Dr Toby Haggith
Wednesday 8 April 2020

The first war captured on film

Black and white still from the film 'Peace on the Western Front' showing the ruins of a town on the Western Front
BFI Special Collections

The first war captured on film

The First World War was the first war to be comprehensively recorded on cine film. Cameramen filming on behalf of the British military shot half a million feet of film, covering British and Empire forces serving on the frontline on land, sea and in the air in all battle zones. When the Imperial War Museum was set-up at the end of the war, hundreds of these ‘War Cinematograph films’ were amassed (a collection eventually numbering over 1,500 titles), and investigations were conducted to ensure their long-term preservation as cherished historical records.

What might seem an obvious and essential task of official record keeping today was an imaginative and radical innovation in 1919. Systematic film preservation had never been attempted, was very expensive, and was opposed by conservative minds in the British establishment.

This archive became key in the creation of Britain’s visual memory of the war, as society sought ways to memorialise, historicize and generally make sense of the recent conflict. Although initially unwilling to release footage for fictional films and comedies set during the war – that might trivialise the war and devalue the archive footage – the Imperial War Museum’s Trustees would assist the makers of ‘serious’ historical accounts of the war. One project which did receive their approval is the long-forgotten, Peace on the Western Front: a Story of the Battlefields (1930), which film curator Edward Foxen Cooper recommended, ‘There would be no objection for official war film to be included in this film, [as] the subject would be dealt with reverently and especially produced for Armistice week.’ (IWM LOC 451: Memo from E. Foxen Cooper, HM Stationary Officer, Cinematograph Section, War Office, to Secretary Imperial War Museum, 16 October 1930)

Black and white still from the Film Peace on the Western Front showing a stone memorial of a soldier
BFI Special Collections

Peace on the Western Front was made by two veterans of the war, one British (Fred Swann) and the other German (Hans Nieter), and takes the form of a tour through the Belgian and French battlefields, twelve years after the war’s end. The tour is introduced and interspersed with dramatized sequences in which a veteran ‘Tommy’ (Moore Marriott) tells his young son Bobby (Eric Pavitt) of the real meaning of the war for those who fought and for the civilians who had to endure the fighting that ravaged their homeland. As is stated in the accompanying press brochure, the purpose of the film was to impress upon younger generations, for whom the Great War was ancient history, that war ‘is not a childish game, a glorious adventure’, but ‘a hideous ugly thing.’

Black and white still from the film 'Peace on the Western Front' showing a boy with his grandfather
BFI Special Collections

Peace on the Western Front was not the first battlefield pilgrimage film, but it was the only British example to be pacifist and international in scope. Whereas films such as Memories of Albert and Beyond; Ypres - the Immortal (1920), and Eight Years After (1924) concentrated on memorialising the locations where British and Empire troops had fought and died, Peace on the Western Front also covered the epic campaign of Verdun and included footage of memorials and military cemeteries to French and German dead and reflected on the on-going trauma of the citizens of Belgium and France.

The First Anti-war film

Black and white still from the film Peace on the Western Front showing a cross leaning over in a quiet spot on the Western Front
BFI Special Collections

The First Anti-war film

1930 was a turning point in British cinema’s treatment of the war. British feature films Journey’s End (1930) and Tell England (1931) presented the brutality of the Great War and its destructive effects on the minds and bodies of the men who fought. However Peace on the Western Front was the first British film to be explicitly pacifist – the documentary equivalent of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the most celebrated of all anti-war films, which the title of Swann and Nieter’s film so obviously references and that was in distribution at the same time.

Released as a second feature at the end of 1930 (to coincide with Armistice Day), by mid-January 1931 it had secured close to 60 bookings and there was interest from all the major circuits. The film also gained a following among the growing peace movement and became an unofficial film for the League of Nations Union, with numerous screenings being arranged to coincide with meetings of local LNU branches and, specifically, to encourage people to sign the Disarmament Declaration of 1931. As a consequence, Peace on the Western Front remained in circulation for far longer than was usual for a second feature, still being shown in cinemas in October and November 1932.

The film received praise from the critics

A woman walks past a wall of names on a First World War memorial in a still from the film Peace on the Western Front
BFI Special Collections

The film received praise from the critics

Critics were full of praise for this ‘interesting’ and ‘intelligent’ ‘anti-war propaganda’ and were moved by the sincerity of the intentions of the film’s makers, even the nobility of the cause; The Bioscope called it ‘A deeply impressive film deserving world-wide exhibition.’ Commentators were also struck by a lack of sensationalism and restraint in the use of footage of the horrors of war. To some observers, Peace on the Western Front indicated a rise in the standard of films and programming and an example of how films containing ‘true to life material’ were so much better than the ‘colossal but preposterous spectacles’ so often screened (North Devon Journal).

