Chapter XXXVII

WAGING A MOVIE BATTLE ON THE EURO-
PEAN WARRING POWERS

Making the Movies by Ernest A. Dench
New York, The Macmillan company, published 1915 (now in the Public Domain)


pp. 159-167

For gallant deeds on the battlefield soldiers are rewarded with medals.

But take the case of the cinematographer at the front. His activities practically forbidden by the warring powers, he defies all regulations, censorship, red tape and forbidden areas, and takes pictures under the greatest risks.

But what does he care when the interests of us movie fans are at stake? It fills him with the spirit of adventure. So is he not really as deserving of honor as those with the fighting forces? His daring places him under as great and as many risks as they endure, and yet he seldom receives the appreciation he deserves.

When this war is over a fund should be collected at the theaters so that those who have distinguished themselves at the theater of war shall be awarded medals for their pluck and resourcefulness. The very least we can do now is to take off our hats to the camera man whose exploits I am now going to relate.

First I will introduce the Universal Squad. One of their photographers had to go through the ordeal of being captured by the Belgian authorities and made to stand for five hours with a bayonet nibbling at the middle of his back. Another, Mr. J.M. Downie, was more fortunate. He had friends in the Belgian and French armies and enjoyed a certain amount of liberty and special privilege. He was the last cinematographer to leave Antwerp before the advent of the Germans, and secured some remarkable scenes of the siege. He took his pictures of bursting shells from the inside of a cart. But he was faced by a greater difficulty, for it is the rule that all film be censored before it is sent to England and the authorities deal out severe treatment to those who are caught smuggling.

Two more of their men working together experienced such a loss. First they were apprehended as spies, then freed, and good fortune favoring them, they gained access to a battlefield. they soon busied themselves filming a German cavalry attack on the Belgians, but a flying bullet ended the career of one of their cameras. In shifting their position they openly exposed themselves, and to get out of the way of the charging cavalry, fled, leaving the contents of the damaged camera behind, much to their regret.

The other camera contained a thrilling film. They got away with it on a train which was so full that they had no alternative but to ride on the engine and on the front of this they carried their apparatus as though it were gold.

At the station when they alighted a policeman accosted them; they made an attempt to escape but were captured. then the undeveloped film was inspected despite their pleadings. Of course, every bit was spoilt and their labors were in vain.

Pathe Freres fared better, for they have been appointed official cinematographers to the French army. Even so their Mr. H.A. Sanders had enough excitement to last him a lifetime. When he wanted to get to Ostend after hearing that the Germans were approaching Ghent, he boarded a motor car containing some Belgian soldiers. To add to the danger was a Union Jack which the auto flaunted: A patrol of German cyclists soon pursued them and to get out of danger's way the chauffeur put on full speed, caring nothing for brakes, ditches or any other obstacles. They effected a safe getaway.

Mr. F. Scales, another of their gallant representatives, took up a position so close to the Belgian guns during a big battle on the Scheldt that he was warned to leave. But he still kept to his post and it was only by threatening to destroy his film that they finally got him out of the way. Some realistic close up views of firing shells were the fruits for his bravery.

J.C. Bee Mason, an English cinematographer, managed to travel with the Belgian army for six weeks, during which time he obtained 6000 feet of film, most of it being taken on the firing line from unique positions.

One day a Belgian refugee approached him excitedly and thinking he wished to pose before the camera Mr. Mason endeavored to persuade him to stand against a wall. But the native anxiously puled Mr. Mason a considerable distance away, and the next minute a shell caused the wall to collapse. It was a near go, but Mr. Mason had an even closer shave than this. One night while sleeping in a farmhouse in Grembergen the place was struck by German shells. He hid under the bed, clutching his precious camera, fearing for it if the roof should fall in. Luckily nothing eventful occurred.

When the Germans entered Ghent, Mons. Bizeul, and Eclair camera man, exposed himself to great danger by securing a second floor room in a cafe facing the town hall. There he patiently watched developments and as the section of German army filed past for one and a quarter hours he manipulated the camera by letting the lens pass through the slightly opened window.

A certain free lance American cinematographer was arrested as a spy by the Germans, but after his identity was proved he was released only to fall into the hands of a French sentinel, who thought him to be a German spy. For two days he was kept a prisoner and when the French came to realise that was an American on business they freed him. The camera man, in the first place, invited suspicion by running about from place to place whereas he should have proceeded cautiously.

Just imagine the risk involved in travelling over forbidden ground where one had to hide amongst provisions in a freight wagon attached to a train when all bridges and stations were carefully guarded. This is the risk taken by a young Englishman, H.S. Hibbart, by name, in order to film the Indian forces a the front. Here he was arrested and his camera and film confiscated. Through the instrumentality of a journalistic friend of high standing he was deported to England under the charge of eight armed guards. The journey to Paris took 38 hours instead of two and the menu comprised "bully" beef, bread and jam. Later, however, his filming apparatus was returned to him safe and sound.

Cherry Kearton made many attempts to film exploding shells at the Battle of Alost, but he found that they were barely noticeable on the screen -- there was a flash and that was all. When the flying fragments of one strikes a soldier, he slips forward a little and stirs no more.

There are no dense volumes of smoke and the soldiers do not fling their rifles up in the air, and die in a pose; such films, Mr. Kearton declares, are fakes. In warfare to-day smokeless powder is the only kind used, for it is the only kind which does not give the position away to the enemy.

Pathe Freres operators had their cameras equipped with a telephoto lens, by the aid of which it was possible to cinematograph soldiers at work in the trenches at a distance of six hundred yards. This is how the Pathe men succeeded in getting their unique and intimate views of the fiercest fighting, for the ordinary lens is limited to a range of two hundred feet.

Most other camera men have dispensed with the cumbersome motion picture machine and instead used an Aeroscope camera, which is minus a tripod and therefore easy to carry about. But even this does not do away with all the difficulties. Mr. Mason will back me up on this statement.

To keep the camera steady when carrying out his work he was obliged to adopt sundry plans. The most successful one was to strap the camera to the trunk of a tree, which also afforded protection for the operator.

At another time, wanting to obtain pictures of the Belgians fighting in the trenches, Mr. Mason laid himself flat in the middle of the street and held the camera up in front of him.

His one great scoop was was some remarkable panoramic views of the German army. To obtain these he attached a coil of wire to the movie machine, tying the other end to a button on his coat. He then climbed up a telegraph pole and after reaching the top he tugged at the wire and thus got the camera up safely. The final operation was to hold it tightly and focus the camera on the magnificent sight far below, ahead of him.

Paul Rader, a plucky American, managed to film pictures of an artillery duel between the French and Germans, after which he rushed to the nearest vacated house and hid both camera and film in the cellar. A few days later, when the fighting had shifted to another part of the country, he returned for his belongings and was successful in eluding the vigilance of the authorities on his journey to the coast, en route for England.


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