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 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 a relentless self-promoter, a self-styled "photographer-adventurer."
The 100th anniversary of World War I has revived interest; Routledge republished my book in 2016.
In 1918, Thompson published in New York the immodestly titled Donald Thompson in Russia, a compilation of letters sent to his wife, Dorothy, in Topeka, Kansas, from December 1916 to August 2017. I edited and annotated the book, and added an introduction, for republication by Slavica Publishers (Bloomington, IN) in its “Americans in Revolutionary Russia” series.
Over almost 40 years, I accumulated what amounts to a small Donald Thompson collection—video and digital copies of his films, photographs, press clippings and other documents. I have donated them to the archives at the Kansas Historical Society, which already had Thompson photos and press clippings in its collection.
In early 1917, Thompson traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Petrograd with Florence Harper, a correspondent for Leslie's. He filmed the riots and demonstrations in the city, and witnessed the power struggle between the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet and the breakdown of discipline in the army. In newspaper interviews, letters to his wife, later published in a book Donald Thompson in Russia, and in a 1918 film, The German Curse in Russia, Thompson blamed unrest and the Bolshevik coup on “German intrigue, working among the unthinking masses.”
Research and presentations
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.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the 1915 reporting trip to Russia by Chicago Tribune editor Robert R. McCormick with Thompson, I gave a public lecture to a large crowd at the McCormick Museum in Wheaton, Illinois. The museum had obtained a copy of the the Thompson/McCormick film With the Russians at the Front (unfortunately, only about half the original firm has survived). During my visit, I had time to go through correspondence and diaries in the McCormick archives, which yielded more information about the 1915 trip and Thompson's later exploits.
I also contributed research and photos to Helen Rappaport's book Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917, which documents the experiences of expatriates including Thompson. In March 2017, in a series at the University of Kansas to mark the 100th anniversary of World War I, I gave a public lecture, "Images of World War One: The Films of Pioneer Kansas Photographer Donald Thompson."
Conference papers and articles on World War I news film 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.