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 cameraman

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

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 

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.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Lost and Found - "On Belgian Battlefields" (USA, 1914)

The Chicago Tribune's On Belgian Battlefields is ranked as one of the most popular films on the Great War that was shown to the American people in 1914. Now sadly lost, the movie featured cameraman Edwin F. Weigle's report on the German attack on Belgium. Thanks to painstaking research by local historian Walter De Swaef from the Belgian city of Alost (Aalst) a scene from this historical film has been located and identified.

Weigle filming war in Belgium. Copied from the Chicago Tribune, 11 February 1915

Edwin Weigle's film adventures in World War I have been described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. Weigle was the Tribune's star cameraman who had just before the outbreak of the Great War filmed the U.S. Marines attack on Vera Cruz, Mexico. After the outbreak of war he filmed in Belgium, Germany as well as on the Western and the Eastern front. When the United States entered the First World War Weigle was among the first officers to set up a photographic division for the U.S. Signal Corps which had been assigned to cover the American involvement in World War I.

Filming Alost in Flames

In his book My Experiences on the Belgian Battlefields (1914) Weigle described how he accompanied the Belgian army from Antwerp on several trips to the frontline. On September 27, 1914, Weigle reached Alost (Aalst) which was under heavy fire by the retreating German army. Here he shot film as well as still photographs of the destroyed railroad bridge across the river Dender. Walter De Swaef was able to identify Weigle's film report of this scene because it has a full match with a still photograph by Weigle which was published in his book, as well as a similar picture that was printed one month after the event took place in the New York Times:

City of Alost in flames, photographed by Weigle. From the New York Times, 25 October 1914. 

High res image (7Mb) available for download here.

Walter explains: "In your book American Cinematographers in the Great War I first read about Weigle, and that's how I found a reference to his book on his experiences in Belgium. Somewhat later I saw the movie fragment showing the burning of Alost and having checked out Weigle's book on page 44 I noticed his photograph with the caption "The burning of Alost showing destroyed R.R.Bridge". This picture was published in our book on Alost during World War I, Duitse Oorlogsgruwel in Aalst. Then it occurred to me I had seen this scene before on film but with the wrong intertitle "Bombardment of Ghent". The fragment from his movie is most remarkable. You will notice the black smoke above the houses in the center of the picture. Behind these houses was a factory that produced chemical agricultural stuff. In the morning of September 27, 1914, the German artillery bombarded this part of Alost. The complete factory and the houses around all burned down. Weigle must have taken his pictures there in the afternoon of September 27, around 2 P.M. when the Germans stopped bombarding the city for a couple of hours. I suppose that Weigle at this time also was able to enter the city and take some photographs and films of the damage. In order to do this he must have climbed on the damaged railroad bridge. Considering the dangerous situation he was in Weigle's visit to Alost seems to have been short."

Weigle evidently did not take any unnecessary risks while shooting these war scenes. As he admitted in his own book, either prior to his visit to Alost or the following night he was forced to spend the night in a barn outside of the city. These pages from his book My Experiences on the Belgian Battlefields, including the photograph mentioned by Walter De Swaef, have more information on Weigle's visit to Alost in September 1914.

Film Collections

Walter De Swaef found Weigle's report in two different film collections. The movie scene appears to have been edited into a compilation film produced during World War I, which is now in the stock collection of Periscope Films. An extended version of Weigle's film scene was found in the collection of the Royal Belgian Film Archive. This version has tinted film and was restored in 2002. We have uploaded all of these scenes on our YouTube channel. In addition, according to Walter De Swaef, Weigle's still picture of this scene appears to have been reprinted in 1915 in the German military magazine Landsturm.

Also, here is link to a previous post on another film showing the city of Alost during the Great War, that Walter was able to identify, shot by American cinematographer Arthur Radclyffe Dugmore.

Great job, Walter, and keep up the good work!

                                 With special thanks to Walter De Swaef for his input on this weblog


Friday, July 14, 2017

New Film Found Showing Sir Roger Casement

Sir Roger Casement featured before in an earlier weblog in which we described how the only known extant footage of this controversial Irish freedom fighter was filmed. Casement appeared before the movie camera in April 1915 when he was trying to enlist the Germans’ support in a general rising against England and the raising of an Irish Brigade. We recently found an extended scene from this unique historic footage in a contemporary newsreel.

