Silents are Golden: World War I – The Gamechanger of Film History
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the final year of World War I, I decided to write a piece concentrating on the war’s impact on cinema. I hope you find this area of 20th-century history as fascinating as I do!
In the summer of 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia by a Serbian radical. At a time when various tensions had long been simmering under the surface of Europe, that single event proved to be the start of a violent chain reaction. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, which lead to country after European country declaring war on each other. The end result was the largest and bloodiest conflict the world had ever experienced. Its effects on society, culture, and art are evident even today – including its impact on that very influential art form, the cinema.
Prior to WWI, cinema had been evolving very rapidly. Ever since the nickelodeon and kinetoscope days of the 1890s and early 1900s, filmmakers had been discovering new styles of editing and new types of trick shots. They began to let go of staginess and let motion pictures develop a language of their own. By the mid-1910s film was very sophisticated, and an endless stream of shorts, serials, newsreels, documentaries, and features rolled into hundreds of theaters every week.
In Europe, France and Italy were considered leaders of the film industry and made up a bulk of the product being sent to places like South America (England’s studios were also going strong). The U.S. industry was also huge–in 1914, about half of the movies in the world were from the U.S.
But all that changed when WWI began. Many European studios had to close and were turned into hospitals, factories, and the like. Others had to scale back their releases, or employees turned their attention to supporting the war effort (or were sent to the trenches). One such filmmaker who was affected was Georges Méliès, whose famous glass studio Montreuil was turned into a military hospital in 1917. Famously, or infamously, hundreds of his whimsical films were confiscated by the army and melted down to make boot heels.
As a result, the then-neutral U.S. found it was now the king of filmmaking, producing over 90% of films in the world by 1918. As they adapted to the new, massive market, U.S. filmmakers had to figure what would appeal to various foreign audiences–e.g., ”vamp” pictures with fiery acting were especially appreciated in South America, while serials were popular in Asian countries. Perhaps the greatest strength of U.S. cinema was its one-of-a-kind stars. Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and Pearl White had global appeal, as did the versatile Mary Pickford (although she was perhaps the most popular in northern countries). Charlie Chaplin, of course, was far and away the most popular actor in the world, his brand of comedy has instant appeal to people of all races and cultures.
A Swedish poster for Easy Street (1917).
In the meantime, some countries found themselves more or less on their own when it came to filmmaking. Sweden developed a style of subtle, character-driven dramas. Germany banned imported films altogether (partly to counter all that anti-Hun propaganda). As a result, its film industry became wildly prolific, even forging the unique style of German Expressionism.
As far as audiences went, moving pictures were a chief form of entertainment during the duration of the war. Some people wanted an escape from the war; others wanted to see newsreels and features about the conflict. And, as Picture-Play Magazine noted back in 1914:
From the workman of the Fiji Islands, who toils the better part of a week braiding grass mats or baskets to earn a few pisa to attend a single picture show, to the American laborer, who considers the evening movie almost a daily essential…the movie in general and in particular has become the most universal form of amusement in the wide world.
Cinema was indeed so popular by the mid-1910s that governments were taking notice of its potential, too. As a result, they wasted no time in creating propaganda films. While film had certainly been used for propaganda purposes in the past–by labor unions, for instance–it had never been used on such a vast scale for such a specific purpose before.
Each country put out its own propaganda. Britain’s official department was called Wellington House, and once it had entered the war in 1917 the U.S. created the Committee on Public Information, which worked closely with the higher-ups of the film industry. Aside from churning out its own newsreels, shorts, and features, the CPI encouraged movie stars to donate films urging the public to buy Liberty Loan war bonds. Everyone from Lillian Gish to Roscoe Arbuckle to Sessue Hayakawa contributed Liberty Loan films to the cause, and Chaplin, Fairbanks, and Pickford even toured the country in much-publicized loan drives that attracted thousands of people.
Filmmakers also put out war-themed pictures at a dizzying rate, which usually depicted Germans as cruel, bloodthirsty brutes. Famous examples include The Heart of Humanity (1918), where Eric von Stroheim’s Prussian lieutenant actually throws a baby out a window, and The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin (1918), which paints the said Kaiser as an irredeemable villain lusting for power. When D.W. Griffith made his famous feature Hearts of the World (1918), its scathing portrayal of Germans troubled him enough in later years that he tried to make amends with Isn’t Life Wonderful? (1924), a thoughtful story set in post-WWI Germany.
Once the Great War ended, war pictures were no longer in demand as the public wearily tried to move on from that tragic period. Europe never quite recovered its former status as a film industry titan–Hollywood was now the undisputed world leader in motion pictures, as it still is to this day. By the 1920s, the strong emotions of wartime were calming down, German directors and actors were beginning to move to Hollywood, and the film industry in Germany was garnering wide respect.
No matter how we look at it, World War I was the gamechanger of the 20th century. In a sense, the globe lost a kind of collective innocence during those fateful years of 1914-1918. Yet there’s some significance to the fact that despite all the horrors of wartime, cinema still had the ability to provide some escape for grateful audiences. And even back then, it provided a shared cultural experience for people from every background imaginable – as it continues to do today.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.