Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Reaching the Masses - Propaganda Film During World War I

Hosted by Indy Neidell, YouTube channel The Great War shows you the history of the First World War in the four years from 1914 to 1918, exactly 100 years ago. In September 2016 a special episode was broadcasted on film propaganda during World War I.

Film poster Over the Top (USA, Vitagraph 1918)

Cinemas were already pretty popular when World War I broke out in 1914. After initial hesitation all warring nations started to embrace the new mass medium for their propaganda. The episode shows that, since it was technically difficult to deliver the authentic material the audiences wanted, war films were frequently staged. Film scripts opened the opportunity to transport any message about the war to a mass audience.

You can subscribe to this interesting show and watch a new video every Monday, Thursday and Saturday.


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

War Reporters on the Eastern Front (1915)

In June 1915, Dutch journalist Marcus van Blankenstein left Berlin and visited the Eastern Front. A correspondent for the Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant, Van Blankenstein witnessed the destruction in Eastern Prussia as a result of the invasion of the Russian army. The report that he filed on this trench trip is also interesting for film history because in this story he mentions an American cinematographer and the way he worked while filming the war.

War reporters at the Eastern Front. Durborough is at the wheel of the car.  Photo courtesy William G. Chrystal

Although he doesn't mention any name, by checking the details on Van Blankenstein's trip it is clear that the cinematographer was Wilbur H. Durborough, the flamboyant American reporter who accompanied the German army together with his camera operator Irving Guy Ries. Durborough has been mentioned before several times in this weblog, as well as in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War.

Durborough's first trip through East Prussia, copied from the Wichita Beacon, 9 August 1915

"Band of brothers"

At the moment described by Van Blankenstein Ries evidently was at another place and Durborough himself cranked the movie camera. According to this Dutch reporter, Durborough staged some of his film scenes, such as a group of Russian prisoners of war who were asked by him to perform a colorful folkore dance. "With all pleasure I would make a band of brothers out of them and join them into battle!", Durborough exclaimed after he had seen their performance. Van Blankenstein clearly didn't approve of his journalistic methods. "It is so typical for these American business men. To these people this whole war apparently is nothing more than a chance to make a big movie drama out of it. A spectacle that they can watch and enjoy from a professional point of view."

Van Blankenstein's original press report can be read here. 

For more information on Durborough's photographic work during World War I here is a link to an extended edition on the making of his film On the Firing Line with the Germans (USA, 1915) 

Monday, December 4, 2017

Mobilizing Movies! The U.S. Signal Corps Goes to War, 1917-1919

To mark the centennial of the First World War an international conference was organized recently on the birth of military cinematography. Authors Cooper Graham and Ron van Dopperen for this occasion were asked to prepare a presentation on the film program by the U.S. Signal Corps during World War I.

Lieutenant Ira P. Gilette, photographic officer of the 1st Division, A.E.F., in France, April 1918. Signal Corps photograph, courtesy Harry B. Kidd

The conference The Birth of Military Cinemas was organized in Namur, Belgium, on November 30 and December 1 by the Royal Belgian Film Archives, in cooperation with ECPAD, the Mission Centenaire 14-18 France and the Universities of Namur and Picardie. With contributions by leading film historians representing most of the European countries that were belligerents during the Great War our presentation focused on the official military cinematographers that accompanied the American Expeditionary Force in France, how these men were trained, improvements in camera technique, the conditions at the front while filming the Great War and the uneasy relationship between the U.S. Signal Corps that was officialy assigned to cover the war and the Committee on Public Information (CPI), America's wartime propaganda agency.


As demonstrated in our presentation, the work done by these military cameramen from the United States improved significantly as a result of the CPI film efforts. At the time of the Armistice in November 1918, the Photographic Unit of the U.S. Signal Corps had become a remarkable powerhouse, with seven photographic field units on duty in the combat zone on the Western Front. At the National Archives in Washington, D.C., there is also a huge amount of footage available that was shot by these cameramen. The American film legacy of the Great War is impressive.

Based on our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, we did additional research for this presentation on the Signal Corps films of World War I. We edited the results into a film presentation and showed this short documentary for the first time during the conference on December 1. Enjoy this web launch!

Here is a link to the conference paper that we submitted on the birth of military cinematography in the United States during World War I. 


Monday, November 27, 2017

Shooting the Desert War in Iraq, 1917-1918

In January 1917, American cinematographer Ariel Varges accompanied the British army to cover the desert war in Mesopotamia (Iraq). Advancing on both sides of the Tigris river, forcing the Ottoman army out of a number of fortified positions along the way, the British on March 11, 1917, entered Baghdad where they were greeted as liberators.

Captain Varges, the official Cinematographer, in a forward post near Ramadi, 1917. Photograph from the collection of the Imperial War Museum

Varges' film work during World War I has been described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. As mentioned in a previous weblog, as a result of a new resource website on the history of British newsreels we are now able to pinpoint Varges' film work with the British, starting with his coverage of the Great War at Salonika, Greece, right down to the desert war in the Middle East. Commissioned as a Captain in the British Army, Varges was in a unique position to cover the First World War with his movie camera.

"With the British in Baghdad"

The newsreels shot by Varges were released by the British War Office and appeared in the Official Topical Budget series that was shown twice a week in British theaters.  The footage was probably syndicated to other newsreels both in Europe and in the U.S.A. Based on the records available, Varges is credited as cinematographer for 13 newsreel scenes showing the desert war between the British and the Turks in 1917-1918. He was in Baghdad around the time when the city was captured and his first newsreel contribution "With the British in Baghdad" appeared in Topical Budget No. 323-2, that was released on November 3, 1917. Varges' newsreel coverage shows that he followed the military campaign quite closely.

