Government's Itinerant War Cinema
Topical Film Company
Lord Beaverbrook inspects fleet of Cine-Motors which will depict war truths in the villages. Medium shot over the lowered side of a truck to the rear compartment where a corporal prepares one of two projectors - pan left to show more lorries parked in the background. Medium shot of Beaverbrook as he inspects the rank of ‘Cine-Motors’. The lorries drive off - they are numbered 1-10 and each bears the legend ‘Ministry of Information Cine-Motor. A small crowd looks on.
Pieces of History
Filmmaking and the Great War : what to film and how to present it?
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.
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.
Journalists and the War
Student at HEC, Montreal
The military soon understood that while the mass communication methods that had come into use in the 19th century made it possible to inform and mobilize entire populations, they also gave rise to new risks. Censorship became a fundamental component of military strategy very early in the war, with two specific objectives: keep the enemy wrapped in a fog of ignorance and protect the morale of the nation in order to promote the war effort. No one was free to say or write whatever they wanted, as Canadian journalists soon discovered after hostilities broke out in August 1914.
Although the press’s primary objective when war was declared was to keep readers informed about developments on the battlefield, it proved to be an extremely difficult task. The British government banned journalists from the front until 1915. Even afterwards, the situation did not improve much. Military information was supplied by an “official eyewitness,” appointed by the Canadian government, whose dispatches from London were so biased that no one took them seriously. Finally, in March 1917, in response to increasing complaints from journalists, the Canadian Press Association sent a real war correspondent, T. S. Lyon, editor of the Toronto Globe, to the front.
With a shortage of Canadian war correspondents during the Great War, journalists had to get their combat news from telegrams sent by their European colleagues. All news dispatches were carefully monitored, however: information and photographs that managed to get past the censors assigned to each group of correspondents were scrutinized and altered by the French and British censors prior to transmission across the Atlantic.
The tentacles of censorship did not stop there, however. One of the Government of Canada’s first military initiatives was to impose censorship of the press under the War Measures Act. Yet this statute was not sufficient to stem the flow of information that might be harmful to national security. With war being a very lucrative subject for newspapers, and with censorship being voluntary, editors sometimes gave in to the temptation to boost sales by revealing risky information. The highest value was attached to any information that was supposed to be kept secret under the censorship rules: movements of troops or goods within Canada, departures of contingents for the front, locations of military industries, technical specifications of arsenals, espionage rumours and casualty lists.
In June 1915, in an effort to put an end to these leaks, the federal government established a censorship board and named Lt.-Colonel Ernest J. Chambers chief press censor. With over 30 years’ experience in journalism, on top of a career in the military, Chambers enjoyed the respect of both the government and journalists. Under his surveillance, editors had to make sure that any information that might aid the enemy, endanger soldiers or discourage the war effort went into the waste basket. The definition was very broad. Besides details on military operations, it also blocked most information providing a realistic portrayal of the war. As Chambers saw it, Canadians might be shocked and demoralized by the horrors of the war. As a result, journalists were forced to use euphemistic language: a defeat became a reversal, a retreat a strategic withdrawal, a slight advance a tremendous victory. Soldiers’ letters were censored, too. Only humorous and optimistic allusions to the war were allowed to be published in Canadian newspapers.
Most journalists deplored the situation. As some of them, including those at the Toronto World, saw it, preventing the publication of genuine news served no useful purpose, and in fact, had a negative impact on recruitment. Indeed, according to the daily, publishing the truth about the war would have served to underline the urgency of the situation on the front to the Canadian public and to encourage patriotic young men to join up. The image that was presented was one of a war effort that was going well enough and not really in need of new recruits. Another criticism levelled at censorship was that it protected the government from the scrutiny of public opinion. The Edmonton Bulletin drew its readers’ attention to the fact that the censors had kept Canadians in the dark about the defects of the Ross rifle for almost two years. Many newspapers argued that if accurate information about the weapon’s shortcomings had been known, the public outcry would have forced the military to switch to a better rifle and could well have prevented many deaths on the battlefield.
From 1917 on, freedom of the press came under even greater threat. Reflecting public opinion, newspapers became increasingly critical of the government’s war policies and of the socio-economic conditions in Canada: national registration, rationing, increase in the cost of living, poor treatment of civilians by the military authorities, and conscription. Dissent was most vocal in Quebec. Newspapers — liberal, nationalist and Catholic — refused to back down in their opposition to conscription or any other measure deemed excessive. Not wanting to allow criticism of this sort to be disseminated, the government passed a new, more restrictive censorship act, specifically aimed at banning the publication of views hostile to the government. While mere threats of banning, imprisonment and fines were not enough to convince French-Canadian journalists to cease their attacks, the shutting down of the liberal newspapers Le Canada and Le Bulletin and of the ultra-Catholic La Croix, along with the censorship of the war news column of the weekly L’Action catholique in the spring of 1918, forced them to submit.
In many respects, censorship in Canada during the First World War was more severe than in other Allied countries. From the time hostilities broke out until censorship of the news was officially lifted on April 30, 1919, 253 publications were banned in Canada. Of this number, 164 were published in a language other than English or French. Journalists knew what was at stake. Yet while they resisted any efforts to set limits on their freedom of expression, they were still willing to aid the war effort.
In a way, journalists became informers, supplying the censors with all kinds of information useful to the authorities. At the same time, newspapers were turned into instruments of propaganda. In Quebec, for instance, La Presse and La Patrie played an active role in raising the Canadian 22nd Battalion. Newspapers also provided free space to the government for its advertising campaigns and published articles encouraging young men to enlist.
Throughout the war, Canadian journalists were torn between, on the one hand, not wanting to put the lives of young soldiers at risk or hinder “the successful prosecution of the war” and, on the other, not wanting to submit to the censorship imposed allegedly to protect the nation’s morale and, indirectly, the government in power in Ottawa. An integral part of the war machine, but also a tool of political power, censorship rocked the foundations of Canadian journalism for over four years.
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