- Reel America and World War I : a comprehensive filmography and history of motion pictures in the United States, 1914-1920
- Reel America and World War I
- A Comprehensive Filmography and History of Motion Pictures in the United States, 1914-1920 by Craig W. Campbell
- ® 1985 Craig W. Campbell. All rights reserved
- Printed in the United States of America
- McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers Box 611, Jefferson, North Carolina 28640
From 1914 to 1920, movies developed into an important element of the mass American culture. Movie-going became part of the entertainment habits of the public, and film increasingly became a factor in business and government activity. The reality of World War I accentuated the popularity of the cinema as the producers catered to the audience’s interest in seeing images relating to the conflict. As the nation moved toward participation in the war, motion pictures presented various viewpoints in filmmakers’ attempts both to shape and to follow public attitudes toward the ongoing struggle. After American entry the nation’s film industry was utilized as an arm of the government propaganda effort, aiding in the creation of support for the war, eventually catering to and encouraging a hysterical patriotic response.
Over the Top
Griffith had accepted a commission from the British government to make a movie for the Allied cause. Sailing to England, and from there making two trips to France, he used footage filmed overseas, purchased some German documentary film, and shot most scenes in Hollywood for the finished product. Starring Lillian and Dorothy Gish and Robert Harron, along with a large cast, the film centers on the romance between two youths of American-families living in France, and war’s interruption and destruction of their happiness. Three versions of the film were prepared, one for each nation’s business, subtitles identifying the principals as either American, British or French.
As a prologue, Griffith includes footage shot of his visit to a trench at the front and of his shaking hands goodbye with Prime Minister Lloyd George, the latter captioned as Lloyd George’s wishing him success on the venture. Opening with the title “God help the next nation to make war for conquest and greed,” the film has a prewar German agent/tourist visiting the village in France. He is described as “Sometime finger to the mailed fist,” while the Kaiser is “The shadow of war’s ideal of all races and time.” The war itself is “The struggle of Civilization.” Scenes recreate the British Parliament cheering in support of French and Belgian neutrality, and the cheering French Chamber of Deputies as the nation goes to war. Yelling Germans on the attack illustrate “War’s Old Song of Hate,” and precede scenes of killing, soldiers battling with bayonets, and “War’s Gift to the Common People,” the German destruction of the village and the flight of the refugees.
Lillian Gish as the heroine is put to work with other women in the fields by the Germans. She is unable to lift the baskets of crops onto a cart, and a German guard whips her mercilessly, blood running out of her mouth. Scenes of three small children in the cellar, where they exist in hiding and have buried their mother, are contrasted with a sequence of a German officer bacchanalia. The Hun officer later attempts to ravage the heroine, but is interrupted by the hero, who struggles with him; the fight ends when Lillian stabs the German. Hun trenches are bombed by the Allies, and “Happy Times” result when the Germans are vanquished and American troops free the village from enemy domination.
Greeted by its initial Los Angeles audience with continuous applause and a rousing cheering ovation, the film was placed on the state rights market in May. By that time it was doing fine business in its bookings in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago. It stayed for at least three months in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia; New York audiences were still patronizing the film in November. Twenty-five companies, each with an orchestra, were touring sections of the nation by mid-August. Michigan had five prints of the film working within the state in September; Detroit’s run lasted thirteen weeks. Describing the audience reaction, a theater manager in Atlanta, Georgia, stated, “I have never seen such enthusiasm displayed in a playhouse…. The people down here went wild. It was all we could do to keep many persons from standing in their seats.
Also becoming apparent was a sense of brutality, of a coarseness, perhaps reality, pervading the consciousness of the body politic in the wake of the war. While Lillian Gish had stabbed a German with a knife in Hearts of the World, Gladys Brockwell thrusts a sword in the back of the Mexican bandit villain of The Bird of Prey, a scene described by a reviewer as causing “shivers to run up and down your spine.”
Gushing briefly from a bayonet wound and flowing from Lillian Gish’s mouth in Hearts of the World, by the fall of 1918 blood was becoming more frequent. Dripping down the wall from the shots that rip through the heroine of Kultur, blood also drips at least twice in front of the camera in The Law of the North with Charles Ray.