was considering to have our book American Cinematographers in the Great War made available as an eBook. John was quite busy during the film festival, so we showed our appreciation for his continuing support but we expected it would take some time before an eBook version of this publication would be ready.

As it turns out, John struck a deal earlier this year with Amazon, which already has our book in print for sale worldwide, and as a result Amazon from 2016 now also offers a digital Kindle version of American Cinematographers in the Great War.

So, for those of you who would like to read this book on their iPad here is a link to the Kindle eBook:

American Cinematographers in the Great War (Amazon/Kindle eBook version, 2016)

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Filmed by Albert K. Dawson - The Catacombs of War (1915)

On August 1, 1915, American cinematographer Albert K. Dawson while following the offensive on the Eastern Front with the Austro-Hungarian army produced a fascinating film report on the Russian trench system. "The breastworks are remarkably modern. I have taken some really great pictures of these trenches", Dawson noted that day in his war diary.

Dawson with movie camera in the destroyed city of Ivangorod. Photograph from the Austrian National Archives

When Dawson wrote these lines he accompanied the Army Detachment under the command of General Remus von Woyrsch, which was just about to capture the Russian forts around Ivangorod. Dawson's notebook shows how he managed to get himself attached to this army and how he risked his life to cover the offensive. Because of the historical value of Dawson's work as a pioneering camera correspondent his war diary on this military campaign was partially published by the authors in 2011 in an article for Film History magazine.

Trench Warfare

Born in Vincennes, Indiana, in 1885, Albert K. Dawson was one of the most enterprising film correspondents in World War I. His movie report is particularly significant because - although the Russian front in World War I wasn't known to have been heavily fortified - it does indicate that the Russians had in some sectors developed some remarkably elaborate defenses. According to Dawson, the Russians had learned from the war against Japan in 1905 when the enemy used trenches extensively.

Dawson (right) inspecting Russian trenches near Ivangorod

Shortly after his return to Berlin, Dawson wrote a letter on this trench trip to his family in Indiana, in which he described his experiences. The letter was printed in the [Indiana] Seymour Republican on November 29, 1915:

On my last trip I had occasion to visit and study some of the Russian fortified field positions in Poland. From a military engineer's point of view they were simply beautiful. To take them with a direct frontal attack would require a force a hundred times as large as the defenders and the loss would be very heavy. In fact, I do not see how any number of infantry could break through without the help of artillery. Scientifically constructed barbed wire obstructions present an obstacle which is well-nigh impassable unless one has a good pair of clippers and a lot of time. And behind these obstructions in underground shelters are concealed machine guns which are so placed as to cover with their sweep the entire front.
Of course artillery, if you have enough of it and the right kind, will prepare the way for these attacks by blowing these positions up with explosive shells, but that takes very accurate work and costs a lot of time and ammunition. A well placed shell will do a lot of damage but if you miss your mark just a little bit you can shoot all day and do no damage at all. That is one big lesson we must learn, "digging in". 

Also, in May 1917 Dawson published an article for Scientific American on the Russian trench system, which can be viewed and downloaded here.

We uploaded scenes from Dawson's film, showing his visit to the Russian trenches, on our YouTube channel.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Enemy Within - German Sabotage in the U.S.A.

On February 2, 1915, German officer Werner Horn bombed the international railroad bridge in Vancesboro, Maine, in an attempt to sabotage transport of war supplies to Canada. Masterminded by spymaster Franz von Papen, the bombing was the first public act of sabotage by German agents in America during World War I. Arriving on the scene shortly after the explosion, Louis de Rochemont filmed the aftermath of the stirring attack.

Werner Horn and Sheriff Ross (1915). Press photograph copied from the files at the National Archives 

Breaking News

The sabotage of the Vanceboro Bridge was breaking news in the United States. A number of film crews arrived in town looking for newsreel footage but left with nothing truly usable. However, Louis de Rochemont, a 16 year old freelance cameraman from Massachusetts, was able to capture the story. He reportedly convinced Deputy Sheriff Ross into a reenactment of Horn's arrest and combined it with footage of the damaged bridge into a newsreel that he sold to Hearst-Selig News Pictorial. A 16 mm. print of the historical footage that was shown at the local Vanceboro theater has survived and was made available to the Northeast Historic Film Archives in Bucksport, Maine. Because of its historical value the film was restored by UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Deputy Sheriff Ross and Werner Horn pose for de Rochemont's camera.

Although the surviving print doesn't have a reenactment of Horn's arrest the film does include a close-up of the German secret agent and Deputy Sheriff Ross. Both are shown posing in front of de Rochemont's movie camera. Here is a full review of the contemporary newsreel:

HEARST-SELIG PICTORIAL NO. 12  (Feb.11) [1915] — Testing new fire escape. Man slides down rope from top of Munsey Building, Washington, to street, eleven stories below. Mid-winter Carnival at Saranac Lake, N. Y. Picturesque parade. Twenty children are injured in Orphanage wrecked by wind in New Orleans, La. Grace Darling visits bide-a-wee, home for abandoned animals, in New York City, and has interesting experience.   First pictures of Italian earthquake. Avezzano, [shot by Ariel Varges] where 10,000 persons perished, a levelled waste. Maimed and destitute survivors are cared for by militia and volunteer aid corps. Searching for victims. Houses demolished at Yarmouth, England, in daring aerial invasion by Zeppelins. Mounted infantry and motor guards patrol English coast. International bridge across St. Croix River at Vanceboro, Maine, is damaged in dynamite blast.

The scoop by de Rochemont is mentioned in Raymond Fielding's classic film history book The American Newsreel. One of the earliest references we could find was in a newspaper story by the [Kansas] Emporia Gazette on October 23, 1937: "De Rochemont persuaded the marshal who had Horn in custody to reenact the arrest. The newsreel company to whom de Rochemont sold the film at first refused to accept it on the ground that it was faked, but the budding cameraman persuaded them that it had been re-enacted just as it had taken place, and they used it."

Nicknamed "the father of the docu-drama", de Rochemont in the 1930s created the groundbreaking newsreel series March of Time. His early documentary productions won two Academy Awards. Louis de Rochemont died in Newington, New Hampshire, on December 23, 1978.

A reconstruction of the making of de Rochemont's World War I film has been uploaded on our YouTube channel.