Researching World War I On Film

Ron van Dopperen

21 November 2017


The centennial of the First World War has brought about a renewed public interest in this major military conflict.  When I first visited Belgium as a history student in the 1980s there were still veterans around who had been in the trenches. They were there to hear the Last Post under the Menin Gate, and I remember vividly how impressed I was by the ceremony and the sight of all these names of the soldiers who had found an anonymous grave in the Ypres Salient.

As the saying goes ‘Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away’. It is the same with the films of the Great War. Stored on highly flammable nitrate stock, the film legacy of World War I presents scholars and film fans all over the world with an amazing historical source. The footage to be sure is slowly fading away. Unless preserved on safety stock or digitized we are losing by decomposition an invaluable part of our cultural heritage. I recall the first time I went into the nitrate vaults of the Library of Congress in Culpeper, Virginia, with my esteemed fellow author Cooper Graham, looking for lost film of this war. I was feeling like a kid in a candy store. In one of the cans we found footage mentioning The German Side of the War, a movie that had been produced by the Chicago Tribune in 1915. When reeling that film on a viewer we found ourselves in underground bunkers on the Eastern Front, and that’s when we discovered the film had been misplaced. We were looking at a completely different film that was shot by Albert K. Dawson, cameraman with the Austro-Hungarian army!

Albert Dawson directing war films on eastern front 1915

My fascination with these old war films started when as a history student I first read Kevin Brownlow’s book The War, the West and the Wilderness. Kevin is one of the first historians to research World War I films. He also was fortunate enough to interview some of the cameramen who  recorded the Great War, at a time when they were still around. We dedicated our book American Cinematographers in the Great War to Kevin Brownlow because as film historians we all stand on his shoulders. These war pictures, as described by Brownlow, were a window on a different world. This was a time when cars and planes were the latest thing, when women could not vote, when it took ten days to cross the Atlantic, when trench warfare devastated a way of life that belonged to the 19th century. Despite the static shots and primitive camera technique these films and newsreels are truly mesmerizing.

The First World War was a modern war that surprised all combatants as well as the people at the home front just because it was so ‘modern’. It was also the first media war. Film propaganda was not invented by Goebbels but by Wellington House, UFA and the Committee on Public Information in America. Admittedly, wars had been filmed before 1914 but this was the first time in history when the huge publicity potential of this young medium was discovered and exploited.  As I dug deeper into my film research together with my American colleagues Cooper Graham and Jim Castellan I also got intrigued by one simple question: how did these guys do it? How did they manage lugging these cumbersome movie cameras with tripod and all to the battlefield? How did they deal with censors, military red tape and the risks of having their movie camera mistaken for the equipment of an artillery spotter? Why did they even run the risk of becoming a prime target? We were on uncharted territory basically, as most of these cameramen – like the soldiers of World War I – had slowly faded away. We interviewed relatives in the US and many of them did not even know that their Granddad had been a cameraman in World War I. But the stories that we found on their photographic work and their life are definitely worth preserving, just like their films. In some rare instances we could even match their personal story with the pictures that they made at the front. It’s a strange experience to watch a movie that was made one hundred years ago, as seen through the eyes of the cameraman you get to know so much. As a writer you feel transported back in time. For a brief moment you become the cameraman.

Just like these cameramen who had been pioneers in their trade – the first film correspondents – we had to start most of our film research from scratch. I should give proper credits here to Cooper and Jim for their outstanding work on reconstructing Wilbur H. Durborough’s  feature film, On the Firing Line with the Germans, a unique film report made during the German drive on the Eastern Front in 1915. By using the paper roll collection at the Library of Congress they managed to identify each separate scene from that movie, not including the lost scenes that were retrieved in TV documentaries and the World War I Signal Corps collection. This is another aspect of this kind of film research: how to piece all of these segments together? World War I film research is a giant jigsaw puzzle because a lot of contemporary footage has been recycled or cut into stock footage. It takes a lot of patience to get the bigger picture.

