Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Faking War Footage

World War I film scenes sometimes were staged before the camera. The reasons for faking the footage were complex and have been described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War.

Picture from the article in Illustrated World on fake war films, March 1916

Some fake war films, like the movie that was shot by Arthur Dugmore on the Belgian defense of the city of Alost in September 1914, proved to be a huge success in the American movie theaters. This earlier weblog has more information on how war scenes were staged, with as an example the following film scene of a German infantry attack that was shot by American cameraman, Albert K. Dawson, on the Western Front around February 1915.

German soldiers going over the top at the Western Front, filmed by Albert K. Dawson. Footage located in the BBC Great War series, Episode 5 (1964)

Although film was a relatively new medium during World War I the movie-going audience in the United States knew that not all of these supposed 'war scenes' were for real. The film trade papers in America frequently ran articles warning exhibitors about the risks of showing fake and unreliable war films. The audience also read stories that explained how these fake war films were produced.

How to Recognize a Fake War Film

A typical example is an article that was published in March 1916 in the popular magazine Illustrated World. Author Edward C. Crossman describes a number of staged war films that were shown in the American movie theaters at the beginning of World War I, and explains how these scenes were made. He also goes into quite some detail on how the audience could recognize a fake scene from a real war scene, giving attention to the position of the film camera and technical details about the weapons that were used in the film.

Although the writer of this article does not mention any names of producing companies the lines on a Belgian war film that was shown uinder the auspices of a big American newspaper may refer to the Chicago Tribune's film On Belgian Battlefields (USA, 1914) which was taken by the Tribune's staff photographer Edwin F. Weigle and is now considered 'lost', apart from a short scene that we could identify recently.

Here is a download link to this article from Illustrated World.


  1. Replies
    1. Some scenes were staged for propaganda purposes, some just because it made for a better picture.

  2. Don't forget commercial reasons. See the case of the Battle of Alost.


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