Imagining War

From Edison to Atonement, film has constantly reshaped the ways we imagine, if not wage, war. Joel Bleifuss reports.

In Atonement, directed by Joe Wright and adapted by Christopher Hampton from Ian McEwan's novel, we see visualized one of the low points in the Allies' war against Hitler — the British evacuation of Dunkirk between May 26 and June 4, 1940.

Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) arrives in Bray-Dunes outside of Dunkirk, France. The scene is a surreal carnival of a ruined seaside resort with British soldiers in retreat, massed on the beach, waiting for the boats to ferry them back across the Channel. Familiar yet completely unreal, the scene looks like a Hieronymus Bosch-etched war postcard, its monochromic frames harkening back to early 20th century attempts at film colorization.

At its essence war involves people killing other people, and each new advance in weapons technology strives to put greater distance between war's reality and the war fighter's perception of it. After all, pushing a button hundreds of miles away from your target is easier than driving a bayonet up and under your enemy's sternum. As French cultural theorist Paul Virilio put it, the "field of battle" and the "field of perception" are in many ways one and the same.

By wowing its audience with spectacular effects, war — and war films — foster what the late George Mosse (a gay, Jewish German-born historian of fascism at the University of Wisconsin) termed the "myth of the war experience" whereby the culture "legitimize[s] war by displacing its reality." Or as Virilio put it in

War and Cinema: Logistics of Perception

(1984): "War can never break free from the magical spectacle because its very purpose is to produce that spectacle." Those of us who have never experienced war directly base our knowledge of war on cinematic recreations of that spectacle. In film, the technological innovations of the mass media and the military might are conjoined, if not always seamlessly. In the earliest days of filmmaking, this was literally so. Rapid-fire guns and rapid-fire cameras had more than a little in common.

Virilio writes:

It was in 1861, whilst traveling on a paddle-steamer and watching its wheel, that the future Colonel Gatling hit upon the idea of a cylindrical, crank-driven machine gun. In 1874 the Frenchman Jules Janssen took inspiration form the multi-chambered Colt (patented in 1831) to invent an astronomical revolving unit that could take a series of photographs. On the basis of this idea, Etienne-Jules Marey [a French scientist and early cinematographer] then perfected his chrono-photographic rifle, which allowed its user to aim at and photograph an object moving through space.

In October 1888 in Leeds, England, another French inventor Louis Le Prince made Roundhay Garden Scene.

With this first moving picture humans acquired a technology that could portray their world more realistically than that provided by previous inventions - the drawn image, the printed word and still photography. Ten years later, in 1898, filmed scenes from the Spanish-American War lit up the nation's movie screens.

These war films gave the American audience a center stage seat to human history. In Shooting Insurgents we can watch what we think are Cuban rebels being gunned down by a Spanish firing squad - but actually took place in New Jersey.

"There is no war," writes Virilio, "without representation, no sophisticated weaponry without psychological mystification."

Could the reverse also be true? Without psychological mystification there could be no war? In the United States, the Defense Department - formerly the War Department - has long been aware that films present an opportunity to shape public perceptions of war.

On the Library of Congress's American Memory website, you can watch 67 war films from the Spanish-American War in their entirety. At the time these films helped ensure that the public would "Remember the Maine."

In Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, Charles Musser writes that "with the onset of the Spanish-American War the motion picture industry discovered a new role and exploited it, gaining in confidence as a result. ... It was the ongoing production of a few firms [Biograph and Edison] that provided the commercial foundation for the American industry, and it was the war that gave this sector new life."

In the early days, filming on the battlefield was not easy. Biograph cameraman G.W. "Billy" Bitzer recalled, "Visiting Cuba under Spanish rule was highly dangerous.... My camera was bulky enough ... but ... it was [also] driven by a motor operated by over 2,000 pounds of storage batteries."

Because of these difficulties, some of the Spanish-American War films were docudramas such as Skirmish of Rough Riders (1898), which was staged in West Orange, New Jersey.