Battle of Ramadi

In September 1917, Varges covered the second Battle of Ramadi. With artillery support, British forces advanced up two ridges to the south of Ramadi in the face of Turkish machine gun, rifle and artillery fire. Both were taken by the early afternoon of September 28, 1917. The Turkish surrender came just in time, as a powerful sandstorm began shortly afterwards which reduced visibility to a few metres. Had it struck earlier, the garrison could easily have slipped away. The British were now able to drive the Turks completely out of Mesopotamia. The capture of Ramadi also led to the local Arab tribes switching sides and supporting the British.

British officers interrogating a very young boy soldier in the desert. Photograph by Varges. Courtesy Imperial War Museum

Although a number of remarkable photographs by Varges have survived on this battle the newsreel references available do not mention any movie scenes taken by him at Ramadi. He did cover the Camel Corps during its operations in the Iraqi desert, and filmed French as well as Indian troops in action. The extant footage also has an interesting scene showing a spy who got caught by the British.

Varges spent the final months of the war around Baghdad taking pictures of daily life in the city. A letter from his personal collection that was sold recently on eBay indicates that he was hospitalized in December 1918. This letter was written from the "Officers Hospital" in Baghdad. Apparently Varges became ill with fever while being evacuated from Iraq and was gravely ill for several weeks. In this letter to his mother, Varges describes how he was "shell shocked" during an attack.  In March 1919, Varges returned to the United States and was discharged from the British army. He remained a globetrotting war photographer for the Hearst newsreels until shortly before his retirement around 1952.

Captured camouflaged Turkish guns in action against the enemy. Photograph by Varges, from the collection of the Imperial War Museum

Out of 13 newsreel scenes credited to Varges on the British desert war we were able to identify 4 scenes in the film collection of the Imperial War Museum. Apart from regular newsreel footage, the Imperial War Museum has much more film shot by Varges while he accompanied the British army in Mesopotamia (Iraq). We will return to this subject in another weblog.

The newsreel scenes shot by Varges on the British desert war have been uploaded on our YouTube channel.

Click this link for a complete list of all references to Ariel Varges and his films for the British during World War I.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Filming an Attack on Fort Lewis, Washington (USA, 1918)

In the National Archives the authors recently found a fascinating film that was shot in 1918 by Wilbur H. Durborough for the U.S. Signal Corps, showing a staged attack on Fort Lewis in Washington.

Wilbur H. Durborough in Signal Corps office, Washington, D.C., January 1919

On the Firing Line with the Germans (USA, 1915)

Durborough's film work during World War I has been described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. In 1915 he and his camera operator Ries went to Europe and filmed with the German army on the Eastern Front. Their film On the Firing Line with the Germans has been restored in 2015 by the Library of Congress, based on our film research. This previous weblog has a link to a TV show by American History TV with commentary by authors Cooper Graham and Jim Castellan on this film project.

We recently prepared a new, extended story on Durborough's photographic work during World War I. You can read this Durborough Film Annotation (2nd edition) here.

In November 1917 Durborough accepted a commission as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Signal Corps which had been assigned to cover the American intervention into the war. During his time in military service, Durborough produced a short film at Fort Lewis, Washington, to demonstrate how the troops there would defend against an attack. This clearly wasn’t a training film but intended to show the United States Army was well prepared for war. According to a contemporary report in the Seattle Star, Durborough's film was released through the Commitee on Public Information - America's wartime propaganda agency - to the state councils for defense for public exhibition.

As he did in his 1915 film, Durborough followed a story line. Initially troops are seen relaxing until the alert comes via semaphore and phone, then troops are mustered and deployed, followed by escalating displays of camouflaged infantry and artillery counterattack and concluding with evacuating and treating the wounded. Durborough appears to have believed it important for war film credibility to include casualties, real or staged. His film also emphasized how soldiers felt at home in camp, with scenes showing visits by their family and loved ones.

Scene from The Western Spirit  (USA, 1918) 

Original Film Script Found

We were extremely fortunate in having found Durborough's original script "The Western Spirit" for this short film. His personal script, as well as the footage, was filed by the Signal Corps in 1936 as part of their Historical Film Series on World War I under the title Training at Camp Lewis, Washington (NARA, RG 11-H-1245).

Here is a download link to the complete production file on Durborough's film. 

The Signal Corps documents not only have Durborough's list of titles for this film project, but also a revised list that was used for the final edit in 1918. The file shows that Durborough's input was used for almost all of his film. Contemporary press reports mention Durborough made this movie together with press photographer Edward N. Jackson who worked for the New York Daily News after World War I. But the Signal Corps film file does not credit Jackson, so it seems likely he only did still photography for this project.

By using Durborough's list we could identify almost all scenes in this short film and reconstruct the original movie.

We have uploaded Durborough's reconstructed film on the attack on Fort Lewis on our YouTube channel and have added contemporary World War I music to this clip. Enjoy!


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Lost and Found: Filming Nobel Prize Winner Alexis Carrel (1916)

On August 31, 1916, American cameraman Merl LaVoy was just behind the frontlines in a hospital at Compiègne. There he filmed Nobel Prize winner Alexis Carrel, the man who invented vascular surgery and performed the first heart bypass operation as well as the first heart transplant. Together with the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh Carrel also laid the groundwork for the artificial heart.

Alexis Carrel (1873-1944). Picture taken in World War I

The authors recently found a letter by LaVoy in the archives of the French Academy of Medicine which sheds some new light on how he captured Carrel with his movie camera. Carrel played an important part in the history of World War I. During the First World War Carrel and the English chemist Henry Dakin developed a special method of treating wounds based on chlorine which, preceding the development of antibiotics, was a major advance in the care of traumatic wounds.


The Dakin-Carrel method was an absolute breakthrough in medical treatment during World War I. Deaths as a result of gangrene were reduced significantly as a result of this discovery. Strangely enough, when LaVoy visited Carrel in the summer of 1916 he gave him most of the credits. Although Dakin had invented the antisceptic chemical that was actually used he hardly was mentioned in LaVoy's film. The truth of the matter was: Dakin was a shy and retiring person who was reluctant to speak in public. Carrel on the other hand was quite a different man. He was a short Napoleonic figure and in his photographs looks like an arrogant prelate of medical science.

