Film on the Front Line: British Propaganda from WWI

FilmOnTheFrontLines3web

This is a presentation on video of films made during World War I. The films are from the archives of the Imperial War Museum. It runs at the Royal Armouries Museum for the duration of the Leeds International Film Festival. The screenings opened on November 8th with a presentation by Doctor Claudia Sternberg, a specialist on the First World War. And the films runs continuously daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

There are five films ranging a 100 foot short to a two reel film.

The longest film is Exploits of a German Submarine (U-35).Operating in the Mediterranean (UK, 1918 – 36 minutes. This has an interesting pedigree. The film footage was originally a German propaganda film The Enchanted Circle, showing the exploits of one of the most successful examples of submarine warfare at the time. The British took the footage, changed the titling and possibly re-edited the material. Thus is became an example of what is called ‘counter-propaganda’. This version is quite clearly decrying the enemy. Title cards suggest that the Germans are lax about war ethics and about veracity, implying that the British are not. There is some interesting footage of the vessel and a large number of ships sunk.

Liveliness on the British Front (UK, 1916 – 8 minutes). This was produced by the same people who made the famous and extremely influential The Battle of the Somme (UK, 1915): Geoffrey H. Malins and Edward G. Long of the British Topical Committee for War Films. It was only at this stage of the war that the British Government realised and implemented using film for the war effort. We see British troops relaxing behind them lines, but also going into action. The latter are fairly clearly staged. However there is footage that gives a sense of the state of the trench system and the living conditions that troops endured.

Home on leave (UK, 1916, – 7 minutes). The film follows soldiers leaving the Western Front and retuning home for leave: something that soldiers generally had to wait a considerable time for. There is a light-hearted feel to the antics of the soldiers as they journey by road and then by ship.

The Destruction of a Fokker: Our Mobile Ant-aircraft Guns in Action (UK, 1916 – 6 minutes). The Fokker was one of the very effective German fighter planes. Most of the film shows the mobile gun crews, moving, manoeuvring and firing their 13 pound weapon. For much of the film the enemy plane is in extreme long shot. For the climax there is a special effect – the use of a model: and then shots of the burning wreckage of seemingly two downed aircraft.

Fighting U-Boats in a London Back Garden (UK, 1918 – 1 minute). This very brief film is a ‘digging for victory’ feature. Civilians demonstrate the cheerful resilience that is expected from the British as they dig and plant in their tiny garden.

As you might expect the condition of the old prints varies considerably. Moreover, video transfer is not that kind to the contrast and definition of old film. Quite a lot of the footage is reasonably sharp and clear. However, within the films there are passages [especially in the U-35 footage] which is fairly washed out and poorly defined]. It is still an interesting an informative 58 minutes. There is a musical accompaniment by the Ithaca Trio. This is a quiet and appropriately sombre piece: it avoids more rousing music even during the action sequences.

A word of caution. The Royal Armouries is not the best signposted museum I have visited. And there are not specific signs or indicators for this event – it was not listed in the Daily Events Calendar that I saw. Moreover the Museum has a large number of video installations in the permanent exhibition, and I was at first misdirected to one of those.

So Film on the Front Line is in the Cinema on the second floor, the first floor of the War exhibits. Coming in the main entrance take the right hand lift at the far end: turn left out of the lift on floor 2 and the first entrance has the cinema, also on the left. When I went the auditorium doors had been wedged open so there was extraneous noise from the other exhibits: but the wedges are easily removable.

One last note – if you find this interesting, after the Festival you could check out the Mediatheque at the National Media Museum in Bradford which has large collection of archive film, including from the World War I period.

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