Soldiers at war

Film Propaganda: World War I

Today, World War I brings to mind unprecedented carnage, as well as the manipulation of morality that left soldiers dealing not only with physical deformity, but an agnoised mind. The reason for the outbreak of the war seems confusing to us even today, and is often quickly bypassed in school. So what role did film play in the continuation of the war, and how did propaganda affect the course of history?

The search for reason

The muddled justification for the war was so far removed from the lives of the young men shoved to the front, that the senselessness of the butchery they had to endure left them feeling disassociated from the conflict. As a matter of fact, many chose to walk away, risking getting caught and being executed for “cowardice“. On both sides, soldiers came to realise that what they were experiencing was not war, but “mass slaughter”. As a private in the British army once cried out,

“If you go forward, you’ll likely be shot, if you go back you’ll be court-martialled and shot, so what the hell do you do? What can you do? You just go forward.”

Meanwhile, world powers were investing in propaganda films to keep the fighting spirit alive among the civilians, who were not yet exposed to the terror unfolding in the trenches. After all, the letters sent back home were subjected to dutiful censorship. What was left were crude lines concealing the words that would not only horrify the soldiers’ loved ones, but arm them with information.

Alf (1929), a heart-wrenching and subversive novel written by Bruno Vogel, a German soldier during World War I, describes the lies contained in the letters sent home to inform families of the soldiers’ deaths, forever alluding to a quick and painless parting with life. The actual truth is fleshed out in excruciating detail, and conveys the soldiers’ sense of loneliness and despair. Vogel’s pacifist cry for reason later forced him to flee from Hitler’s Germany, when humanity once again folded in on itself.

World War One: tending of wounded in trenches

Wilfred Owen and Siegried Sassoon, British poets and soldiers, also painted a harrowing picture of the devastation of life. Sassoon even penned a letter that was published in the Times in 1917, blaming the government for “deliberately and unnecessarily” prolonging the war. He avoided a court-martial by a hair’s breadth, and only because of his influential friend Robert Graves, who managed to persuade the powers that Sassoon was suffering from shell shock (known today as PTSD).

Fifty years after the war, Richard Tobin, who served with Britain’s Royal Naval Division, gave an interview in which he remembered how he and his fellow soldiers entered No Man’s Land and attempted to break through enemy lines,

“As soon as you get over the top, fear has left you and it is terror. You don’t look, you see. You don’t hear, you listen. Your nose is filled with fumes and death. You taste the top of your mouth…You’re hunted back to the jungle. The veneer of civilisation has dropped away.”

Casino culture

Preserved as an overwhelming tragedy in modern history, World War I was also “the first major man-made calamity recorded on film, paving the way towards our current disaster-as-entertainment culture”. This form of enjoyment has been dubbed “casino culture“, and refers to our proclivity for consuming culture that lacks the obvious appearance of learning.

Instead, whether out of a subconscious need to turn away from life-reaffirming topics, or out of a hedonistic need for immediate gratification, we tend to prefer anything that possesses the appeal of “disengagement, discontinuity and forgetting”, as Zygmunt Bauman points out.

In fact, he paints a rather chilling picture of modernity, with its greatest achievement being instrumental rationality. This concept explains why murder is abhorred and punished during the periods in-between wars, but demanded and enforced whenever the world powers deem it natural.

Signal corps class in photography, Washington Barracks
Image found in the National Archives Catalog

Among the tactics used to destabilise a stoic mind was propaganda, seen as a way of managing to distance its audience from “the enemy”, made up of individuals who were portrayed as mere “objects of control, manipulation and extermination”. By demonising a selected group, chances for “eruptions of moral responsibility” among those being cajoled into brutality were lessened.

What’s important to note is that World War I was the first war to be exploited before motion picture cameras, which overwhelmed civilians with an onslaught of vivid, forceful images of destruction and death. The shock it induced made film one of the most effective means of war propaganda. And so, the first state-financed War Propaganda Bureau was founded in August 1914, and launched the film Britain Prepared on December 29 1915.

And so it begins

Interestingly, Hollywood film companies played a notable role in promoting the First World War. In fact, with the country’s neutral status in place until its belated plunge into the bloodbath in April 1917, the US witnessed attempts by both sides to beguile the public into supporting them.

First World War
Courtesy of the Austrian National Library

The Germans utilised The American Correspondent Film Company, presenting feature films and newsreels compiled on the front lines with German mobile cameras. Meanwhile, the French-owned American production company Pathé Exchange came out with The Horrors of War (1916), an anti-war three-reeler, which future war profiteer Henry Ford publicly endorsed.

In the end, the mushrooming of American capitalism and its reliance on the global economy led to the country’s acceptance of the war time madness. The Creel Commission organised the “Four Minute Men”, a group of volunteers tasked with the delivery of patriotic speeches in favour of the war and the draft at schools. While the Creel Commission was busy spreading anti-German hysteria, the US film industry coughed up Charlie Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (1918) and D. W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1918), among other notable works.

German prisoners World War I
Courtesy of the New York Public Library

As Preeti Oza rightly observes, World War I propaganda proved a tantalisingly effective tool of control for the world powers, and has not only shaped the foundation of present-day American propaganda strategies, but also fed British and German propaganda campaigns during the 1930s and World War II.

After the end of the war in 1918, a few Hollywood writers and directors used the medium of film to express their artistic outrage at the desolation caused by its outbreak. Twenty-seven months after the Armistice of 11 November 1918, Metro Pictures came out with Rex Ingram’s masterpiece The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).

The wild success of the dejected drama echoed the public’s dissatisfaction with the government’s 1917-1918 propaganda campaign. The justification for it was reexamined when people’s restored rationality forced them to confront the piles of lifeless bodies left in its wake.

What remains

The biggest array of World War I film titles is located in the CBS collection. In fact, CBS TV compiled a monumental 1964-1965 documentary series called World War One, for which twenty-six film libraries were procured from Canada, England, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Turkey and the United States. Much of it contains untouched scenes showing people and places related to the war’s various battlefronts. A collection that presents a few reels of authentic German footage is Motion Picture Films from G-2 Army Military Intelligence Division.

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