Advertisement for Hearst International Film Pictorial, New York American, 4 August 1916, the day after Casement was executed

Casement was filmed by Albert K. Dawson, an American cinematographer who was in Berlin at the time. With the assistance of American correspondent Franz Hugo Krebs, Casement was persuaded to pose for a film and photo shoot in the hotel where he was staying. The full story can be read in an article by authors Cooper C. Graham and Ron van Dopperen for the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Televisionthat appeared in 2016.

Extended scene

In a compiled newsreel that was uploaded by Periscope Films we recently found a new scene that was taken by Dawson during this film and photo shoot. In these shots Casement can be seen smoking a cigarette while talking to the American reporters. This sequence was originally released in the American theaters in Pathé News, No. 45 on June 3, 1916, two months before Casement was executed by the British because of his involvement in the Easter Rising. (Source: Motography, 17 June 1916, page 1411)

The newsreel compilation from the Periscope Film collection can be viewed here. 

We have uploaded Dawson's film from this collection on our YouTube channel.


Monday, July 10, 2017

The Films of Pioneer Kansas Photographer Donald C. Thompson

On March 13, media historian David Mould lectured on World War I cameraman Donald C. Thompson. His presentation Images of World  War I - The Films of Pioneer Kansas Photographer Donald C. Thompson was part of a series of presentations by Kansas University on the centennial of the First World War.

Lecture at Kansas University

David H. Mould, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Media Arts and Studies at Ohio University. Thompson has been one of his favorite research subjects ever since Mould did his master thesis on the news films of World War I in the 1980s. In this lecture at Kansas University David Mould tells about Thompson's approach to news coverage, how he projected his self-promoted image of the "photographer/adventurer", gained access to the frontlines and staged some of his war scenes. To give the audience a proper sense what it was like to watch a war film in those days David shows a selection of scenes from Thompson's movies, accompanied with contemporary music.

Opening scene from Thompson's film War As It Really Is  (USA, 1916)

These scenes are very interesting. To start with David Mould presents clips from Thompson's film With the Russians at The Front which was shot on an assignment for the Chicago Tribune in 1915. Mould has some fascinating inside information on the making of this movie, based on letters by Robert R. McCormick, the Chicago Tribune co-editor who accompanied Thompson during this trip. Next he shows parts of Thompson's film Somewhere in France (1915) and a good copy of Thompson's subsequent movie which was produced with the French army in 1916: War As It Really Is. 

The German Curse in Russia (USA, 1918)

David Mould recently edited Thompson's letters to his wife which were written during his stay in Russia while he was covering the Russian Revolution and the war against Germany on the Eastern Front. Shortly before his presentation at Kansas University David contacted us on our discovery of footage from Thompson's film The German Curse in Russia (USA, 1918). We had made a reconstruction of this remarkable film by Thompson, based on films in the Axelbank Collection, which was also in David's presentation.

For more information here is a link to David Mould's recent article "Images of War" in the Journal of Russian-American Studies (May 2017) 

We have uploaded David Mould's presentation on Thompson on our YouTube channel. Thank you, David, for sharing your latest research with us!


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Lost & Found - The Collapse of the 35th A.E.F. Division (1918)

On September 26, 1918, the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F) was sent into the abyss that was called the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The battle cost 26, 277 lives, making it the largest and bloodiest operation of World War I for the Americans. Among the casualties were many soldiers of the 35th Division, a unit that virtually collapsed under the strain of modern warfare. Footage showing the aftermath of this terrible battle was found recently by the authors in the archives of the Imperial War Museum.

Major General Peter E. Traub learning a few points about moving picture camera from Lt. Edwin F. Weigle. U.S. Signal Corps photograph taken by Weigle's camera operator Pvt. Thomas J. Calligan, 18 October 1918, Sommedieu, France

When zero hour came the American infantrymen discovered that General Pershing had sent them into terrain that was only a few removes from hell. Inside the Argonne Forest ravines, hillocks and meandering streams added to the obstacles created by the trees and dense underbrush that reduced visibility to 20 feet. Throughout the valley, the Germans had added every imaginable man-made defense. General Hunter Liggett, who commanded I Corps on the American left, soon realized the place was ‘a natural fortress, beside which the Wildnerness in which Grant and Lee fought was a park.’

