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.


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