Others were filmed on sets that included the very first special effects. An early depiction of the Spanish-American War, Battle of Santiago Bay (1898), was filmed by Vitagraph in 1898. J. Stuart Blackton (credited as the inventor of animation and stop-motion shots) and Albert E. Smith glued photos of the U.S.S. Iowa, the U.S.S. Illinois and Spanish warships on blocks of wood. They then floated these ships in a tank of water in their 10'x12' foot Brooklyn studio and let the camera roll. Stagehands blew cigarette smoke to create one of the very first special effects.

In order to shoot Raising Old Glory over Morro Castle, Blackton created a painted backdrop of El Morro, the Spanish fort that guarded Havana, in front of which he placed a flagpole. As the cameras rolled, the Spanish flag was lowered and the American flag hoisted. (The stars and stripes would go on to play prominent roles in D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915), Allan Dwan's Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and Clint Eastwood's Flags of our Fathers (2006).)

While these early special effects efforts today seem comical, at the time, film was a technological wonder that brought the war home. On April 16, 1898, The New York Journal and Advertiser told its readers that the new moving pictures of the Spanish-American War would give the audience "the vivid impression that an eyewitness gets in viewing and unusual or striking situation."

The marriage between war and film was enthusiastically heralded in the pages of the Indianapolis News. On June 6, 1898, in his article "Photos of the Conflict," an unnamed "special Spanish-American War correspondent" scanned the technological frontier:

The "Yanko-Spanko" war, as they call it in England, is to have its photographic side. ... In fact, the Government is going to organize immediately a floating photographic studio, which will make pictures of every possible incident in the great conflict that is now beginning. ... Thus the history of the war with Spain will be recorded for the benefit of future generations not only in writing, but also in a vivid pictorial shape that will appeal to the understanding of the smallest schoolboy. ... [Dr. Gray's] acquaintance with electricity will be of particular use in the management of the biograph or vitascope apparatus, by means of which it is hoped to get moving photographs of various interesting incidents of warfare. ... By the help of ... a new-fangled contrivanc[e] ... called a "telephotographoscope" ... the expert in charge hopes to obtain satisfactory views of one or more of the battles at sea or possibly of the storming of Havana. ... What a marvel, indeed, would be a moving photograph of a duel between two warships, American and Spanish, terminating, of course, in the destruction of the enemy's vessel, exhibited on a stereopticon screen before wildly enthusiastic audiences from Boston to San Francisco. How the enthusiastic American audiences aforesaid would yell if they could see with their own eyes that monument to medievalism, Morro Castle, actually falling into a heap of its own debris before the fire-vomitting guns of Admiral Sampson's fleet. Then, like the Corbett-Fitzsimmons [March 17,1897 Nevada boxing] fight in its vitascope reproduction, they would behold the glorious performance again and again until satisfied that the Maine had been remembered sufficiently.

By the time World War I began, it was a whole new world. The American film industry began to take sides in the national debate as to whether the United States should enter the war. For its part, the War Department began to appreciate the power of this new mass media.

The War Department entered the film business with a bang when it helped D.W. Griffith make The Birth of a Nation (1915) by providing both artillery and technical advice on the Civil War battle scenes. (At the time, 50 years had passed since the end of that war.) The Birth of a Nation, adapted from Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel, The Clansman, an homage to the Ku Klux Klan, was the most profitable film ever made - that is up until 1937 when it was surpassed by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Debate still roils about the artistic merits of The Birth of a Nation. Some say that you can't -or at least shouldn't - divorce art from content. Jonathan Lapper, in his essay "Myth of a Nation" writes, "Most critics [have] developed a pattern of response to the film that continues to this day: Praise the film's techniques, deplore the film's content, let technique trump content, declare the film a masterpiece." But Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, has this take: "The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like [Leni] Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will [1935] it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil."