As a result, it was Carrel who cashed in on most of the publicity. Headlines in the New York Times soon blazed: “Drs. Carrel and Dakin find new antiseptic. Remedy said to make infection impossible.” Certainly the technique and the solution were used all over the world and saved thousands of lives, with Carrel largely taking credit for Dakin’s discovery. After the war Carrel came home to a hero’s welcome. For this Carrel was even awarded the French Légion d'honneur.

Heroic France (USA, 1917)

In a previous weblog we mentioned how we found footage from Merl LaVoy's first film project Heroic France (USA, 1917). Among the scenes that we found are a number of close ups showing Carrel which were taken at his hospital in Compiègne. Shortly after recording these films LaVoy corresponded with Carrel on these movie scenes. The letters show there was a considerable interest in LaVoy's film work. At the request of Carrel's colleagues he sent them duplicates of his films which were greatly appreciated.

You can read and download LaVoy's and Carrel's war letters here. Courtesy: Bibliothèque de l'Académie nationale de médecine (Paris).

Here is LaVoy's war film Heroic France which was posted before on our YouTube channel. The scenes showing Alexis Carrel can be watched at 3: 17 minutes.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Close Up: "The Battle and Fall of Przemyśl" (USA, 1915)

In the spring of 1915, American cameraman Albert K. Dawson followed the attack by the Austro-Hungarian army on the Eastern Front. The target was Przemyśl, a heavily fortified city that had been taken by the Russians earlier that year. Segments of Dawson's war film The Battle and Fall of Przemyśl - long considered lost - were recently found by the authors in the Austrian film archives.

The effect of the bombardment of Przemyśl. Note the copright reference to Dawson. The same scene also appeared in his war film 

Film Sources

While researching our book on the American cinematographers in the Great War we came across various film fragments that were shot by Dawson during this offensive. Apart from footage at the Library of Congress the Imperial War Museum also has scenes from this film. The film in London turned out to be a copy of a movie with Hungarian intertitles. The frame enlargements that we found, as well as the lecture that was used for the exhibition of the film in the U.S.A, all pinpoint to Dawson who as a neutral American film correspondent appears to have done most of the principal cinematography for this movie.

Opening scenes from film clip

The most complete sequence comes from footage which is now at the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna. Running 14 minutes, the film starts with the Austrian artillery bombarding the forts of Przemyśl. In the next scene we see Dawson walking on the battlefield, together with an Austrian soldier. He is also seen inspecting the artillery that had been taken from the Russians. The film ends with a celebration of the capture of the city which took place on June 3, 1915.

To recontruct the original look and feel of this war film from 1915 as released in the USA we translated the Hungarian intertitles into English and added contemporary Austrian military music to these film segments.

For some interesting backgrond information, here is a download link to a publicity leaflet of this World War I film, which was used during an exhibition in November 1915. 

You can read more on Dawson's film adventures during World War I in our book Shooting the Great War: Albert Dawson and the American Correspondent Film Company (2013)


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Filming America's First War with Russia (1918-1919)

In November 1918 a photographic unit of the U.S. Signal Corps arrived in Siberia to cover Operation "Polar Bear", the American intervention in Russia. At the end of World War I the United States had sent two forces to Russia. The 339th Infantry Regiment was sent to Archangel and Murmansk near the Arctic Circle, initially to protect supplies and help reopen a second front against Germany. The 27th and 31st Infantry were sent to the Vladivostok region, to assist Czechoslovak military units trying to make their way to the western front.

Left: Captain Howard Price Kingsmore, U.S. Signal Corps photographic officer with his camera at the North-Ural front in Siberia. Right: Signal Corps cameraman taking pictures on a railcar on the Transsiberian Railroad. Signal Corps Collection, National Archives

The experience in Siberia for the American soldiers was miserable. Problems with fuel, ammunition, supplies and food were widespread. Horses accustomed to temperate climates were unable to function in sub-zero Russia. Water-cooled machine guns froze and became useless. During their time in North Russia from 1918 until 1920 the American forces suffered more than 210 casualties. In fact, America's first war with Russia turned out to be a dismal failure. At least 5,000 U.S. troops were sent into Russia to kill Bolsheviks, but after the Armistice most of the soldiers just wanted to go home. Early in 1919, instances of rumored and actual mutinies became frequent. As a result, President Wilson directed his War Department to begin planning a withdrawal from North Russia.

American troops landing in Russia. Scene from Signal Corps footage at National Archives

Film Release by National Archives

U.S. Signal Corps cameramen recorded America's first war with Russia and produced 1,200 still photographs as well as 12,000 feet of motion picture film. The films were filed at the National Archives in College Park, MD, and until recently only a few scenes of this strange war were made available to the public. This all changed when in December 2014 the National Archives uploaded 14 reels of footage on the Internet, showing the activities of the American Expeditionary Force in Siberia.

Here are these films as uploaded by the National Archives on YouTube.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

The First Home Movies of World War I

On October 8, 1927, the Eastman Kodak Company presented what was announced as "the only picture record of America's part in the World War officially released for home projection." For the first time in film history, the audience could watch actual scenes from the battlefields of France in their own living room.

Advertisement for the Kodak World War I home movies. From Amateur Movie Maker, November 1927

These first home movies of the Great War were available for $150. The footage was on 16 mm, a revolutionary new format Eastman Kodak had introduced in 1923 as a less expensive amateur alternative to 35 mm film. Sixteen mm film was one of the first formats to use acetate safety film as a film base. Kodak never used nitrate film for this format because of its high flammability. In addition to making home movies, people could buy or rent films from the Kodak film library, a key selling point. Amateur film makers could buy a complete 16 mm outfit from Kodak consisting of a camera, projector, tripod, screen and splicer for $335.