Sniper attack in Russian Poland. Scene from On The Firing Line with the Germans (USA 1915)

The last years researching World War I film have been a great ride. We have brought back on the screen Durborough’s war film which has been wonderfully restored by the Library of Congress. The premiere at the film festival of Pordenone together with Kevin Brownlow as a special guest was just great. This kind of film research never really stops, so after publishing our book we started a weblog Shooting the Great War which has the latest updates on the latest World War I films that we have found and identified. The blog has been seen now by over 100,000 people. So, we definitely have an audience out there!

Video trailer for Shooting the Great War:


Ron van Dopperen studied history at the University of Utrecht (Holland) where he wrote his Master of Arts Thesis on the American World War I documentary films. Since 2011 he publishes on World War I film, starting with a series of articles for Film History journal. He is also co-author together with Cooper C. Graham of Shooting the Great War: Albert Dawson and the American Correspondent Film Company (2013) and together with Jim Castellan and Cooper Graham of American Cinematographers in the Great War (2014) which was sponsored by the Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

Weblog: http://shootingthegreatwar.blogspot.nl


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

‘Does it have Hitler in the title?’: Broadcasting History on Television

Michael Cove, Head Writer, WildBear Entertainment

14 November 2017


With the diversification – or, perhaps, fragmentation – of the broadcast television market, factual programming has found itself corralled into specialised outlets.  The fate of history-themed programs is typical, more hours are being produced, but the great majority of them are finding homes either on dedicated channels (“Yesterday”. “History”) or on subscription outlets which, equally, create and appeal to niche markets (Amazon Prime).  For the writer/producer in the history space this focusing of the market carries both opportunities and liabilities.

The opportunity, of course, is that there is a larger market for output, though this is moderated slightly by the limited budgets such outlets typically make available.  The liability is to offer material to an audience that has an established interest in, and knowledge of, the subject matter.  Mistakes are sure to generate emails from unexpected corners of the globe.

That all of this exists within a commercial reality confronts the program maker with a further fact – not all history is equally saleable.  Which, without too much exaggeration, could be characterised by the question: Does it have Hitler in the title?

Everywhere, Hitler, the Third Reich, more broadly the Second World War are seen as the most bankable of the history stories – which explains the existence of Uncle Hitler, Hitler the Junkie, Supernatural Nazis and many more (these are real titles).

This appetite is cheerfully fed by program makers because the content exists – in the form of archive material (pre-1900 and even pre-1920 life gets hard).  Of course, archive is not a limitless resource, there is only so much footage of Munich or Nuremberg, D-Day or Hiroshima.  Strangely, the dedicated core audience does not seem to mind this unduly and viewer feedback not infrequently includes a slightly surprised “even contains some footage I had not seen before!”

This limited amount of archive material – and each individual production further restricts its archive because of licensing costs – encourages reversioning.  Upscaling the material to HD perhaps, or “colourising” the B&W footage.

Where the program is being produced out of a market that is almost self-supporting, the use of on-camera talent – particularly of a name that helps to boost ratings – is a common practice in history programming.  But for an independent production company away from the main centres, like the one for which I work in Australia, international success across broad markets is an economic necessity.  And this speaks against the use of the onscreen presenter – regrettably, for such a device makes narrative structure and the filling of screentime a fairly straightforward business.  But onscreen presenters are not appreciated in the international market where foreign language versions that replace the so-called “voice of God” narrator are much easier to organise and to sell on to the viewer.

These, then, are some of the parameters that influence the choice of topic, its development and decisions concerning creative execution that someone like me needs to address.  They are not – or should not be – the only issues.  The greater the requirement on an individual to take carriage of the production, the more important it is that the subject matter encourages a personal investment.  My work practice, necessarily, means coming up with an idea, conducting the research, writing the script, finding the participants, conducting the interviews, creating the integrated script and overseeing all of the steps of production.  I cannot imagine being able to do that effectively with a topic in which I had no interest.

