Reviews of silent film releases on home video.
Copyright © 1999-2014 by Carl Bennett
and the Silent Era Company.
All Rights Reserved.
|World War I Films
of the Silent Era
Contents: The Secret Game (1917), The Log of the U-35 (1917), Fighting the War (1916) and The Moving Picture Boys in the Great War (1975).
Couched in the pacificism of Woodrow Wilson’s administration, the United States of America sat complacently back and observed the European war for more than two years. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany hammered at nearby countries and invaded others until pacificism was no longer a viable political position. The American Congress declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917. American soldiers left for Europe, and at home the American film industry willingly became a propaganda arm of the U.S. government. In the name of patrotism and freedom, actors fought enemy soldiers in trenches and spies at home and abroad, all to bolster domestic morale and confidence in our might and rightousness against the hated Hun. A barrage of war pictures and documentaries flickered proudly on American movie screens throughout 1917 and 1918. This collection of three silent era films and a modern documentary will give viewers a representative impression of what those films were like and what they intended to convey to American audiences.
Fighting the War (1916) is a two-reel film, released by the Mutual Film Corporation, that was produced by Donald C. Thompson, a 26-year old American documentary filmmaker. According to the DVD packaging, Thompson shot this film from February through June 1916 (while America was still a passive Great War onlooker) after having arrived in France with British forces on a Canadian passport. The film is straight reportage, with no discernable political position.
After a plain main title, the film jumps right into the images of the European war, with footage of Algerian and Scottish troops moving to the front lines of the Battle of Verdun. The footage captures troop movements and preparations, munitions handling, equipment transport, large artilliary guns, life in the French trenches, enemy gas measures, observation balloons (probably full of hazardous hydrogen), French and British aircraft, and actual battle footage on the ground and in the air. It must have been a thrill for 1916 audiences to see aerial footage, taken by Thompson, of a French town and the French countryside from 10,000 feet. Among the surprises for World War I laymen is the French Army’s use of compressed air machinery for rapid tunnelling under the German trenches, presumably to lay explosives. Also seen are French trenches reinforced with 40 feet of concrete, which could possibly survive to this day since they were so massive it seems improbable that money would have been spent after the war to demolish them.
The Log of the U-35 (1917) originated as a German war propaganda film, comprised of footage shot in April through May 1917 by German submarine commander Lothar von Arnauld de la Perrière during a wartime excursion in the Mediterranean Sea. A number of ship sinkings were documented, a few of them shocking in their destructive finality. The commander’s footage was assembled and distributed as the propaganda film Der Magische Gürtel (1917), a copy of which was captured by British forces. The film was copied and, in turnabout, used to fire anti-German sentiment in England and America. As noted in the DVD liner notes, the presentation here is a compilation of the 1919 British edition and the 1920 American edition of the film. Carl Bennett
|2002 Image Entertainment DVD edition
World War I Films of the Silent Era (1916-1975), color-toned black & white, black & white and color, ? minutes total, not rated,
including The Secret Game (1917), color-toned black & white, 67 minutes, not rated, The Log of the U-35 (1917), black & white, 26 minutes, not rated, Fighting the War (1916), black & white, 23 minutes, not rated, and The Moving Picture Boys in the Great War (1975), color and black & white, 50 minutes, not rated.
Film Preservation Associates, distributed by Image Entertainment, ID0512DSDVD, UPC 0-14381-05122-3.
Ratings (1-10): video: 7 / audio: 6 / additional content: 7 / overall: 7.
Full-frame 4:3 NTSC, one single-sided, dual-layered DVD disc (reissued on DVD-R disc), Region 0, 6.5 Mbps average video bit rate, 192 kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and mono sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, chapter stops, standard DVD keepcase, $24.99.
DVD release date: 22 January 2002.
Country of origin: USA
The video transfer of Fighting the War (1916) utilized a very good 35mm print, which is marred with the usual amount of speckling, emulsion chipping, scratches, dust and the beginnings of emulsion decomposition, and also with a few seconds of sprocket punctures. The grainy print makes it difficult to achieve smooth MPEG-2 video compression results, but the transfer is well done and the image appears to represent the qualities (film grain and all) reasonably well. While it is likely the original intertitles were not shot on center, the intertitles border in the transfer are cropped out on the left and bottom sides, but the intertitles themselves remain complete and readable.
The The Log of the U-35 (1917) video transfer is from a good 35mm print and what appears to be a good 16mm print. The 16mm footage is contrasty and of soft focus but clearly shows the action. The 35mm print is of somewhat better detail quality but reveals the average results of hastily-shot documentary footage taken by an amateur cinematographer. While it is extrapolation on my part, the 35mm footage appears to be from the American edition, identified by the art intertitles and the beginnings of intermittent decomposition at the edges of the picture. The majority of the utilized footage appears to have been taken from the 35mm print.
The disc’s insert booklet briefly documents in several paragraphs what information is known about these two films and their documentary cinematographers.
For our review of The Secret Game (1917), see our The Secret Game on home video page.
The Moving Picture Boys in the Great War (1975), a film dedicated to “the man you love to hate” Erich von Stroheim, is a documentary comprised of authentic and fictionalized footage from the years of World War I. Lowell Thomas narrates this look at America and World War I, produced by David Shepard and directed by Larry Ward. Included in the film is 35mm and 16mm footage from a Fine Arts film with Robert Harron and Mae Marsh, Civilization (1916), Intolerance (1916), Mystery of the Double Cross (1917), My Four Years in Germany (1918), The Bond (1918), Hearts of the World (1918), The Heart of Humanity (1918), Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919) and other fiction films; from documentary footage of President Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin, Sessue Hayakawa, submarines, big guns, tanks, airplanes and soldiers; from the propaganda films The Log of the U-35 (1917) and America’s Answer (1918), and from the animated films The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), A.W.O.L. (1918) and a Happy Hooligan cartoon. A number of contemporary audio recordings of World War I theme songs accompany the film.
Altogether, the collection probably represents as much of a cross-section as possible within 167 minutes of the typical war films that were produced in the timeframe covered. However, it would be intriguing to discover that this is only the first in a series of volumes comprised of scarcely-seen documentaries and fiction films on the first World War. We welcome the opportunity here to see another film highlighting the talents of actor Sessue Hayakawa and director William C. de Mille, and to see authentic documentary footage of the war. World War I history buffs will find that this is a ‘must-have’ collection, silent film collectors will be attracted by the uncommon films it contains. We recommend the collection. The edition has been reissued on DVD-R disc.
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