World War One News Film
World War One was the first major conflict in which film became a source of information and propaganda. At the University of Kansas in 1978, a documentary history class with film professor Chuck Berg provided my thesis topic--American newsreels and documentary film in the war. This led me to archival research--at the Library of Congress, The National Archives and in film and periodical collections in New Jersey and California. The thesis, American Newsfilm, 1914-1919: The Underexposed War, ended up as a book in Garland's Outstanding Dissertations on Film series in 1983 (not bad for a master's thesis!) I continued research on World War One news film over the next decade, often working with Gerry Veeder of the University of North Texas, whose specialty was the early films of the Red Cross and who shared my passion for archival research.
Like other conflicts, World War One offered a stage for photographers ready to run the risks of working under fire to satisfy the thirst for images by readers and moviegoers. Early in my research, I came across a character who seemed to epitomize the period. Donald Thompson, a Kansas farm boy saw the war as an opportunity for fame and fortune. He shot newsreel films and stills on the Western and Eastern Fronts, in the Balkans and Turkey, for the Chicago Tribune, New York World, Leslie's Illustrated Weekly and British newspapers; he was in Petrograd for the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, in Siberia for the 1919 Allied intervention. He was a relentless self-promoter, a self-styled "photographer-adventurer." In 1985, I took Thompson's feature-length films Somewhere in France and War As It Really Is and his photos from Russia on the road for a series of public programs in Kansas, with support from the state historical society and funding from the Kansas Committee for the Humanities.
The 100th anniversary of the war has revived interest; Routledge republished my book last year, and I'm currently doing research on a 1915 trip to the Eastern Front by Chicago Tribune editor and publisher Robert R. McCormick and photographer Thompson. Conference papers and articles include:
Review of Topical Budget: The Great British News Film by Luke McKernan, Journalism History 18 (1992)
Review of The Wars of Peggy Hull by Wilda Smith and Eleanor Bogart for Kansas History (Spring 1992)
"The Russian Revolution: A Conspiracy Thesis and a Lost Film," Fast Rewind II: The Archaeology of Moving Images, Rochester Institute of Technology, May 1991.
"Donald Thompson--Photographer-Adventurer at War," Fast Rewind I: The Archaeology of Moving Images, Rochester Institute of Technology, May 1989.
"The 'Photographer-Adventurers': Forgotten Heroes of the Silent Screen" (with Gerry Veeder, University of North Texas), Journal of Popular Film and Television 16 (Fall 1988)
"The Photographer as Cult Hero, 1900-1935" (with Gerry Veeder), University Film and Video Association, Athens, July 1986.
"Trivia and Influence: Reconsidering the Role of the Newsreel in Society" (with Charles Berg, University of Kansas), Popular Culture Association, Louisville, April 1985.
"Historical Trends in the Criticism of the Newsreel and Television News, 1930–1955," Journal of Popular Film and Television 12:3 (Spring 1985)
"Fact and Fantasy in the Films of World War One," (with Charles Berg) Film & History 14:3 (Fall 1985)
"The Use of Newsreel Footage in Research," University Film & Video Association, Denton (Texas), July 1983.
"Donald Thompson: A Photographer at War," Kansas History 5:3 (Autumn 1982)
"Washington's War—On Film: Government Motion Picture Production and Distribution, 1917–1918," Journal of the University Film Association 32:3 (Summer 1980)
"Screening the First World War," University Film Association, Ithaca, New York, August 1979.