America Goes Over 

The disillusionment that followed shortly after the Peace Treaty of Versailles resulted in few war films in America during the 1920s. There were some blockbusters to be sure, notably The Big Parade (1925) and Wings (1927). But these were fiction. Documentary war films for a wide audience were not considered commercially viable. This changed somewhat with the introduction of home movies in the United States. A new market was opened and footage that had been shown in the regular theaters could now be released again to interested customers such as veterans of the Great War. The Kodak series on World War I was taken from America Goes Over (1918), a production of the Committee on Public Information (CPI), America's wartime propaganda agency. Rereleased on 16 mm Kodak Cinegraph format, the customer could order the full series of five episodes or buy a single film.

We found "Flashes of Action", one of Kodak's first home films of World War I, in the Periscope Films collection and have uploaded it on our YouTube channel.

The original 1918 CPI production America Goes Over can be watched here.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Strange Case of Dr. Lewis H. Marks

A conspicuous figure behind the scenes in Germany during World War I was Dr. Lewis H. Marks. More than just a regular research chemist doing business in Berlin, Marks was also a secret agent for the German government, spying on American reporters.

Lewis H. Marks. Press photo from 1933 when he became President of the Continental Distilling Corporation in Philadelphia. Authors collection.

Born in New Orleans in 1883, Lewis Marks studied medicine and came to Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in 1907 where he became an assistant to the famous Dr. Paul Ehrlich, the man who discovered the cure for syphilis. Apart from selling serums to the German army during the First World War Marks also used his extensive contacts with the German government to assist American journalists, helping them with an interview or a permit to get to the front. This way he gained the trust of these American reporters who even made him an honorary member of their correspondents club at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin. But they didn't know that Marks filed secret reports on their whereabouts and activities to some very high-placed German officials.

Film Propaganda

Apart from his dealings with American reporters Marks was also involved in propaganda for the Germans. He was instrumental in sending the first German war films to the United States and accompanied newsreel cameraman Ansel E. Wallace to the Eastern Front in January 1915. In fact, Marks' involvement with film propaganda continued throughout the war, as we discovered during a recent research trip to the Military Archives in Freiburg, Germany. Marks was in close contact with Major Hans von Haeften, the man who was the driving force behind the Bild- und Film Amt (BuFA) which was set up in the summer of 1916. This was the first attempt by the German government to coordinate and produce film propaganda. Though it did not really succeed in its aims to boost morale BuFA helped to lay the foundation for UFA and the thriving interwar German film industry.

Dr. Lewis H. Marks (third from left) and American correspondents at the Hotel Adlon, June 1915. Scene from Wilbur H. Durborough's war film On the Firing Line with the Germans (USA, 1915) 

Hans von Haeften had worked in military intelligence at General Headquarters for the Eastern Front and was very much interested in boosting official film propaganda. A report from the BuFA files at the Military Archives in Freiburg (RM/9901) refers to Von Haeften who was present at a meeting on July 29, 1916, saying: "Dr. Marks recently came to me in order to represent the interests of the American film companies. He said the Americans are not interested in sending cinematographers to Germany to make their own films. But they would like to see what movies are available and select the footage that is suitable for distribution in the United States."

Secret Report

Karl Boy-Ed (1872-1930)

We also came across Dr. Marks in a secret report by naval officer Captain Karl Boy-Ed. Here we have another fascinating figure in World War I history. As a naval attaché in the United States Boy-Ed had established a spy and sabotage ring until his undercover activities were disclosed. In December 1915 he was expelled from America and on his return to Germany Boy-Ed was put in charge of naval intelligence. Marks contacted Boy-Ed in 1916, and gave him confidential information on the American reporters. Boy-Ed's notes confirm Marks' secret activities, up to the point of suggesting which journalist could be bribed for any pro-German publicity and who couldn't be trusted. The report also mentions Von Haeften's propaganda activities and again shows that Dr. Marks knew him well.

Here is a copy of Boy-Ed's file on the American reporters, mentioning Lewis Marks as his undercover agent, including a translation into English.

Dr. Lewis Hart Marks died in Paoli, Pennsylvania, in 1958.

This website has a short biography on Dr. Marks.

Also, for more information on Marks and his secret dealings during World War I, check out our book American Cinematographers in the Great War.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

World War I Combat Camera Edwin F. Weigle Found!

Radford Polinsky recently contacted us with some intriguing news about the discovery of an original combat movie camera that was cranked in 1918 by Lt. Edwin F. Weigle, one of the top American cinematographers in the First World War.

Edwin Weigle, demonstrating his Bell & Howell 2709 movie camera to General Peter Traub, Western Front, October 1918

As described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, Weigle was the "star" cameraman for the Chicago Tribune who accompanied the Belgian and the German army. His films On Belgian Battlefields (1914) and The German Side of the War (1915/1916) were among the most popular contemporary World War I films released in America. When the United States entered the Great War Weigle was also one of the first officers to set up a photographic division for the U.S. Signal Corps.

Vintage Bell & Howell Movie Camera 2709

Weigle's camera is a Bell & Howell 2709, serial number # 250. The camera was identified by Jim Elyea who found a note saying this camera was picked up at the [Bell & Howell]  factory by Lt. E. I. [sic] Weigle for the Signal Corps on June 1, 1918. The cameras are part of of his rental collection for History for Hire, a prop house that was started by Jim in 1985, which features a large vintage media collection. Jim explained: "It is one of four 2709s in our collection. I have no memory of when or where we got it. Right now, it has no movement, but if need be, we could probably install one from one of the other cameras."

We recently discovered Weigle went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma in June 1918 to film operations at the U.S. Army Artillery School. This previous weblog has more information on Weigle's film report. Given the date, Weigle probably used this specific Bell & Howell film camera to shoot these scenes. Shortly afterwards, Weigle was assigned to the 35th Division of the American Expeditionary Force. He went to France in the summer of 1918 and in October 1918 we have him shooting film of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Here is some of Weigle's footage taken with the 35th Division, that we found at the Imperial War Museum in London.