Without doubt, The Birth of a Nation broke new ground. Griffith pioneered the use of artificial lighting; night filming; panoramic, still, and insert shots; cross-cutting film shots between two simultaneously occurring scenes, a technique that can allow battle field action to be experienced from two perspectives and thus appear more realistic and immediate; and the use of hundreds of extras to stage realistic epic battles. Some of the credit must go to Griffith's cameraman, G.W. "Billy" Bitzer, the man who went to Cuba to film the Spanish-American War. The Birth of a Nation, clocking in at a record 190 minutes, is also considered the first feature film, in addition to being a masterful piece of racist agitprop.

A short time after privately screening The Birth of a Nation in the White House, Griffith wrote Woodrow Wilson promising the president that he had ideas for several historical and political films that "could be made to sledge hammer home those opinions and thoughts which you might desire to put into the very hearts of the American people."

Wilson didn't take him up on his offer. He did however respond favorably later that year when Jacob Binder, the executive secretary of the Motion Picture Board of Trade, invited Wilson to the group's annual dinner, writing:

You may not realize that the motion picture is today one of the greatest forces in the country. As a medium of thought expression it ranks with the press and the spoken word. More than ten million people daily throng the 13,000 motion picture theatres throughout the country. As a propaganda medium, it is unexcelled. It speaks a universal language. It speaks convincingly. It is bound to play a tremendously important part in the next presidential campaign. I want the men who ARE the motion picture industry to know the President of the United States, and to believe in him, his personality and his policies as I do.

Wilson accepted the invitation.

At the time the film industry had already entered current political debates. Blackton's Vitagraph Company, made The Battle Cry of Peace [1915], an anti-neutrality film that used extras from the Grand Army of the Republic and the National Guard to stage its battle sequences. It was based on Defenseless America, a book by Hudson Maxim, a munitions manufacturer, that warned that the "the dubs of peace" were endangering America's future.

In April 1917, when the United States abandoned neutrality and entered World War I, the War Department was quick to take advantage of this new mass media and its technological developments and innovations.

The need for aerial photographs and film led to the creation of the U.S. Air Force. Filming, from a plane or a balloon, was pioneered by the Army Signal Corps, which provided military reconnaissance. Indeed the first warplanes, the Army Air Service, were under the command of the Signal Corps.

By the end of World War I, cameramen from the Photographic Section of the Army Signal Corps had shot almost one million feet of film. The Committee on Public Information (established by President Woodrow Wilson's Executive Order 2594 on April 13, 1917) used this footage to make more than 60 war propaganda films.

Other propaganda films recreated war-related events through animation. These included newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay's The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), a 12-minute short composed of 25,000 drawings. It shows what transpired on May 7, 1915, when the RMS Lusitania was hit by two torpedoes fired from a German submarine and sank. Of the 1,959 people aboard the luxury liner 1,198 perished - a loss McCay dramatized by drawing a mother and her baby drowning.

Crimes of the Germans would be more realistically rendered by D.W. Griffith in Hearts of the World (1918), which the British and French governments commissioned him to make in the hope that it would get the American public gung-ho for the war. Griffith was taken to the Somme trenches in France to film the battle sequences.

Back in the States, Griffith wrote the President's secretary, Joseph Tumulty, urging him to get Wilson to see the film: "It has been hailed as the biggest propaganda to stir up patriotism yet put forth."

When Wilson and his wife, Edith, attended the Washington, D.C. premiere, she was apparently horrified at what she saw and wrote a highly critical letter to Griffith, which has been lost to history. His response, however, hasn't. He wrote in part, "When we deal with the general public as a whole, we deal with a very, very stolid hard animal to move or impress. We must hit hard to touch them. ... I fell into the error which you so generously reminded me of and overshot the mark." He then said he would eliminate two of the scenes that she had most objected to so as not to "offend the refined and sensitive spirits such as yourself."

