Filmmaking and the Great War : what to film and how to present it?

Catherine Saouter

An examination of the Canadian Expeditionary Force footage shows clearly that in 1914–18, film was not yet firmly established as either a genre or a visual medium. Yet it is precisely the rudimentary nature of the footage that gives us insight into how the invention of this new recording technique led to a new way of representing things: now, pictures of war were truly moving.

The first thing we notice is that the activities and specialities essential to running the army are described in a way that is quite reminiscent of a technical manual. Then we realize that in recording these various facets of military life, the operator — as the cameraman was called at the time — is wondering what to show and how to show it with the device he has in his hands: a film camera. Each segment of the footage, all with the same size framing, is the equivalent of what would later be called a sequence shot. Two of many aspects of the work are particularly noteworthy: the point of view and the handling of people.

Finding a place for the camera

Many ways of establishing a point of view can be seen. The first, a conventional method, is to place the camera in such a way as to shoot the widest field possible in order to record as much information as possible: the setting, the protagonists, and, above all, their actions. The steady, straight-on view requires a wide-angle shot or full shot and means that the actors are a little too far away. Another solution is therefore needed, and many of the shots show that the operator has discovered or decided to use a camera position employed from the beginning by the Lumière brothers, who invented the cinematograph in 1895: that of the famous Train Arriving at La Ciotat Station. The operator frames the shot to direct the sight lines leading towards a vanishing point at the edge of the frame, whether on the right or left. Thus he gets good depth of field, while bringing the people or other elements of the foreground in closer. Furthermore, seen from this position, the protagonists do not move out of the frame too quickly. Thanks to this solution, we discover with amazement, almost a century later, how the railway was really built — with the strength of men's arms and mules' legs. Sometimes the camera is placed right in the middle of the action and the cameraman seems to be having as much fun as the soldiers: through the lens he sees the soldier emerging from the mouth of a cannon or the body of one thrown up in the air by his comrades.

A third solution, the pan, in which the camera is pivoted on its axis, seems to have been adopted fairly quickly and easily. The idea of moving the camera goes back to the technique of panoramic photographs taken with specially designed cameras, of which the army had several. While a photographer aimed to produce a description of a huge space, a cinematograph operator used the pan shot to follow a movement. One of them, for example, had the idea of following a truck entering the frame. But the truck was too fast, visibly exceeding the capabilities of the operator, who then focused on a load pulled by slower-moving mules, which were easier to film.

It is quite obvious that these shots are true exercises, even experiments — the footage even includes aerial shots taken from a plane. The point of view for the shots is high angle and very mobile. Filming from a plane was quite clearly a significant event. Someone, for a souvenir, filmed the operator set up with the pilot in the plane, before take-off — and we can see his wooden camera strangely shaped like a small suitcase.

Although no footage has been found in which the operator moved the camera while shooting on the ground, in what would later be called dolly or travelling shots, the operators obviously developed their various skills by using this documentary technique. They record what is going on, and with few exceptions, are never allowed to direct the action to suit themselves, as in a feature film or reconstruction. In any case, they clearly had no desire for simulation: on the contrary, the subjects explicitly co-operate with the camera, smiling, posing or saluting straight at the lens. This connivance between the cameraman and his subjects is one of the original things about the other aspect of the operators' work: representing people.

Capturing Looks and Attitudes

There are two distinct types of footage: the films show either true portraits, isolated from any action, or groups of various sizes, in which the individuals are barely identifiable.

In the first case, the operator uses the movie camera like a still camera, and surprisingly, tries to eliminate any movement. This paradoxical use of cinematography is far from rare. The shots of the airplane pilots are a wonderful illustration of this paradox. The camera is set up, the pilots enter the frame and lean against the fuselage. A latecomer joins them. They move closer together so he can fit in. Then they all look at the lens and smile, remaining perfectly motionless. The footage shot when German prisoners were captured shows another variation on the same theme. Each prisoner advances toward the foreground, stops and looks at the camera. Then, true close-ups are taken of the men's faces, a little as if each prisoner, stripped of his insignia and cap, completely static, were to be clearly identified: real anthropometric shots.

This concern with detailing the faces of the enemy contrasts starkly with the second method, which consists in showing soldiers as a group: their entire bodies are shown in their actions, their attitudes, their expressiveness. What comes as a real surprise to the modern viewer is that despite the absence of individualization, the body is not divorced from its humanity. The operators are not filming bodies, they are filming people, with no particular emphasis, no particular accent: the body is neither beautiful nor ugly, just quite simply animated, from signs of health to the most serious afflictions, severe wounds and psychological distress. We now know that the perfect athletic body would later become one of the best instruments of military propaganda, especially for recruitment campaigns. But this footage may offer valuable evidence of the relationship that existed between body and person before it became distorted by fashion and culture.

Observing the subjects as people imprints on the footage subtle indicators of the men's physical and moral condition. The film plays up neither the spectacular, nor the dramatic, and in the absence of a soundtrack or intertitles, or any battle scenes, it is the soldiers’ expressions that unambiguously differentiate the safety of the training grounds from the stress of the front lines. In footage of the trenches, the operator is interested in men visibly aware of the camera and miming their own routines. In the background, a prisoner no longer has the strength to keep up appearances. He slumps against the wall of the trench, holding his head wrapped in a broad bandage, overwhelmed by pain, fatigue or despair. Another time, to show the work of the nurses, the camera attempts to gloss over the wounded lying on stretchers. But the speed of the medical staff, the posture and inertia of some of the wounded leave no doubt as to what the scene is about. The camera work here shows, very early, a fundamental characteristic of the war culture that was developing: an alarming new relationship with death and a fierce solidarity among the men so they could endure it.

This footage, shot in the early days of cinematography, provides us with a frame of reference so that we can appreciate what was the unforeseen potential of the new medium, while discovering how its use in the theatre of war gradually contributed to refining its increasingly complex methods. In this regard, the exceptional Canadian Expeditionary Force footage increases our understanding of the fundamental relationship that, from the First World War up to the present day, has developed between the world of war and the world of the media.

Selected Bibliography

Lacasse, Germain, La presse, le cinéma et la guerre 1914-1918, in Conflits contemporains et médias, Actes du colloque 29-30 mars 1996, sous la dir. de C. Saouter et C. Beauregard, UQÀM et Service historique de la Défense nationale, Montréal, XYZ, 1997, p. 85-94.

Saouter, Catherine, Images et sociétés – Le progrès, les médias, la guerre, Montréal, Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2003.

Catherine Saouter

Catherine SaouterCatherine Saouter holds a PhD in semiology and has been a professor in the Department of Communications at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) since 1988. Her research and teaching focus on image theories from a semiotic and historical perspective. She is the author of Images et sociétés – Le progrès, les médias et la guerre (Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2003) and Le Langage visuel (XYZ éditeur, 1998).