In our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, we reproduced a picture that was taken shortly after this offensive in late October 1918, showing Weigle demonstrating a Bell & Howell 2709 to General Peter Traub, the commanding officer of his Division. Again, this seems to be the very same movie camera that is now in the collection of History for Hire.

U.S. Signal Corps Photo Section Motion Picture Unit in action. Sgt. 1st class Polinsky (left) served as camera operator, with Pvt. Maxwell as camera assistant. The camera is a 35 mm U.S. Signal Corps Liberty model from 1918. Photo courtesy Radford Polinsky. 

Classic Hollywood Motion Picture Camera

Bell & Howell produced the 2709-types in different batches. Mary Pickford owned a 2709, serial number # 230 which was sold in February 1918. The Thomas Ince Studio bought a 2709, serial number # 241, sold on February 23, 1918. It stands to reason serial number # 250 was sold shortly afterwards in 1918, which ties in with the date on the note that was found by Jim Elyea. The first all metal camera with a four lense turret and twin compartment magazines, the 2709 Bell & Howell became a classic Hollywood motion picture camera. The design was so good that the basic camera body remained in production unaltered until 1957.

A film history fan, Radford Polinsky has participated with costumed World War I reenactors, using historic movie cameras from Jim Elyea's remarkable collection. "I work in the motion picture industry, and happily I went though film school back when they actually used film, so I have a basic grounding in the technology of film. I borrowed and brought a Signal Corps Liberty Model 35 mm hand cranked motion picture camera to show how some of the motion picture imagery used in World War I newsreels was captured. The owner of the camera is interested to let us use the Signal Corps Liberty Model to document World War I Centennial events. Now that we are well into the Centennial, we are getting serious about it!"

Check out the website of the Great War Historical Society for more  photos of the 1918 U.S. Signal Corps Photo Section Motion Picture Unit in action at the Los Angeles National Cemetery Memorial Day event for 2010.

Great job, Radford and Jim. And many thanks for sharing this information with us. We hope you take good care of Weigle's film camera!

Monday, September 25, 2017

An American Newsreel Cameraman with the Serbian Army (1915)

The Serbian Film Archives (Jugoslavenska Kinoteka) recently shared with us new information on American cameraman Ariel Varges. As a result, we were able to identify a number of newsreels that were shot by Varges in 1915 when he accompanied the Serbian army during World War I.

Ariel Varges in the trenches. Copied from Editor & Publisher, 27 October 1917

Ariel Varges (1890-1972) was one of the first pioneering newsreel cameramen in American film history. From 1914, he filmed for the Hearst-Selig News Pictorial and he remained a globe trotting war photographer throughout his career. As described in more detail in our book on the American cinematographers of the Great War, Varges came to Europe in December 1914. By using his close contacts with Sir Thomas Lipton, he got on a ship for the Serbian front and filmed the war in the Balkans.

First Foreign Movie Cameraman in Serbia

Varges was by all accounts the first foreign cameraman to film the Great War in Serbia. Upon reaching Belgrade he filed his first report for the Hearst-Selig News Pictorial No. 34 which was shown in the American theaters on April 29, 1915. This newsreel has scenes showing Sir Thomas Lipton with Serbian Red Cross officials, as well as the first pictures shown in the U.S. of Crown Prince Alexander, king regent of Serbia. In the collection of the Jugoslavenska Kinoteka is footage shot by Varges that was released in the United States between July-September 1915. These films are a most valuable addition to the newsreel footage by Varges that we had found earlier on at the Library of Congress in the John E. Allen Collection.

Scene from Hearst-Selig News Pictorial No. 34, filmed by Ariel Varges. Copied from Motography, May 8, 1915

The first newsreel report by Varges from Serbia that we could identify in the collection of the Jugoslavenska Kinoteka was Hearst-Selig News Pictorial No. 54 (1915) which has a remarkable close up of Major Vojislav Tankosić, one of the founders of the Black Hand group which was instrumental in recruiting Gavrilo Princip, the man who killed Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, thus propelling Europe into the First World War. The intertitle for this specific scene credits Tankosić for causing World War I which is somewhat exaggerated but the scene is of great historic interest. Our book American Cinematographers in the Great War has more information on how Varges managed to interest this high ranking Serbian officer to pose in front of his movie camera.

Photograph from A. E. Wallace's scrapbook. On the back is marked "Danube Trench", no. 8.  It is clearly a photograph taken in conjunction with Hearst Selig News Pictorial no. 71, September 25, 1915, which was shot by Varges with the Serbian army. Wallace was a colleague of Varges and shot film in wartime Germany. Courtesy Cooper C. Graham

Infantry Engagement

Varges' newsreels taken with the Serbs contain scenes taken in Nish, where the Serbian Army had set up temporary headquarters. In addition, Varges filmed military operations at the Serbian fortress of Semandria, a staged infantry engagement near Belgrade and wounded soldiers arriving on a transport at the American hospital in Belgrade. Altogether we were able to identify four U.S. newsreels that have Serbian war scenes taken by Varges, based on reviews in the trade paper Moving Picture World.

Varges' newsreels were posted online by the Jugoslavenska Kinoteka on the website of the European Film Gateway. We are most thankful to Aleksandar Erdeljanović, Head of the Film Archives, for sharing links to these clips with us. We have added references to the original American newsreels, as well as quotes from the reviews in the movie trade press, to compile this video on Varges' newsreels of the Serbian army during World War I.  All rights to the original footage are held by the Jugoslavenska Kinoteka.


Friday, September 8, 2017

Film Propaganda in the U.S.A.

At the outbreak of war in 1914 the United States soon became an important target for foreign propaganda. Both the Entente and the Central Powers tried to influence public opinion in America. The years of neutrality between 1914 and 1917 in fact turned into a 'battleground' which also included the American movie theaters. For the first time in film history movies were used in a professional way by various agencies and governments for wartime propaganda purposes. Sometimes this even resulted in riots in the film theaters between pro-Allied and pro-German Americans.