The Lost Battalion (USA, 1919)

Film poster The Lost Battalion (1919)

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive provided film history with a suitable backdrop for The Lost Battalion (USA, 1919), a movie based on the actual experiences of soldiers from the 77th Division who had found themselves completely cut off and surrounded by German forces. While all of this was happening nearby their comrades of the 35th Division were at risk of being completely annihilated. After only 5 days of fighting the 35th Division rapidly became combat ineffective. One reason for the 35th Division's poor performance was inadequate training. But the division's greatest failure lay in grave lapses in its leadership as a result of mistrust between the unit's Regular Army and National Guard officers.

Collapse at the Meuse-Argonne

Author Robert H. Ferrell in his book Collapse at the Meuse-Argonne (2004) places the blame squarely on divisional commander Major General Peter E. Traub who sowed confusion within the unit by relieving all infantry brigade and regimental commanders and replacing them with Regular Army officers only days before combat started. As a result, when the attack was launched the chain of command ceased to function and the 35th Division suffered over 7,000 casualties.

Shortly after the division was pulled out of the line on October 1, 1918, the soldiers were transported to a quiet sector near Verdun where they could rest and recuperate. On October 18, cameramen Edwin F. Weigle and Thomas J. Calligan filmed General Traub on an inspection tour of his men. We could identify the cameramen because of a still photograph which has their names and shows how General Traub posed before their movie camera. As mentioned in a previous post, Weigle was the photographic officer of the 35th Division and an experienced war photographer who had previously covered the Great War for the Chicago Tribune. Weigle and Calligan on that same day also filmed men of  'C' Battery, 130th Field Artillery of the 35th Division, carrying ammunition in a wood near Sommedieue, as well as the sole surviving officers of the 1st Battalion, 138th Infantry Regiment. As an interesting side line, Battery D of the 129th Field Artillery Regiment of the 35th Division at this time was commanded by Captain Harry S. Truman, the future President of the U.S.A.

Opening scenes from our video clip

The smiling faces of General Traub and these surving officers, as recorded by Weigle and Calligan, do not reveal the true tragedy that had taken place only three weeks before. But the scenes remain an important source on the history of the 35th Division and the American Expeditionary Force during World War I.

For more information on the cameramen of the 35th A.E.F. Division in France check out this previous weblog.

We found the footage in a compilation film at the Imperial War Museum. The movie was produced by the U.S. Signal Corps in 1919, showing U.S. forces and French airmen on the Western Front (catalogue number IWM 501-3). Here is a clip from this film reel:


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

War Cameraman Ansel E. Wallace Revisited

Following up on our book American Cinematographers in the Great War now and again new stories are discovered. Recently we found an interesting newspaper article on Ansel E. Wallace, newsreel cinematographer for William Randolph Hearst who went to Europe in December 1914 and shot film at the Eastern Front with the German army, covered the submarine warfare on the English Channel and later went to Italy shortly after the country had entered the Great War.

Wallace with German officers on the Eastern Front. Copied from the Boston American, 29 August 1915

In our book we described how Wallace previously covered the Mexican Civil War for a pro-Huerta motion picture shoot. Military commander José Victoriano Huerta Márquez in 1913 during what was called The Ten Tragic Days with the help of U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson secretly plotted to overthrow the government of President Madero. Huerta established a harsh military dictatorship and under pressure by the Wilson administration and rival forces in Mexico resigned the presidency on July 14, 1914.

Filming the Mexican Civil War

Wallace filmed Huerta in January 1914 for the Hearst newsreels and had the nerve to make movies of the Mexican dictator while he was having a drink in a local bar. The newspaper story that we found sheds some new light on how he was released from prison. The fellow American reporter who helped him get out of jail was William G. Shepherd. In 1915, during his stay in Europe, Wallace met Shepherd in Germany, Paris and Rome. As a matter of fact, United Press correspondent William Gunn Shepherd (1878-1933) proved to be a notable source of information during our research because of his book Confessions of a War Correspondent (1917).  

