War Pictures education resource
What did Australians see at their local cinema during the First World War?
With their friends and family fighting half a world away, people back home had a personal stake in seeing depictions of the War on screen, but they were also looking to Hollywood and the young Australian movie business for entertainment and escape. Russell Briggs, ACMI’s Head of Exhibitions
At the cinema between 1914-1918, Australians watched a fascinating selection of shorts, newsreels, propaganda and feature films produced by the developing, local film industry, as well as a selection of international content. These films tell the story of how the war was presented on the big screen and of the changing response of the Australian public to these representations.
One in three Australian men between the ages of 18 and 45 enlisted to fight, so people on the home front felt deeply connected to seeing images of the War.
On any given Saturday night in Melbourne during WWI, 65,000 people were attending the cinema. Tickets were cheap and programs varied.Just as present-day viewers balance their search for information with their desire to be entertained, the homefront audience sought comfort in entertaining melodramas and comedies.
Year levels: 9-10, VCE
Subject areas: History, Media
Historical sources and representation
Films and newsreels made and watched during World War 1 are thought-provoking historical resources. They offer a fascinating insight into the period.
Each of the film clips in this resource offers a unique perspective on a particular theme. But you should also take the time to consider them as a collection of primary sources, revealing further information about social attitudes and the culture of the period.
While watching the film clips, ask yourself:
- Whose stories are being told?
- Whose voices are missing?
- How are Australians represented in the films?
- How does this change over time?
- What do you learn about the war?
- What do you learn about Australian society at this time?
- How are women represented?
- How are men represented?
- What messages do audiences take away? Does this change? When? Why?
- Which piece (or pieces) of film particularly stood out?
- What did you expect to see?
- What surprised you? Explain.
The ANZAC Legend
The Hero of the Dardanelles (Alfred Rolfe 1915)
This was the first film to dramatise the ANZAC legend; although, it achieved this by drawing on the Australian connection to the British Empire. Watch clips and find out more about this film here
- What aspects of this film might be considered propaganda?
- This film would not have found an audience at the end of the war. Why not? What had changed?
Cartoons of the Moment (Harry Julius 1915)
Cartoonist Harry Julius created animations for the cinema during the First World War. His work was a form of propaganda for the allied war effort. Watch some of his cartoons here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dt497rb6WtU&feature=emb_logo:
What message are these cartoons trying to convey?
What actions do they want the audience to take?
Why would animation have been a useful medium for propaganda?
News from abroad
How the Digger gets his Mail (J. W. Smith and George Hubert Wilkins 1916)
During WWI, newsreels were an important form of information and propaganda. Audiences were shown newsreels before the main feature film. Watch a newsreel about the Australian Army Postal Services at work.
- Why would this film have been of particular interest to the Australian homefront audience?
- What is the story told by the film?
- How might this film have contributed to the war effort?
- What does this film tell us about gender roles during this period?
Hard hitting documentary
The Battle of the Somme (Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell 1916)
The Battle of the Somme film was incredibly popular in Britain. It is estimated that around 20 million tickets were sold in the first six weeks alone. It was also watched by a large Australian audience. You can watch the entire film (above) or clips of the film with orchestral score by Laura Rossi here:
- Imagine you were a member of the homefront audience in 1916. What would have been the impact and effect of seeing what the soldiers were experiencing on the battlefront?
- During this period the government was very concerned with making sure that the cinema experience of the home audience did not turn them against the war effort. How would this film have affected the audience’s response to the war?
- It is widely believed that The Battle of the Somme used footage of soldiers training but claimed it to be scenes of battle. Does this matter? Would this knowledge have affected the response of the viewers at the time?
- What is the effect on a 21st century viewer of the panning shots and the close- ups of the soldiers? How would they have affected audiences watching during the war?
- Some of the most poignant footage from this film involves the exhausted soldiers in the trenches gazing at the camera. What is your response to this footage?
- What do you think you are witnessing in these moments? What are the soldiers communicating?
- It is difficult to know exactly what music or sound effects were used to accompany silent films, as few detailed records survive. Live accompanists, often a piano and drum duo, could be very effective but were sometimes criticised for playing inappropriate music or ‘burlesquing’ the film, by adding joke sound effects to serious dramatic scenes. Occasionally actors stood behind the screen, voicing the characters. Volumes of cue sheets were available, with musical themes sorted according to mood, such as ‘chase scene – dramatic’, ‘chase scene – comic’ etc, and major features came with their own complete score. Australian newspaper ads of the time often include reference to the theatre orchestra, band or featured singer who would be accompanying the films.
- Focus on the connection that Laura Rossi has created between the images and the music in the clips from The Battle of the Somme: How does music contribute to the story being told and the message communicated?
A female hero
Joan of Arc of Loos (George Willoughby 1916)
“A young French woman single-handedly turns the tide of battle, leading wavering Allied soldiers to victory.” We don't have a link for this film but you can find out more about the story behind the film in this accessible and informative article and useful Wikipedia entry
- What famous wartime figure was the story based on?
- Where was this film shot?
- What makes this film stand out from other films made at this time?
Action and adventure
The Enemy Within (Roland Stavely 1918)
Watch clips to find out more about this film.
After the war had raged for some years, audiences had lost interest in feature film narratives set in the battlefield.
- Why do you think Roland Stavely responded with a spy thriller about wartime espionage?
- The film starred two well-known boxers Snowy Baker and Sandy McVea. Why might these local sportsmen have had particular appeal for Australian audiences at this stage of the war?
The Woman Suffers (Raymond Longford, 1918).
Melodrama was also a popular form of escapism for war-weary audiences. One of Australian’s first film stars, Lottie Lyell, showcases her powerful on-screen presence in this feminist film about domestic violence, seduction, revenge and tragedy.
- What is happening in this clip?
- Talking pictures did not arrive in Australia until 1928, so the films of the Great War period were silent. Intertitles were a common feature of silent films. What role do intertitles play in this clip from The Woman Suffers?
- Silent films depend on many different techniques to communicate information to the audience. Describe some of the techniques used in the clip from The Woman Suffers.
- You can read more about Lottie Lyell here. What made Lyell’s acting stand out? Why is she an important figure in Australian film history?
After the war
Australasian Gazette “A Unique Audience” (c. 1920)
This newsreel gives a small insight into the extraordinary physical injuries experienced by returned soldiers. Watch a section of the newsreel here
- What do you see during the film clip? Who is in the clip? Where are they? What are they doing? Why?
- What do you think about what you saw on screen?
- Write down all the questions that the film makes you wonder.
- Find out information to answer your questions and share this with your classmates.
Lost (maybe) forever
Between 1914 and 1918, 54 feature films were produced in Australia. Of these, 42 are completely lost.
Before the 1950s, films were shot and printed on cellulose nitrate, a highly flammable substance that is quick to decompose if not stored in stable temperature and humidity conditions.
In addition, film stock was expensive and 35mm prints were produced in limited numbers. Prints were screened first in the cities, and then rented to suburban cinemas. Finally, they were sold to travelling picture-show men who presented them in country towns. Prints were scratched and damaged through repeated screenings, and then discarded as newer films became available.
The National Film & Sound Archive of Australia collects and preserves Australia’s film heritage. The NFSA holds stills, scripts, and other forms of documentation relating to lost films. Occasionally, films thought to be lost are discovered in other country’s archives. It is increasingly rare for films from the WWI era to be found in private hands.
Find out more about Australia’s lost films
Australia’s lost films: the loss and rescue of Australia's silent cinemaby Ray Edmondson and Andrew Pike (1982).