Albert Dawson, war photographer. Copied from Deutsch-Amerika, 15 September 1917

Case Study

As a case study for one of the earliest attempts to use motion pictures for this purpose, authors Cooper C. Graham and Ron van Dopperen in 2013 published Shooting the Great War: Albert Dawson and the American Correspondent Film Company. In this book we described the workings of a secret film campaign that was financed and set up by German officials in Berlin in 1914, and how the German authorities tried to use cinematographer Albert K. Dawson as a front man to make pro-German movies for release in the American theaters. Based on records from the German Foreign Office, the Austro-Hungarian military press office as well as personal information on Dawson's life and work, we offer the reader a unique opportunity to follow this American cameraman into the trenches of the First World War and witness his adventures at the front. The book also explains how Dawson's films were used as propaganda.

Scenes from one of Dawson's war films (1915)

A fifth edition of the book appeared in January 2015 and can be ordered on

For some fascinating background information on film propaganda in America during World War I, which also mentions Dawson and his film company, here is a link to another weblog.

Our book on Dawson has also been reviewed recently in this article online.

Monday, September 4, 2017

How the American Newsreel Men Invaded Mexico (1916)

In a previous weblog we mentioned how in 1916 newsreel cameraman Tracy Mathewson followed the U.S. Army into Mexico during the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa. The war in Mexico was an important training ground for a number of cinematographers who soon after went to Europe and filmed on the battlefields of France.

American film reporters in Chihuahua, Spring 1916. Copied from International Photographer, October 1933

Ignoring official regulations Mexico was invaded by many American cameramen, as this picture shows that we recently found in a 1933 edition of International Photographer. The U.S. Army had agreed on allowing only one official photographer to accompany the military expedition. But in the spring of 1916 - when Pancho Villa's border raid into the U.S.A. was making headlines across America - all the newsreels were represented. A false report had come in that Villa was assassinated at Chihuahua City and all the cameramen immediately grabbed a freight train and went down there.

The Men Behind the Movie Camera

It was on this occasion that this picture was taken. The cameramen from right to left in the back row are: Tracy Mathewson of the Hearst newsreels, Dick Burrud of Gaumont News, next to him Gilbert Warrenton working for the Universal Animated Weekly. The man cranking Warrenton's movie camera is United States consul Letcher. Next to Letcher we have Beverly Griffith of Universal and next to him behind the Universal camera is Nicholas McDonald of the Selig-Tribune Weekly. The Mexican cranking McDonald's camera is the general of the Chihuahua district. The men in the front row are all American newspaper reporters.

Nicholas McDonald (left) with the First Division, American Expeditionary Army, 1919. U.S. Signal Corps photograph from the National Archives. Courtesy Harry B. Kidd

Nicholas McDonald

Nicholas McDonald featured before in an earlier weblog. In February 1917, he got in a plane and with permission of General Pershing filmed the American operations in Mexico.

Here are some interesting contemporary newspaper stories on his film work in Mexico.

After the American entry into the First World War McDonald was attached to the 1st Division as a Lieutenant of the U.S. Signal Corps photographic unit. Later General Pershing promoted him to Captain and assigned him to GHQ of the American Expeditionary Force. McDonald filmed at Chateau-Thierry, St. Mihiel and the Argonne offensive and twice received citations for bravery. President Poincaré awarded him with the Croix de Guerre. He reportedly did most of the principal photography for Pershing's Crusaders (1918), America's first official war film that was produced by the Committee on Public Information (CPI). After the war, McDonald worked for Walter Niebuhr's American Cinema Corporation. His photographic career came to a sudden end in February 1923 when his flashlight set off a huge explosion. As a result, McDonald lost his right arm.

McDonald (right) filming on the Western Front, October 1918. Signal Corps picture from William Moore's book U.S. Offficial Photographs of the World War (1920)

This news story in the Oregon Daily Journal of September 21, 1919, has more on McDonald's film work during World War I.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Censoring Official World War I Films (USA, 1918)

In World War I films were closely scrutinized by military censors. This happened to American cameramen who went to Europe to film the Great War, but it also happened to the official cinematographers of the U.S. Signal Corps who were assigned to cover the war after the United States had entered the First World War in 1917.

Lt. Edwin F. Weigle and Carl Akeley, inspecting new type of film camera (December 1917). Photo from the collection of the National Archives, Washington, D.C. 

"Star" Cameraman

We recently came across a production file in the National Archives on a film that was shot in June 1918 by Lieutenant Edwin F. Weigle at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Shortly after Weigle had finished this report he went to Europe and filmed with the 35th Division in France. Weigle's war films have been described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. He was the "star" cameraman of the Chicago Tribune and filmed with the Belgian and German army in 1914-1916. When America came into the war Weigle was one of the first cameramen to join the U.S. Signal Corps.

The documents on Weigle's film report present us with some interesting information on how his movies were cut by the censors. Weigle had gone to Fort Sill on an assignment to film various scenes at the School of Artillery Fire. Apart from the handling of different types of guns, he filmed a night barrage with Browning machine guns, soldiers throwing hand grenades into barbed wire and the operation of trench mortars. The footage was shot for episode 62 of the series Pictorial History of the War of 1917 which was produced as an historical record for the General Staff.

Scene from Weigle's war film (1918) 

Although these films were not taken for publicity purposes there was no exception to the rule that all footage had to be censored at the War College in Washington, D.C. Both the film titles that were submitted by Weigle as well as the actual film scenes were all checked. Weigle had filmed French 37 mm artillery guns and these scenes were all deleted, presumably because these would show the Americans were dependant at the time on foreign military equipment. Any information that could be of interest to the enemy was also cut out of his films, such as a scene showing a comparison between the smallest and the largest gun in the U.S. Army and an intertitle mentioning how much time it would take to train an artillery officer.