William G. Shepherd. Picture from Chris Dubb's book American Journalists in the Great War (2017) 

As a neutral correspondent, Shepherd had the opportunity to cover the Great War from the perspective of the Entente as well as the Central Powers. His memoirs contain interesting inside information on how correspondents from America were manipulated by the press censors of the warring nations in Europe. As it turns out, the interview Wallace did in 1918 after he had returned to his hometown Evansville, Indiana, indicates that he had visited Paris, both before and after Wallace had covered the war in Italy with his movie camera. This is something that we couldn't establish while researching our latest book.

We have posted before in this weblog on Wallace's film work during World War I. Here is a earlier post on his experiences covering the war in Italy in 1915. 

For those interested in Shepherd's newspaper work during World War I here is a download link to his book Confessions of a War Correspondent. The newspaper story from the Evansville Press of March 23, 1918, on Wallace's wartime experiences - his first name is misspelled - can be read here.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

New Trailer Online: "Shooting the Great War" (USA, 1914-1918)

Since starting this weblog a lot of fascinating World War I footage has been found which could be identified to one of the film correspondents described in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War.

Here is a compilation of some of these films. Contemporary music - Gustav Holst's Mars, composed at the outbreak of World War I - has been added to this clip. Enjoy!


Friday, June 23, 2017

Wilbur H. Durborough and the Mexican Revolution (1913-1914)

When in 1913 the Mexican Revolution hit the headlines many cameramen from the United States flocked to the country. To satisfy America's public demand for coverage the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) sent Wilbur H. Durborough to join Pancho Villa's army. As described in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, Durborough became quite friendly with Villa and obtained some excellent pictures of Villa's troops.

W.H. Durborough (second from right) and Arthur Ruhl (second from left) in Mexico, 1914

Mexico's first superstar

Villa became Mexico's first superstar when in 1914 he signed a movie contract with Mutual, agreeing to keep other film companies from the battlefield and to fight in daylight wherever possible. Despite all exclusive provisions this did not deter other film companies such as Pathé and Universal to try to cover Villa's army. The list of newsreel men, photographers and cinematographers who crossed the Rio Grande and entered Mexico at this period is long and impressive. In fact, the Mexican Revolution turned out to be a training ground for many cameramen who soon afterwards went to Europe to film the Great War.

Despite excellent research on this subject, notably by Mexican film historian Margarita de Orellana, some tantalizing new pieces of information on this remarkable episode in film history are still being discovered. Recently we found a photograph on eBay which has an NEA stamp on the backside and is dated July 16, 1914. The caption says: "Durborough in Mexico". The picture shows Durborough holding his Graflex camera, together with three men looking at what appears to be a corpse.

We haven't been able so far to identify the other men, except for Arthur Ruhl who was a reporter for Colliers and the New York Tribune. Ruhl was with Durborough when the U.S. Marines landed at Vera Cruz and attacked the waterworks at El Tejar. The picture may have been taken at this occasion.

Durborough had been with Pancho Villa before the U.S. Marines attacked Vera Cruz and he had covered similar scenes before. In December 1913, he photographed the Battle of La Mesa when Villa's men fought the Federalist Army. After the battle he photographed this burying party:

Burying the dead on the battlefield of La Mesa. Photograph by Wilbur H. Durborough, copied from the Evansville Press, 3 December 1913

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.

Photo-journalist Otis Aultman

When Durborough first went to Mexico he also had his picture taken together with Pancho Villa. Mexican historian Luis Arturo Salmeron recently posted this photograph on his Twitter account. The photograph was taken by Otis A. Aultman, another interesting figure who had gone to Mexico at the time. 

