The Great War Propaganda – By Louella O. Parsons (Photoplay 1918)

Photoplay – Vol. XIV September 1918 No. 4

Propaganda!

An earnest consideration of the inestimable part being played by the Motion Picture in the Great War.

By Louella O. Parsons (Excerpts)

If German vandalism could reach overseas, the Kaiser would order every moving picture studio crushed to dust, and every theatre blown to atoms. There has been no more effective ammunition aimed at the Prussian empire than these picture stories of Germany’s atrocities.

Griffith and the Great War 2
Griffith and the Great War 2

First because the moving picture reaches such an enormous audience. Where the novel eight times out of ten presents a more logical discussion of the cause, and the stirring patriotic play has more claim to pur attention it only reaches the thousands, where the film is seen and absorbed by millions. Moving pictures encircle the globe in every inhabited city, and are shown at a price which makes it possible for everyone to see them. These followers of the cinema have seen with their own eyes how German militarism is waged against civilization.

They have seen the rape of Belgium, the devastation of France and the evil designs against America, Italy and France. They have lived over with these unfortunates this tragedy against helpless women and children, and with tears in their eyes and horror in their hearts have cried aloud for vengeance against this soulless nation. And while these film plays have been raising the temperature of the Allies’ patriotism to blood heat, Germany has been gnashing its teeth. The natural question, Why doesn’t Germany meet these attacks with similar moving pictures? brings back an answer attacking one place where Germany’s widely touted efficiency is at fault. We do not doubt for the minute that Germany is making a strong attempt to come back at us with its own moving picture propaganda, but we who have studied the film situation since long before the war know that the kaiser’s domain is not equipped to circulate any such productions as we have been viewing the last twelve months. And if it were it would not have an American audience to reach. We with our cosmopolitan population of mixed races are able to reach the very people Germany ‘is struggling to get into its clutches.

Griffith and the Great War 5
Griffith and the Great War 5

And again, if it had studio facilities, there is no story it could tell to gain sympathy. The allies have never invaded a Belgium, nor destroyed a France, nor waged any unholy war against defenseless women and children. The powers at Washington realized what a factor the screen would be in the war against William Hohenzollern. The declaration of war was not a week old when President Wilson sent for W. A. Brady to co-operate with him in getting the moving picture industry in line. What the fifth estate did in the way of starting the ball rolling with its four-minute men, its patriotic strips of film and with the active assistance of the three Liberty Loan Campaigns is too well known to need further comment. But the big thing the film producer has done was to create within the year over sixty pictorial propagandas, or more than one a week. Not all of these moving pictures have been intelligently constructed. Some of them have been absurd and impossible; others have been written too obviously for financial gain, but the strong argument is, that they have all sent people home thinking and planning of some way to be of service to the government. The government too, has been able to use the screen as a school of instruction, a sort of military text book. By following the weekly films, the mothers at home, the fathers and the younger children have been able to get a very fair idea of what the sailors and soldiers are doing in the military training camps. Every open phase of military life has been narrated in a most entertaining fashion on the screen. England and France have not been slow to realize the value of following America by presenting their righteous cause in a pictured story.

D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front
D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front

An invitation was sent to David Wark Griffith to come to the fighting fronts and make a moving picture of the conflict for the English government. Mr. Griffith was asked to give a cinematic argument of why German militarism, like a cancerous growth, should be cut away before it further menaces civilization by its malignant presence. The adventures of David Griffith on those foreign shores are like a wonder tale of Aladdin and his magic lamp. If I had not heard the story from Mr. Griffith’s own lips I might have accused someone of flirting with the truth. Conservative England received him as they might have received a visiting potentate. Lloyd George personally appeared before the camera with him; Queen Alexandria expressed a desire to meet the American whose magic would bring the war home to so many indifferent hearts, and social England, devoted to the war stricken country, helped by facing the camera. Such women as Lady Diana Manners, Mrs. Buller, Elizabeth Asquith, and the Duchess of Beaufort turned moving picture actress to have a part in the British war film. Government aid and official escort did not make the filming of this picture as simple as it sounds. To get the great panorama of battle in action, the moving picture camera had to be carried into the front line trenches. Shot and shell and gas explosions became a part of the daily Griffith menu. After the camera was blown to bits on one occasion, care was taken to make a facsimile of every battle scene filmed, so a retake could be made in the California studios if it should be necessary.

DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918
DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918

The last time I talked with Mr. Griffith, he was greatly upset at the reports that the Germans were planning to invade Ham, Amiens, Ypres and Chalnes. “Some of those villages,” he said, “are the very spots in which I established my temporary studios. The villagers were deeply interested in the moving picture which was to carry a message to the outside world. Old men., women and children left at home gave freely of their hospitality. This eighteen months’ work in France and England resulted in a combination romance and history. The bleak desolation of “No Man’s Land” with the grim, smoke-stained soldiers are the “supers,” who played in this picture as earnestly as they “play” “over there” in the big war drama for your freedom and for mine. The great stretch of devastated territory, with its accoutrements of war, its trenches and barbed wire fences, are all pictured as accurately as though we were standing there, gazing at the tangible result of German kultur.

Sarah Bernhardt - Mothers of France 1
Sarah Bernhardt – Mothers of France

It is difficult to discriminate and say which film has done the most to aid the fight. Madame Sarah Bernhardt’s ‘Mothers of France,” which should have been titled “Mothers of the World,” has probably called forth the most tears. Madame Bernhardt, with a brave spark burning in her feeble body, stood knee deep in the trenches and offered herself a living sacrifice to her beloved France. The tears are not only for the bereaved mothers, but also for the pathetic old woman, lame and sick, who forgot her own discomfort to try and stir the other women of the world to action. The motive of this picture glorifies it. No one who ever saw Bernhardt and her silent plea that we give our loved ones gladly and proudly to the cause will ever forget her message. Herbert Brenon made a stepchild to the war films in a screen play featuring Rasputin and the downfall of the Romanoff dynasty. This and his English birth brought forth an invitation from the English government for him to make an historical film record for the British archives. Mr. Brenon is now in England working on this mission. There have been many official war films, some of them actually photographed at battles which have now gone down in history as decisive moments in the great world’s war. Among those which have occupied the screen during the past year are: “The Retreat of the Germans at the Battle of Arras,” “The Italian Battlefronts,” “The Battle of the Ancre,” and “Heroic France and the German Curse in Russia.” The last named is more of a pictorial discussion of the Russian situation than a moving picture of any specific battle scene. All of these war time pictures have been received with enthusiasm with the exception of a few which had been better left unfilmed. These are hectic dramas using the war as a reason for their existing, and made with no high patriotic purpose, but with a thinly veiled camouflage to make money. They have offended both the individual patriot and the government. The very fact that some of the producers have taken advantage of war time has induced the government to put every patriotic picture released under strict surveillance, with a trained corps of men to pass upon their fitness to serve as propaganda.

Sarah Bernhardt - Mothers of France 3
Sarah Bernhardt – Mothers of France 3

Some of these features, while harmless enough, are so badly done, that even the heavy Teutonic nature must have found them amusing. But the good done by the screen has far outweighed any evil effects of these ridiculous war films. The President has congratulated the moving picture industry on the help it has given the nation at this time, and he and the other men now at the helm in Washington have gone on record as saying these pictorial propagandas are among the most valuable war-time assets United States owns.

Hearts of the World
Hearts of the World

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