Considering the fact that these films were made as an historical record it makes you wonder what the military censors did to the official war films that were shown in the American theaters at the time for promotional purposes.

Compilation Film

In 1936 Weigle's footage was edited into a Signal Corps compilation film on World War I field artillery training. Unfortunately, as a result of this compilation, Weigle's original scenes showing machine gun operations and the exercises with trench mortars and hand grenades were not used and seem to have disappeared. But his film on different types of artillery in action has survived.

Here is a download link to the complete production file on Weigle's 1918 film project. 

We have uploaded parts of this film with scenes shot by Weigle on our YouTube channel.


Monday, August 21, 2017

Anatomy of an Authentic World War I Combat Scene (1915)

Authentic combat film of World War I is so rare that at least one eminent World War I historian dismissed the notion filmed scenes might be real.  "It's all fake. Nobody filmed a single battle,"  as Jay Winter, emeritous professor of history at Yale University, was quoted in Tony Dokoupil's February 18, 2008, Newsweek article "The War We Forgot".

Close up frame 574: Note the bulge appearing in the soldier’s neck, as the soldier suddenly reacted and moved his right hand toward his head

True enough, while researching our book American Cinematographers in the Great War we came across some examples of film scenes that were staged. The reasons for re-enacting these scenes are complex. Sometimes a shot was reconstructed because the cameraman wasn’t on the spot in time to set up and capture the event. Sometimes a scene was staged that had never even happened because it would make for a sensational movie. However, not all World War I shots were faked and in some instances a camera operator was able to record a stunning scene of actual fighting.

On the Firing Line with the Germans (USA, 1915)

Wilbur H. Durborough’s film On the Firing Line with the Germans, which was restored in 2015 by the Library of Congress, presents us with a fascinating example. In the summer of 1915, American photo journalist Durborough and his camera operator Irving Guy Ries accompanied the German army during their attack on the Eastern Front. The Germans were pushing the Russians out of Poland and rushed neutral war correspondents to the front near Warsaw to reap the propaganda benefit. Near the village of Bloni Ries set up his motion picture camera while German soldiers were taking cover behind a stone wall. The intertitle in Durborough’s film is: “Surprised by Russian snipers at Bloni, in which one man was wounded, and we were very nervous for a few minutes while the ‘fun’ lasted.”

Intrigued by this scene, co-author Jim Castellan asked nitrate vault manager George Willeman at the Library of Congress for a breakdown of these shots, which resulted in 51 sequential frames that were analyzed in close detail. There were some interesting conclusions. First, the supposed casualty was not firing when he got shot by the Russian sniper, but appears to be reloading or unjamming his rifle while taking cover behind the wall. Then something strange happens: the German soldier suddenly begins to keel over his left side at the same time as his right arm leaves his rifle and travels quickly toward his neck.

Durborough filming war (1915)

Crucial Detail

Jim Castellan next discovered a crucial detail in frames 573-576. “I saw a bulge quickly form just below the soldier’s right ear and jaw area, increase in 574, appear the same size in 575 and then disappear in about a fifth of a second.  Although not for the German soldier, the Bloni casualty captured on film was a million dollar lucky shot. Firstly the film didn’t have a dramatic bullet exit which the censors wouldn’t have permitted Durborough to keep. Secondly, the bullet hit just enough bone and tissue along its path and stopped just short of exiting a fleshy area that caught the rapid ballistic expansion and collapse of the flesh on film”.

In short, the most logical explanation for this briefest of tissue bulge is the film captured an original gun shot wound to the head - an authentic World War I combat scene. The sudden bulge appearing on this unfortunate German soldier's face was likely from a Russian sniper, as explained in the intertitle of Durborough's film. A bullet's impact on human flesh is demonstrated in this BBC video, using ballistic gel that simulates a similar rapid expansion and rebound of soft human tissue as the bullet passes through.

As a further illustration we have compiled a selection of slow motion shots and close ups from this combat scene in Durborough's film, which can be seen here on our YouTube channel with comments by authors Cooper Graham and Jim Castellan.

We recently prepared a new, extended story on Durborough's photographic work during World War I. You can read this Durborough Film Annotation (2nd edition) here.


Monday, August 14, 2017

War Film Reports by Ariel Varges Now Online

The British Universities Film & Video Council has launced "News on Screen", an impressive online resource for the study of newsreels and cinemagazines. As a result, we found 47 records of scenes shot by American cinematographer Ariel Varges between 1916 and 1919, which makes it possible for the first time to do a close analysis of his film work during World War I.

Left: The horrors of war - A woman moving to another village taking with her the bones of her dead son, decorated with marigolds, the native mourning flower. Balkan Front, June 1916. Photograph by Ariel Varges. Right: Varges ready for a a motion picture flight, copied from American Cinematographer, July 1938

Celebrated War Photographer

Varges was one of the first newsreel cameramen in American film history. A celebrated war photographer, he worked for William Randolph Hearst and filmed with the Serbian and the British forces between 1915 and 1919. His work has been described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. Until recently, we had only found one World War I newsreel shot by Varges in the collection of the Library of Congress. These scenes were shown in Hearst-Selig News Pictorial No. 71 and were exhibited in the American theaters on September 6, 1915.  Varges' film shows Serbian soldiers guarding the forts at Semandria.

After the fall of Belgrade in October 1915, Ariel Varges followed the Serbian army during the harsh winter march into the Balkans. He ended up in Salonika (now Thessaloniki) in the north of Greece, where the Entente forces were opening a second front against the Central Powers.

Filming the Expeditionary Army in Salonika

Varges was by all accounts the only official cameraman who covered the activities of the Expeditionary Army around Salonika, Greece, in 1916. Because of this special interest his films were used extensively by the British War Office for publicity purposes and released through the Topical Film Company. A total of 29 contemporary war scenes credited to Varges and shot in this area have now been identified, all with a release date from March 1916 for the newsreel Topical Budget that was shown in the British theaters twice a week. Based on these online records we were also able to identify 7 newsreel scenes from the film collection of the Imperial War Museum as having been taken by Varges at this frontline sector.