Left: Otis Aultman behind his movie camera in Mexico. Right: Wilbur H. Durborough and Pancho Villa at Tierra Blanca, 1913

Aultman was born in 1874, in Holden, Missouri. As a young man he learned photography from his older brother. In 1908, after a divorce from his wife, he moved to El Paso. There he first worked for Scott Photo Company and later started his own firm. Aultman was a man in the right place at the right time. He photographed the battle of Casas Grandes, the first battle of Juárez in May 1911, and the Orozco rebellion in 1912. He was a favorite of Pancho Villa, who called Aultman "Banty Rooster" because he was only 5'4" tall. Aultman worked for the International News Service and Pathé News and experimented with cinematography. In 1916 he appears to have been one of the first photographers to arrive at Columbus, New Mexico, after the famous raid on that town by the Villistas.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Cameramen of the 35th A.E.F Division (1918)

When the United States entered World War I photographic field units were assigned to each division of the American Expeditionary Force. The authors recently came across more information on these military cameramen. We even recognized some familiar faces of two American "star" photographers who went over there to cover the Great War and get the picture.

Official photographers

The pictures that we found are from the website of the National World War I Museum and Memorial. These pictures were taken between August 1918 and January 1919 and show the official photographers of the 35th Division, American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.). Built around a nucleus of Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri National Guard units, the 35th Division trained for World War I in the vicinity of the old Sante Fe trail, and therefore adopted the insignia which represents the Sante Fe Cross.

Cameramen of the 35th A.E.F Division, Alsace, August 1918

The 35th Division landed in France on May 10, 1918. After training a few miles from the hard-pressed British line near Amiens the Division was sent to a quiet sector in the Alsace. It was in this area near the German border that this picture above was taken.

Motion picture cameraman Thomas J. Calligan - his name was misspelled in the caption - is also in a picture from October 1918. This photograph was taken shortly after the 35th Division had to be taken from the line at the battle of the Meuse-Argonne. Because of a combination of incompetent leadership, inexperienced soldiers and having to fight superior troops of the Prussian Guards the 35th Division collapsed, suffering 7,300 casualties. We will return to this sad episode in an upcoming blog.


Filming General Traub

On October 18, 1918, Private Thomas Calligan cranked a Bell & Howell 2709 movie camera at Sommedieu near the Verdun frontline. His photographic officer directing this scene was Lt. Edwin F. Weigle. Together they filmed their divisional commander, Major-General Peter Traub. Weigle's film adventures during World War I have been described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. Edwin Weigle was a news photographer who worked for the Chicago Tribune. After the outbreak of war he filmed in Belgium, Germany as well as on the western and the eastern front. Until January 1919, Weigle was the photographic officer of the 35th Division and in command of his team of camera operators. Weigle was also one of the first cameramen assigned to set up the photographic division of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1917.

Here is a picture showing how Weigle and Calligan took Major-General Traub's picture.

On the very same day, Calligan also took this picture of General Traub inspecting their movie camera together with Weigle.

"The Camera Kid"

Weigle stayed in France until February 1919 and arrived back in Chicago as a Signal Corps Captain in June 1919. When he left a new photographic officer was assigned to the 35th Division. And here we have another familiar name. The new lieutenant in charge of Weigle's photographic team was Adrian C. Duff. Nicknamed "The Camera Kid" because of his youth, Duff made national headlines in February 1912 when he got in a plane with aviator Frank T. Coffyn and for the first time in history photographed New York City from above. Like his colleague Weigle he had covered the attack by the U.S. Marines on Vera Cruz in April 1914, as well as the German bombardment of Antwerp later that year. Duff died in a tragic car accident in New York City shortly after the war.

Photographic Unit, 35th Division, A.E.F.  From left to right: Pvt. H.C.T. Sproule, Pvt. Roland C. Price, 2nd Lt. A.C. Duff, U.S. Signal Corps, Pvt. Thomas J. Calligan. Picture taken at Commercy, Meuse (France) on January 22, 1919

Here is a link to a previous weblog on Duff's extraordinary life and work.

We have uploaded all photographs showing these cameramen of the 35th Division on this Flickr picture album.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Edward Steichen in the Great War

The first modern fashion photographer, best known for his shadowy portraits of movie stars like Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich and Louise Brooks, Edward Steichen (1879-1973) hardly needs an introduction. We mentioned Steichen briefly in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, because he was in 1917 one of the first cameramen to join the U.S. Signal Corps when America entered the Great War.