Having offered a topic – and been approved for development – I imagine that the next question is one with which academics are very familiar: what can I say about this that has not been said before?  The answer, to return to the point I made above, may partly be answered by a technical/creative initiative – first time in HD, first time in colour and so on.  Titles like World War Two from Space are in the same category and adding 3-D animation is a variant.  Another production novelty – not using the word in a pejorative way – could be the contributors, whether expert or eyewitness.

In my view, these features add marketing benefits to a program – they can be the USP that the agents and others whose responsibility it is to sell productions are so keen to identify.  But they are not a substitute for a perspective or point of view that validates the program.

The last four history-based productions for which I have been responsible were all traversing familiar territory and in a basically familiar way: each was substantially clip-based – that is, each drew heavily on the footage archives to which the production company had access – and each incorporated original interviews.  One of the two two-part series that I have made in collaboration with CCTV10 (China Central Television) had new, original footage of locations relevant to the story, the original material in the other three series was limited to interviews.  Other productions with which I have been involved as writer have additionally used historically informed re-enactment (particularly World War 1 narratives).

The longest of the series for which I have been responsible, The Price of Empire, was thirteen episodes attempting to tell the global story of the Second World War.  It was decided that a “USP” would be scaling all of the archive to HD.  I was not entirely persuaded of the benefits, but when I began to see the material in this form, and observe details in the image not previously clear, I was converted.  My own creative decision for the series was that the contributory interviews would be limited to eyewitnesses and I interviewed fifty people from fourteen countries, mostly veterans of the fighting, but also Holocaust and Hiroshima survivors.

My most recent program, in eight episodes, tells a complicated story of the years 1919-1939 under the title Impossible Peace.  All of the interviews for this program were with academics (38 of them) covering the spectrum of content.  There are limitations in terms of the archive and we settled on a strong, visual style of multiple screens which in part helps to accommodate the limitation and in part to refresh familiar images; more importantly, it was a visual way of reinforcing the thematic foundation of the program, the idea of many things happening, simultaneously, sometimes with connections, sometimes not, but always with some degree of effect.  To achieve such visual effects when I entered the industry, as a trainee assistant film editor at the BBC in 1966, would have been prohibitively expensive and have taken weeks in a film laboratory.  For program makers it is by exploring new ways of telling familiar stories that we can hope to hold, and add to, our audience.



Michael Cove was born in London, attended the London Film School and joined the BBC in film editing.  He worked in film editing following migration to Australia before becoming a full-time writer in 1974.  In a freelance career spanning 25 years, he wrote for every medium and every genre – feature film, theatre, radio drama and every type of television program.  In 1998 he joined a small production company in Canberra.  It is now a large production company outputting multiple hours of factual programming for international broadcast.  The company’s particular areas of interest are history, natural history, and science and technology.  Cove’s main contribution has been to the history slate.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

 

 

A day at the archives… The National Archives at Kew (UK)

Llewella Chapman, University of East Anglia

7 November 2017


Following Tobias Hochscherf and Roel Vande Winkel’s excellent blog on visiting the German National Archive (Bundesarchiv) in Berlin, I thought that I would write about my personal experience of visiting the National Archives at Kew. As a PhD student and a film historian, I have visited a small number of UK-based archives beyond the National Archives to conduct my research, including the BBC Written Archives Centre, the British Film Institute, Film Finances, the Stanley Kubrick Archive (University of the Arts, London) and the Consumer Culture Collection held in Southampton Solent University’s Mountbatten Library. The National Archives is one of my favourites so far. As stated by Sue Harper in her blog entitled ‘The Boundaries of Genre: History, Impendence and Flow’: ‘I am one of those sad creatures whose happiest hours have been spent in the National Archives’.

I first encountered the National Archives in 2016, which I admit was something of a fortuitous accident on my part. As part of conducting research for my PhD, which focusses on the historic relationship between Hampton Court Palace (where I used to work as a State Apartment Warder) and the film and television industries, I intended to visit the British Film Institute based on London’s Southbank while my fiancé visited the National Archives. It turned out that the BFI was closed on that particular day, so I joined my fiancé for a date at the National Archives.