Edith Wilson, apparently, wasn't being overly sensitive. Lillian Gish, the film's femme fatale, would later comment, "The film inflamed audiences. Its depiction of German brutality bordered on the absurd. Whenever a German came near me, he beat me or kicked me."

Films like Hearts of the World raised the anti-German sentiment in the United States to such a hysterical level that it complicated negotiations at the Treaty of Versailles.

World War I saw the birth of modern warfare, and, subsequently, the advent of the modern war film.

The Great War undermined the confidence of the self-satisfied Western World, which had put its faith in progress fueled by technical ingenuity. Ironically, this much-vaunted technology was used to create a killing machine that could take lives in a savagely efficient way - tanks, machine guns, poison gas, submarines and military aircraft.

King Vidor's The Big Parade (1925), with its graphic depictions of trench warfare that defined World War I, was shocking in its realism. In one scene Slim (Karl Dane), who has been hit in the head, lies dying. Jim Apperson (John Gilbert) calls out to his dying buddy and is ordered to be quiet, to which he responds: "Orders! Orders! Who the hell is fighting this war - men or orders? I came to fight - not to wait and rot in a lousy hole while they murder my pal! Waiting! Orders! Mud! Blood! Stinking stiffs! What the hell do we get out of this war anyway! - cheers when we left and when we get back! But who the hell cares ... after this?"

The Big Parade wasn't against war per se, since the film did not begin to question the shaky rationale that got the world into this mess in the first place. At the end of the film, the credits note: "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer gratefully acknowledges the splendid co-operation of the Second Division, United States Army and Air Service Units, Kelly Field."

Five years later, in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), director Lewis Milestone was less ambiguous in portraying the horror of war. As the first war talkie, All Quiet on the Western Front added sound, a further dimension of sensory realism to the viewer's war experience.

There was no getting around it, realistic film portrayals of battle showed that modern war was hell. Griffith found this out first hand when he was escorted to the Battle of the Somme to get footage for Hearts of the World. Upon that visit, he declared himself "very disappointed with the reality of the battlefield." So he returned to England to film his cinema-bound war. After all, there wasn't much derring-do to be found in trench warfare that left more than one million dead in the Somme.

The way to avoid the dissonance of war's reality was to take war films away from the blood soaked battlefield. William A. Wellman's Wings (1927) was the first post-World War I film to glorify war.

British historian Michael Paris, writing in History Today, observed, "Wings, Hell's Angels [Howard Hughes' 1930 movie] and the other reconstructions of the war over the Western Front established the parameters, style and content of air war movies that has remained almost constant from 1927 through the Second World War and Korea and which can still be seen in such recent features as Top Gun (1986), Supercarrier (1988), Flight of the Intruder (1990) and Into the Sun (1991)."

As a seminal aviation war film, Wings provided the audience - with the help of the War Department and World War I fighter pilots - an elevated, not to mention exciting, view of war. Virilio, commenting on the interplay between World War I aviation tricks and Hollywood film techniques, observed, "Airborne vision now escaped that Euclidian neutralization which was so acutely felt by ground troops in the trenches; it opened ... vistas whose precursors could be found in the big wheels and other fairground attractions of the 19th century, and which were later developed in the roller-coasters and scenic railways of post-war fun fairs." The thrill ride of war created by Wings' sense of motion continued to be a cinematic lure in films like Top Gun or Star Wars.

Ironically, in Atonement, it is the very unreality of the war scenes that renders them in some ways more truthful. We have moved from The Big Parade battlefield realism of the post-World War I era to the metaphoric dreamscapes of Atonement, a film that acknowledges the limitation of traditional filmmaking techniques to convey the war experience in its totality.

Joel Bleifuss is a writer who lives in Chicago. He is the editor and publisher of In These Times, a national independent monthly magazine based in Chicago, for which he has worked and written since 1986. He is the author with Steven Freeman of "Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen: Exit Polls, Election Fraud and the Official Count" (Seven Stories, 2006).