| || |
Devotees will be aware that I also co-edit a Hugo-winning fanzine called Journey Planet. We're working on several issues (we've not released anything since December of last year) and one is on World War I. Here's a piece that will be appearing in that issue that covers the role of newsreel footage and sport in WWI!
I once asked my Dad if what war really meant. I was maybe 12 at the time, and he said the deepest thing I think I ever heard him say – “War is the sport of politics. It’s the physical clash of political ideas.”
It would then follow that the pieces on the board that is war, the soldiers, would not only be moving like players on a pitch, but would also be engaging in sport themselves when not shooting. The most famous story is a football game played between the sides during a ceasefire, but that was far from the only example of soldiers taking a break to play around. In fact, there are a great many examples.
British Pathe is the current surviving version of Pathe Freres, the first Newsreel producers. They have survived, kinda, through to today, largely by licensing their huge library of historical footage. They were around from the 1890s, and produced newsreels until the 1960s. They captured some of the best surviving footage of the early portion of the 1900s, but they were in full effect during the first World War. They had dozens of camera crews out on the front, capturing footage of everything. Their documenting of Trench Warfare has allowed those who re-construct the trenches to get an incredibly accurate record of what soldiers were dealing with. The amazing thing is that so much of their footage was preserved (largely because it had commercial potential), and it’s even MORE amazing that so much of it is available today online. You can find their collection at http://www.britishpathe.com/workspaces/page/ww1-the-definitive-collection and it’s full of amazing footage. It was supposed to be used by footage researchers trying to find stuff, but really, it’s all there for you to go through and look at, no matter who you are (so long as you don’t mind the ‘for preview only’ scrawled across the bottom).
One of the purposes of these newsreels was to show the public that their boys were doin’ fine. This was the first war to be so thoroughly documented, and the newsreels that were being shown in UK (and US) theatres were putting forth a number of ideas. They were presenting soldiers as people, the kind of people who play soccer, enjoy a fun roving game of rugby, even host boxing matches. They were also showing that the war was going so well that the boys had all the free time in the world to participate in sporting fun! There was a huge propaganda value to that sort of message, and newsreels were at the service of the Government and War Effort… or at least that’s how they got around a lot of the rationing. Pathe recorded many hours of footage of soldiers at play, and they have preserved and presented it on their site at http://www.britishpathe.com/workspaces/BritishPathe/ww1-off-duty.
The first thing you notice is that the subjects covered are really broad. There’s a great short about Soldiers eating at Eagle Hut from 1914, and an amazing piece showing French soldiers putting on a production while bombs explode just behind the stage. These shots would have had immeasurable inspirational value. The boys were so secure that those handling the fighting were capable of keeping them safe while they were off duty that they could watch a play while being bombed! Piece on the Rum Ration, a naked run to the sea, barbers shaving the men, even a tea party. It’s good stuff, all of it, but the stuff that really interested me was the amazing footage of sporting that was presented.
The first one that jumped out of me was the gorgeous footage of a boxing match between an American and a British soldier. http://www.britishpathe.com/video/international-boxing-1 In fact, specifically, it was a fight between Sargeant Miller of the American Flying Corps and Sergeant Elliot of the London Scottish. The fight’s not great by the standards of today’s boxing, not even at the Golden Gloves level. Elliot is basically flat-footed the entire footage, while Miller moves fast with pretty poor side-to-side motion and a lot of wasted energy. Of course, Miller knocks Elliot out, and the single shot is really excellent! This was an interesting choice for Pathe, as it shows the US fighter KOing the British fighter. Boxing was a popular sport to watch in movie theatres at the time, and the major newsreels covered the big boxing matches (also, the big wrestling matches!) and this would have fit right in.
The next one I had to watch was Fighting Men at Play (http://www.britishpathe.com/video/fighting-men-at-play) is some really good footage and the kind of thing that would have played really well in the Foreign territories. This footage is some of the earliest rugby footage of the most legendary rivalry in rugby: The All-Blacks of New Zealand vs. The Springboks of South Africa. This footage isn’t the best in the collection, though there’s a nice shot of a scrum collapsing. It was years later that the All-Blacks and ‘boks would begin their legendary feud. There’s a Maori rugby video as well. Rugby, while slightly more equipment-intensive than soccer, was certainly a popular sport for fighting men in WWI.
One of the most thought-provoking videos was from after the US entered the war - http://www.britishpathe.com/video/coloured-doughboys-field-day. One of the African-American units was filmed running an obstacle course. The video is supposed to show what the soldiers went through as a part of their physical training. What’s so interesting is that it really demonstrates the traditional roles that the soldiers were a part of. The opening shot is of a parade, which features several black soldiers pulling a rail cart with several white officers sitting on it. It’s perhaps the clearest example of how the US military saw black soldiers, not only in WWI, but all the way up through Vietnam.
This footage represents some of the most fascinating of all the World War I footage available. The examples of way that sport is not only a peace-time activity tells us more about the mentality of the soldier, and how life continues even in the face of bombs going off. That says exactly how important leisure is to the human spirit.
Journey Planet Preview - War: The Sport of Politics – British Pathe’s World War I Recreation Footage By Chris Garcia
Klaus at Gunpoint
A Film Journal dedicated to all film.A segment of Office Supply Publishing.