After having had a quick browse on the archive catalogue ‘Discovery’, which I feel is excellently designed and very accessible, I discovered that the National Archives holds documents on the filming and photography policy relating to Hampton Court Palace (for anyone who is interested, these files are part of the Office/Ministry of Works department), and so off I went in search of discovering papers that might assist in my PhD research. I did not leave disappointed – it is where I received my first ‘eureka-in-the-archives’ moment, and this is a feeling that I will never forget!

The National Archives (originally the Public Records Office, and if I’m honest, I lament the change of its name) is, as its website explains, ‘the official archive and publisher for the UK government and guardians of over 1,000 years of iconic national documents’. It is based near Kew Retail Park, and is accessible either by train, bus or car. If you are arriving by train, from London you can either take the District tube line to Kew Gardens, or take a train to Kew Bridge from either London Waterloo or Woking via Hounslow and Staines. By bus, you can take the R68 from Hampton Court via Richmond which terminates just outside the archive itself. This is the route that I usually take, and I find that there something very satisfying about travelling on the entire route for £1.50 using an Oyster Card.

  

Views on the R68 bus route

Further details as to how to access the National Archives can be found here: [How to find us]. The National Archives is open between Tuesdays and Saturdays, and is open from 9 a.m. On Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, it closes at 5 p.m., and on Tuesdays and Thursdays 7 p.m.

On arrival, don’t be deterred by the appearance of the building (which I have anecdotally heard described as looking like ‘a large municipal carpark’)! The building, in my view, may not be particularly pretty in terms of design; but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for me the beauty of the National Archives lies in the treasure offered within it, and not by the shell in which the documents are held.

You will need a reader’s ticket to view original documents within the National Archives reading rooms, and you can either register for this online within six weeks of your intended visit, or you can register for a reader’s ticket on the day of your visit. Further details can be found here: [reader’s ticket]. Personally, I recommend ordering your reader’s ticket online as you can order up to 12 documents in advance of your visit (provided you include your email address), and it saves time on entering the archive. When you arrive, whether you have ordered your reader’s ticket in advance or want to register on the day, you will be directed to the ‘reader registration area’, where staff will take a photograph of you for your reader’s ticket before issuing it to you. You will also need to place your belongings in a locker before entering the Document Reading Room, and the National Archives provides a handy list of what you are allowed to take in: [What can I take in to the reading rooms?]. Once you have swiped your reader’s card through the barrier to enter the Document Reading Room, then the fun can begin!

Unlike the fight for the elusive ‘locker key number one’ as reported by Tobias and Roel on visiting the Bundesarchiv, there is no such fight, as far as I am aware, for this at the National Archives. This may be because it is broken (at time of writing). I would suggest, however, that instead there is more a melée over the tables based in the Document Reading Rooms. This is combatted by the ability to pre-order documents and to be able to request seats at certain tables. You can pre-order documents and book which table you would like to sit at here: [advance order form]. I like to sit at table 44 or 46 in the ‘Quiet Zone’ as here you can get a lovely view from the window. As well as the ‘Quiet Zone’, there is also a ‘Main Zone’ and a ‘Group Zone’, which is useful for people working as part of a team on research projects so that they can discuss documents. If you don’t mind where you sit, then you can just turn up on the day and you will be automatically assigned a seat at random.

Study areas in the Document Reading Room: Green = Quiet Zone, Blue = Main Zone, Orange = Group Zone

Once the documents you have ordered arrive (this can take around 45 minutes if you order them on the day) they are placed in a cubby hole, which is numbered and lettered in relation to the seat you have been assigned.

 

Usefully, you can take out and replace files as and when you wish in case you want to review them later. The National Archives allows photography (without flash) in the reading rooms; you can either bring your own device (camera or mobile phone), and you can also choose to sit at a table specially designated for this purpose which include camera stands. Alternatively, you can use the ‘Self Service Copying’ space with cameras provided. You can either print copies of your documents out on the day (at a small charge), or alternatively email them to yourself, which is free of charge. The staff are brilliant – they have always been really helpful when I needed to ask them something, and most especially when I had to be locked in a special room to view sensitive papers held in a particular file (though that is a story for another time)!