While Varges was filming the military build-up around Salonika the city was frequently bombed by the enemy. This was an important subject in his movie reports. Topical Budget No. 238-2, released on March 18, 1916, featured an air raid on Salonika. Here is a summary of these scenes as shot by Varges:

[SUBTITLE]: "German aircraft[s] flying from the Bulgarian lines, drop bombs on the Allies base at Salonika but are brought down by our airmen." French soldiers guarding captured German reconnaissance plane, with Greek civilians looking on. The plane is carried and pushed away.

Ariel Varges in Salonika, copied from the trade paper Moving Picture World, 1 July 1916

Varges later also covered a Zeppelin attack on the city, as well as the damage as a result of this bombardment. Actual frontline footage appears to have been rare in his film reports. Varges mostly captured transport of military supplies to the trenches, artillery engagements, scenes of Red Cross work, refugees from the Balkans finding a safe place around Salonika and prisoners of war taken from the firing line. The records show that he was fond of recording picturesque subjects. The Serbs he filmed while taking mass before going into battle. When they were withdrawn from the lines, he had them dance a victory performance in front of his movie camera.

French General Sarrail inspecting Russian troops upon their landing at Salonika, 30 July 1916. Photograph by Varges, from the collection of the Imperial War Museum

"The Armies of the Allies"

The international coalition against the Central Powers that was formed at Salonika was another important theme in Varges' film reports. For the British newsreels he filmed how British officers reorganized the Serbian army, how Russian troops arrived in the harbor to reinforce the Expeditionary Army, and how soldiers from Australia and New Zealand were fighting the Bulgars in the trenches around Salonika.

As a typical example, here is a report on the scenes for "The Armies of the Allies", a subject that he shot for Topical Budget No. 272-2, released on November 11, 1916:

[SUBTITLE]: "An interesting group of the nationalities fighting the Central Powers in the Balkans. British, French, Russian, Italian, Serbian, Indian, Cretan, Senegalese, Greek, and Anammite [sic] type of soldiers." Awkwardly posed group (in a V-shape) of soldiers posed for the camera, each a representative of the various races fighting for the Allies in the Balkans. An officer hands out cigarettes to them and they all light one another’s cigarettes. They march in a line past the camera.

Varges' movie camera sometimes also captured celebrities visiting Salonika, like in this report for Topical Budget No. 270-2, released on October 28, 1916:

[SUBTITLE]: "His Majesty the King of Greece visits a hospital ship." March past of Greek sailors. View down as King and officers come on board up steps from lighter.

General Danglis, Eleutheros Venizelos and Admiral Condouriotis arrive at Salonika on 9 October 1916, to establish a provisional Greek Nationalist Government in opposition to King Constantine. Photograph by Ariel Varges. Courtesy Imperial War Museum

Varges' final contribution on the war at the Salonika front appeared in Topical Budget No. 292-2, released on March 3, 1917, with scenes showing an artillery duel in Serbia. By then, he had joined the British forces to another theater of war: Mesopotamia (Iraq/North-East Syria). We will return to this episode in his work as a war photographer in another upcoming weblog.

The scenes shot by Varges around Salonika that we could retrieve at the Imperial War Museum have been uploaded on our YouTube channel.

Click this link for a complete list of all references to Ariel Varges and his films for the British during World War I.


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Now Available - "First to Film: Leon H. Caverly and the U.S. Marine Corps"

As previewed in this weblog, the Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television recently published an article on Leon H. Caverly, the first cinematographer who accompanied the American Expeditionary Force to France in 1917 to film the Great War. The article by authors Cooper C. Graham and Ron van Dopperen has been published online on the website of Taylor & Francis. The story will be available in print next year.

Marine Corps Publicity Bureau, New York, May 1917. From left to right: Captain Ross E. Rowell, Quartermaster Sergeant Leon H. Caverly and still photographer Private Lester E. T. Woodward. Signal Corps photograph from the National Archives. Courtesy Harry Kidd


Here is a short summary of our article:

On June 14, 1917, the Fifth Regiment of the U.S  Marine Corps left New York. True to their reputation the Marines were in the first wave of American soldiers sailing to Europe. On board was official cameraman Leon H. Caverly. With the centennial of America's entry into World War I, Caverly's pictures take on a new significance. Months before the U.S. Government  set up a policy on how to deal with pictures covering the war the Marines had already sent Caverly to Europe. He was by all accounts the first official cinematographer to film the Great War with the American forces. The story is also significant because it is so well documented. We were extremely fortunate in having found Caverly's personal papers. Reading his letters from the frontline it becomes clear what sort of challenges a cameraman had to face  to film the Great War. Apart from his own account much of Caverly's  work has survived.  At the New Jersey Historical Society the authors located about 500 World War I pictures taken by Caverly.  The History Division of the U.S. Marine Corps also kindly shared  with us a collection of Caverly's photographs.  In addition the authors were able to locate and identify much of his war films. All of this makes it possible to reconstruct Caverly's extraordinary experiences as a war cameraman in remarkable detail.

While researching Caverly we compiled numerous pictures that he took during his military service in France. A selection of these photographs is available for download here.

In the National Archives at Washington, D.C., we also located Caverly's films taken with the Marines and the 2nd Division. Caverly's films have a remarkable wide scope and cover the period from the arrival of the first American soldiers in France until the occupation of Germany in 1919.

Caverly's films are listed in this Appendix that accompanies our article.

Free ePrints Available Here!

Taylor & Francis offers 50 free ePrints of the article, available by clicking on this link.

Also, here is a selection of footage from the National Archives with Caverly's World War I films that we uploaded on our YouTube channel.