The Restoration and the Missing Soundtrack

Black and white photograph of rows of crosses in a Western Front graveyard
BFI Special Collections

The Restoration and the Missing Soundtrack

The IWM holds two copies of the film which have provided the source material for a new digital copy of the film’s picture. But the restoration cannot be completed as the discs on which the soundtrack was recorded – the method of playback before soundtracks were printed on film – are lost and a script has not yet been found. Over the past year we have been creating a new soundtrack that can be a sympathetic replacement for the lost original, reconstructing the script – lip-synching the dialogue and drawing on the press brochure – and commissioning a new score from pianist Stephen Horne.

Now with your help we hope to find more clues and production papers – perhaps even the script itself – to complete the work, record the soundtrack and bring this important film to the screens. Perhaps one of your relatives worked on the film or you have some information about one of the local screenings held to promote the League of Nation’s Union? We have received invaluable help from relatives of Hans Nieter and the Will Hay Appreciation Society (a long-time collaborator of Moore Marriott), so we are hopeful that descendants of the rest of the original team may come forward:

  • Production company: International Productions Ltd. Company directors: Graham S. Hewett, DSC, and Eric L. Alexander. (Lt. Hewett RNVR, received his DSC for commanding a raiding party during the Zeebrugge Raid, February 1918).

  • Director: Frederick Albert Swann (born Nottingham August 1896, died London November 1963) joined the film industry in 1928, working in all aspects of the industry but chiefly as a Production Manager. During the First World War, Fred served with the Army Service Corps in the Mediterranean and Salonika. Fred had two brothers Leonard and Eric, and two sisters Eva and Bertha.

  • Director: Hans Nieter (Aka Hans Martin Nieter O’Leary) (born Washington USA August 1898, to a German father and Irish mother) was an English and German educated film director and producer who had worked at UFA studios in Berlin before moving to England in the late 1920s, with his first wife Martha Loni. Hans Nieter served on the Eastern Front during the First World War. Hans died Denham, Bucks in October 1979, and was succeeded by his second wife, Lady Pamela Paulet.

  • Dialogue: Eliot Cardella Stannard (born 1 March 1888 in Putney, London; died Kensington, London, 21 November 1944) was Alfred Hitchcock’s first major screenwriter and regarded as the most prolific and successful British screenwriter of the silent era. He wrote 167 films between 1914 and 1933 including the screenplays for eight of Hitchcock’s films.

  • Narrator and commentary writer: Ratcliffe Holmes (Frederick William) (born Notting Hill, London 1879; died Lewes, Sussex, April 1952) was a journalist, author, traveller and producer and director of travel and wildlife films. He volunteered in 1914 and fought on the Western Front with the 2nd battalion of the Highland Light Infantry, being invalided out in September 1915 due to injuries sustained in the trenches. He married Florence May Magner (1894-1975) and they had a son, John Derick Ratcliffe Holmes (1923 -1981).

  • Cameraman: Photographer and cinematographer Charles James Crapper (born Camberwell, London 1887, died Edmonton, London 1950) served in the RAF during the First World War, being enlisted in 1916. He was married to Rose (born Murk) and they had three sons, Charles Frederick (3/1908), Frank James Stuart (11/1912), and Grahame Reginald (11/1915). It is likely their youngest son was the combat cameraman Grahame Crapper, who served with the Army Film and Photographic Unit during the Second World War

  • Cast ‘Tommy/father’: Moore Marriott (George Thomas), (born Yiewsley, Middlesex, 1885; died Bognor Regis, Sussex, December 1949), was a prolific stage and screen actor, appearing in as many as 300 films in his career. Marriott enlisted in November 1915 serving as a dispatch rider with the Army Service Corps.

  • Cast ‘Bobby/son’: Eric Pavitt (Walter Eric Victor) (born Poplar, London 1922; died Alton, Hampshire, November 2001). Pavitt began his acting career as a child, his performance in Peace on the Western Front, when we he was eight-years old, being his second screen role. He carried on performing in plays and films up until the Second World War, when he was enlisted into the Army, serving with the Royal West Surrey Regiment. After the war, Pavitt returned to the British film industry, principally as an Assistant Director (10 films) and Director (two films). He was married twice, to Margaret Edith Phillips (born, 1922) in October 1946, and in 1980 to Joan Taylor.

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