The first module of this course will focus on the rhetoric of propaganda to sell the 'Great War' to an unwitting population. We'll begin with some readings:

The first module of this course will focus on the rhetoric of propaganda to sell the 'Great War' to an unwitting population. We'll begin with some readings:

The Reading

Before we dive into poetry, and in preparation for watching the films in this course, begin by reading pages 1-5 in this entry for Film and Video from the International Encyclopaedia of the First World War. This excellent website is a great resource for all kinds of information about the Great War. Then you will be reading three short poems for this module: 

On Receiving News of the War (1914) By Isaac Rosenberg

Snow is a strange white word;
No ice or frost
Have asked of bud or bird
For Winter's cost.

Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know,
No man knows why.

In all men's hearts it is.
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.

Red fangs have torn His face.
God's blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.

O! ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.

(Cape Town, 1914)

 

Men Who March Away (1914) By Thomas Hardy

What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing gray,
Leaving all that here can win us;
What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away?

Is it a purblind prank, O think you,
Friend with the musing eye,
Who watch us stepping by
With doubt and dolorous sigh?
Can much pondering so hoodwink you!
Is it a purblind prank, O think you,
Friend with the musing eye?

Nay. We well see what we are doing,
Though some may not see—
Dalliers as they be—
England’s need are we;
Her distress would leave us rueing:
Nay. We well see what we are doing,
Though some may not see!

In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just,
And that braggarts must
Surely bite the dust,
Press we to the field ungrieving,
In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just.

Hence the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing gray,
Leaving all that here can win us;
Hence the faith and fire within us
Men who march away.

 

Lastly, you'll read The Soldier (1914), By Rupert Brooke. This poem carries with it a somewhat solemn distinction: it is often recited at military memorials, even to this day. This poem was written in 1914, just at the start of the war, and before many soldiers began to return their home countries, either disfigured or in body bags. Be sure to not only read the poem itself, but also the very brief article about this poem and its author.

The Watching

Battle of the Somme (1916) by Geoffrey H. Malins and J.B. McDowell

(Note: You don’t need to watch the entirety of this film as, admittedly, it’s poorly edited, has zero storyline, and is therefore pretty boring to our 21st century eyes. This precise issue is actually discussed in the reading for this module. Case in point, you should watch this scene, as it is the only staged scene in the entire film, owing to the relatively lackluster appeal of actual combat footage shot by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell. There will be more discussion of this important touchstone in propaganda film at the end of this module).

This film was released about halfway through the course of WW1, as public opinion about the war was beginning to wain, and months before the US joined the war. The film contains a somewhat disconnected montage of various scenes, including infantry marches, life in the trenches, artillery teams attacking German positions, wounded British and German soldiers receiving medical treatment, war dead, and captured German equipment.

Within six weeks of its release, The Battle of the Somme was seen by some 20 million people in England alone, and it was distributed all over the world to help support the British and Allied cause. Due to its relatively anodyne treatment of a particularly devastating battle, The Battle of the Somme (the film, that is) is clearly propaganda, and one of the earliest examples employing the medium of film. That said, it is also a significant historical record of the titular Battle of the Somme, and has been used many times as a source of footage illustrating the First World War.

Bei unseren Helden an der Somme (With Our Hero’s on the Somme, 1917) – UFA

Far less popular than The Battle of the Somme was Germany’s own answer to this propaganda film, Bei unseren Helden an der Somme (With Our Hero’s on the Somme), produced by the Universum-Film-Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa), Germany’s newly organized and official propaganda office. As with The Battle of the Somme above, you are not required to watch this film in its entirety. Do make note, however, any differences in quality or tone, as this film was produced to counter the effects of The Battle of the Somme, and shore up support for the German cause.

 

The Bond (2018) by Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin made this 1918 propaganda short film with his own money to help the Liberty Loan Committee, an institution that sold war bonds. As one of the most famous personalities in the world at the time, his supports for the war was significant. It would be as if Robin Williams had come out publicly and not only supported the 2003 war in Iraq, but then produced his own film to raise money for the war (Note: Williams, though he was a staunch supporter of the troops and participated in numerous USO events, was an ardent critic of the Iraq War and former President George W Bush).

Hearts of the World (1918) by D.W. Griffith

This film was written, produced, and directed by the one of the most important filmmakers of all-time, D.W. Griffith. It is also a shameless piece of war propaganda, designed to shift America's opinion of the British cause in WWI, which was up until 2018, decidedly neutral. Aware that the British and her allies would likely not be able to defeat the Germans without help from America’s vast military complex, the British government commissioned Griffith – sort of the Michael Bay or Jon Favreau of his time – to produce a movie that would convince less discerning American audiences to join the war effort.

Although he was given unprecedented access to film in areas that even the British and allied media wasn’t allowed in, Griffith and his team wound up recreating battle scenes in Los Angeles, finding the actual front too boring. In Griffith’s own words:

"viewed as drama, the war is in some ways disappointing, everyone is hidden away in ditches. As you look out over No Man’s Land there is literally nothing that meets the eye but an aching desolation of nothingness."

Griffith eventually regretted the making of Hearts of the World, as it only served to vilify the enemy, rather than tell the truth: that the war itself was ill conceived and bungled from the start, and that millions of innocent people died for no good purpose.

The Questions

After completing the film, complete the following questionnaire: