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!


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