From painter to photographer: self portraits by Edward Steichen (1902/1917)

Steichen (second from left) with the Signal Corps in France, 1918

Newest weapon of war 

As mentioned before in an earlier weblog, when Steichen joined the Signal Corps he initially worked with Albert K. Dawson and Edwin F. Weigle, two war photographers who had been with the German and Austro-Hungarian army before the United States entered the war. In his autobiography A Life in Photography, Steichen described how in July 1917 he entered active duty with the goal of becoming “a photographic reporter, as Mathew Brady had been in the Civil War”. He quickly abandoned this romantic notion to help implement the newest weapon of war, aerial photography. While on military duty in France, Steichen helped adapt aerial photography for intelligence purposes, implementing surveillance programs that had a lasting impact on modern warfare.

In his memoirs he later reflected: “The wartime problem of making sharp, clear pictures from a vibrating, speeding airplane ten to twenty thousand feet in the air had brought me a new kind of technical interest in photography … Now I wanted to know all that could be expected from photography.”

Pictures from Steichen's World War I photo album: American bomber over enemy trenches and the ruins of Forges, French Argonnes

Steichen, photographed in 1918 when he was Chief Photographic Section U.S. Air Service

From June until October 2014 the Art Institute of Chicago held an exposition on Steichen's photographic work during World War I. Focusing on rarely seen Steichen photographs drawn from the Art Institute’s collection, this exhibition included a unique album of over 80 World War I aerial photographs assembled and annotated by Steichen himself.

As these pictures show, Steichen's personal and professional experiences during the Great War contributed in developing a more crisp photographic style. Although the exposition has been closed his work for the U.S. Signal Corps in France can still be seen online at the website of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 2015, the book Camera Aloft: Edward Steichen in the Great War appeared. Author Von Hardesty in this book described how Steichen volunteered in 1917 to serve in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). He rose rapidly in the ranks of the Air Service, emerging as Chief of Air Photography during the dramatic final offensives of the war.

Here is a presentation on this remarkable book by researcher Gene Eisman.

Monday, June 12, 2017

World War I in Motion: Archival Clips from the Library of Congress

On June 7, author Cooper C. Graham presented a selection of some of the finest World War I films from the nitrate vaults at the Library of Congress. Digitally preserved from rolls of 35mm nitrate film stock, much of this historical footage has never been seen in nearly 100 years and was found during the research for our book American Cinematographers in the Great War.

Cooper Graham speaks during the June 7th exhibition lecture World War I in Motion in the Whittall Pavilion. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has an extensive film collection on the Great War. There are hundreds of reels of U.S. Signal Corps film, propaganda films by the Commitee on Public Information, as well as contemporary newsreels. Last year, Cooper Graham was asked to make an inventory of the huge number of films at the Library dealing with America's entry into the World War in 1917 for a digitization project. The results are by no means complete, and much remains to be done. A former film curator at the Library of Congress, Cooper was familiar with the collections. With the centennial of World War I the time had come to share some of his World War I film discoveries.

Selected clips from the exhibition Echoes of the Great War at the Library of Congress 

Cooper's lecture World War I in Motion was well received by the audience. All chairs at the Whittall Pavillion of the Thomas Jefferson Building (Library of Congress) were filled, with about a third Library of Congress staff. During his talk Cooper discussed selected clips from one of the most interesting film collections at the Library of Congress: the John E. Allen Collection. This collection of ten million feet of nitrate film is one of the most important of its kind.  It contains World War I and World War II era actualities, dramatic pictures from the sound era, quite a number of unique silent films from the New York area studios and the “all-black newsreels” from the 1940s. Together, these collection holdings are of inestimable research value for historians, scholars and educators across the country.

World War I Film Collection

The World War I footage in this collection is of particular interest. While researching the American film cameramen of the First World War we were able to find many scenes shot by these cinematographers in this specific collection, notably newsreels taken by Ansel E. Wallace and Ariel L. Varges for the Hearst organization, as well as scenes shot by cameraman Albert K. Dawson for the American Correspondent Film Company, and an amazing sound rerelease of Frank E. Kleinschmidt's film War on Three Fronts (USA, 1916).

To commemorate the centennial of America's entry into the First World War the Library of Congress has opened the exhibition Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I. Much of the film that is shown at this exhibition comes from the John E. Allen Collection.

Here is a link to the online exhibition on the website of the Library of Congress.

Would you like to know more about Cooper's film research and publications? Here is a link to his personal website.