One of my favourite files is WORK 19/1129: ‘Official attitude to photography and film crews within the Palace and grounds, 1919-1935’, which greatly assisted my PhD thesis in terms of understanding the historic policy in relation to allowing the production of film at Hampton Court Palace. In this file, there is some wonderful, and very humorous, correspondence between the Office of Works, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office and London Film Productions in relation to The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda, 1933) in response to a request from the production company to film parts of it around Hampton Court.

The gist of the correspondence is that Sir Henry David St Leger Brooke Selwyn Cunynghame (known as David), production manager for The Private Life of Henry VIII, wrote to the Office of Works in May 1933 to obtain their permission to film at Hampton Court.

The Office of Works allowed permission to London Film Productions on the provision that filming would be conducted before 9 a.m. so as not to disturb residents and visitors at the Palace. Cunynghame was disappointed by this response, and attempted in several ways to be allowed permission to film during the day at the site. These included getting his father, Sir Percy Cunynghame, to approach Samuel Hoare at the India Office. When this proved unsuccessful, Cunynghame then appealed through his mother’s friend, Bertha Dawkins, to Sir Clive Wigram, Private Secretary to the Sovereign. The Office of Works were not particularly impressed by Cunynghame’s approach regarding this matter, as can be understood from the correspondence between Wigram and Sir Patrick Duff, Permanent Secretary at the Office of Works in relation to this matter:

What Mr. Cunynghame wants… is permission to photograph all day at Hampton Court Palace so as to get through the work in the very shortest possible time. This would save his Company expense, and, as he very reasonably observes, the fewer the visits which the Company paid the less trouble they would give. This might be alright if Mr. Cunynghame were the only pebble on the beach: but the fact is that we have other applications from film companies, and if one company is allowed to work at Hampton Court at any hour of the day one would have to give the same concession to anyone else who asked for it. [i]

Duff also expressed his concern about the possible disturbance which might be caused to residents and visitors if filming were to be allowed during the day: ‘I know that if I were paying a visit to Hampton Court Palace and found the place full of film people rehearsing and “shots”, as they call it, being taken, I should feel that the dignity and beauty of the place was destroyed’. Wigram concurred, responding succinctly:

Thank you for your letter regarding Mr. Cunynghame. He is, as I was afraid, a tiresome fellow and I will answer him on the lines you suggest. [ii]

Due to the refusal from the Office of Works and the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, The Private Life of Henry VIII was not filmed at the site except for the film’s opening shot of Hampton Court’s archway, and instead was filmed on location at Hatfield House and in studio at the British and Dominions Imperial Studios at Elstree. It was the discovery of this file which afforded me my first ‘eureka-in-the-archives’ moment!

Once I leave the National Archives at closing time, I like to pay a visit to the local establishment, The Tap on the Line, which is set on the platform of Kew Gardens Station:

This lovely pub is a great place to have a chat with colleagues about the research you’ve accomplished, or if you are a lone researcher, sit and unwind after a productive day trawling through documents. After reading this blog, if you happen to see me frequenting this pub after a spending time at the National Archives, do come over and say hello – mine’s a gin and tonic! Chin chin.


[i] TNA WORK 19/1129: Duff to Wigram, 14 June 1933.

[ii] TNA WORK 19/1129: Wigram to Duff, 15 June 1933.


Llewella Chapman is a PhD student at the University of East Anglia. Her doctoral research focuses on the use of film and television in the UK heritage industry with particular reference to the representation of Henry VIII and Hampton Court Palace. She has published on fashion and lifestyle as promoted in the James Bond films, and is currently under contract with I. B. Tauris to write a monograph entitled Fashioning James Bond: Costume, Gender and Identity in the World of 007. Her research interests include British cinema and television history, fashion, costume and gender, and hanging around a variety of archives and nearby bars.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

  • Archives