Early Irish Cinema: In the Grip of Spies – Irish Cinemas and War Propaganda, March 1915

| April 9, 2015 | Comments (0)

Denis Condon’s blog Early Irish Cinema looks back at the early development of cinema in Ireland on the anniversaries of those developments and offers information on what cinemagoers could have seen in Irish cinemas a century ago. Here Denis casts an eye over the use of cinema propaganda in World War I.

On the eve of St. Patrick’s Day 1915, several Dublin newspapers reported on an exciting chase of a suspected spy through the city. “For the past couple of day,” the Evening Telegraph revealed,

the military authorities have regarded with suspicion the movements of an individual in the city. To-day the man was seen in the vicinity of O’Connell Bridge, where he again attracted the attention of the military, and when they proceeded to approach him the man immediately made off. (“City Sensation.”)

The pursuing soldiers commandeered a car when they were unable to catch the man on foot, but he was eventually caught by a passing cyclist who responded to the soldiers’ calls to stop the spy. However, although the man was arrested, he was released without charge when he turned out to be a respected Kildare cattle dealer named Murphy. It is unclear why Murphy expected that expressing his view to British soldiers “that the Kaiser might smash the British army and dominate the world in the end” would be uncontroversial, even though such views were common among militant nationalists and radical labour activists (“‘Stop Spy’ in Dublin Streets”).

Evening Telegraph 15 Mar. 1915: 2.Evening Telegraph 15 Mar. 1915: 2.

What is interesting, though, is that the expression by an Irishman of such anti-British sentiments led him to be labelled a spy. Indeed, this story fitted into a discourse on spies and spying spread by newspapers and other popular media including the cinema that dovetailed with the British government’s war policies (see also, for example, in same issue of Evening Telegraph “Imaginary Spy” and “Danger of Spies”). For three days in mid-March, Dublin’s Dorset Picture Hall showed In the Grip of Spies (Britain: Big Ben, 1914), and this title offers an apt description of the state of fear of “the enemy among us” that this discourse aimed to spread. “From end to end of the British Isles they are talking of the German Spy menace,” a press ad claimed. “This Film deals with the theft of a naval Code Book, which is equivalent to saying that it is of absorbing interest at the present time” (ibid). But spying was also a suitable subject for comedy, with patrons at the Picture House, Sackville/O’Connell Street enjoying Wiffles Catches a Spy (France: Pathé, 1915).

In general, however, the discourse on spies and the cinema was not comic. Spies brought the war even closer to Ireland and Britain than the German naval blockade blockade to which this ad linked it. Suspicion could be cast on anyone who used a film camera, which purposely or inadvertently could provide intelligence for German attacks. Echoing an incident in Dublin in September 1914 when Norman Whitten was threatened with being shot for filming troops embarking at Dublin port, an article in the Evening Telegraph in early March 1915 reported from the Gateshead Police Court on the arrests, fining and confiscation of the footage of Stanley Dorman and Edwin Joseph Jennings who had filmed a Tyneside naval installation without permission (“Film of a Warship”).

We Serve Neither King nor Kaiser banner and its removal from Liberty Hall in Evening Herald 21 Dec. 1914: 1. We Serve Neither King nor Kaiser banner and its removal from Liberty Hall in Evening Herald 21 Dec. 1914: 1.

More importantly, the discourse on spies served the useful ideological purpose of suggesting that the divisions of prewar society had been overcome in the face of a common enemy and that any organization or individual not engaged in the war effort was – wittingly or unwittingly – an agent of the Kaiser. Draconian legislation was put in place to deal with such individuals and organizations. Passed just after the outbreak of the war, the Defence of the Realm Act (Dora) introduced strict censorship and gave the police and military widespread powers of arrest. In Ireland, unionists and the mainstream nationalist who followed John Redmond supported the war, but militant nationalists and radical trade unionists condemned it, and some openly supported a German invasion. “When it is said that we ought to unite to protect our shores against the ‘foreign enemy,’” wrote labour leader James Connolly,

I confess to be unable to follow that line of reasoning, as I know of no foreign enemy of this country except the British Government, and know that it is not the British Government that is meant. […] Should a German army land in Ireland to-morrow we should be perfectly justified in joining it if by so doing we could rid this country once and for all from its connection with the Brigand Empire that drags us unwillingly into this war. (“Our Duty in this Crisis.”)

At the start of the war, a banner proclaiming “We Serve Neither King nor Kaiser, But Ireland” was erected on the facade of Liberty Hall, headquarters of the labour movement, and it was only removed by soldiers and police in December 1914 (“‘Liberty’ Hall”). Earlier that month, such radical papers as the Irish Worker, Sinn Fein, Irish Freedom and Eire/Ireland were suppessed (“Irish Papers,” “Another Dublin Paper”).

By contrast, the British trade press continued to urge the wider use of cinema in support of the war effort. In the face of opposition by reformers unsympathetic to popular culture and by the churches to Sunday opening, the industry aimed to win wider social acceptability by aligning itself with state policy. For the Bioscope, cinema certainly played a crucial role as rational recreation at a time of great collective stress. An editorial in March 1915 rejected the snobbish “reproach on those who seek relaxation in theatres and music halls” and argued that “the cinemas are playing no mean part in providing the great mass of people with innocent and healthful entertainment” (“Amusements in War Time”). However, it could also play a much more active role in shaping public opinion in support of the war, a point that the trade papers had argued from an early point in the war. In September 1914, for example, the Bioscope had praised the views of Liberal politician Sir Henry Norman, who in a letter to the London Times had emphasized the role of that battlefield reporting could play in support of recruiting and arousing enthusiasm for the war at home. Norman proposed sending to the front with the correspondents “at least one official cinematographer, whose films of the glories of war – we shall have plenty of other means of learning of its sorrows – should be shown in every town and village in the land” (“The Cinematograph at the Front”).

“Atrocities on the Cinema.” Dublin Evening Mail 27 Mar. 1915: 5. Dublin Evening Mail 27 Mar. 1915: 5.

With little indication that the British government was exploring the propaganda possibilities of the cinema, the press continued to offer stories showing that Germany was winning the propaganda war among the German population, as well as exploiting such advanced technological application as the use of the cinematograph in reconnaissance. The Dublin Evening Mail, the Dublin evening paper with a distinctly unionist editorial line, was particularly fond of these stories, but it also showed that the cinema had the potential to reveal uncomfortable truths about the war. An article in late March, for example, reported that

a cinema theatre in Trieste has been showing pictures of the campaign in Serbia which are intended to be patriotic, but which unconsciously reveal revolting atrocities committed by Austrian soldiers.

After scenes of an Archduchess visiting the wounded, of camp life and other ordinary incidents of the war, some films were projected showing the martyrdom of a Serbian suspected of espionage, the burning alive of a Serbian family in their home by Imperial troops because they were reported to have fired on soldiers from their house, also Austrian soldiers killing off wounded on the battlefield. (“Atrocities on the Cinema.”)

Once the authorities realized what the films depicted, they destroyed them.

Cartoon showing the shooting and exhibition of a German propaganda film; Dublin Evening Mail, 19 Jan. 1915: 3. Cartoon showing the shooting and exhibition of a German propaganda film; Dublin Evening Mail, 19 Jan. 1915: 3.

The dominant story that the mainstream and cinema trade press in Ireland and Britain told about enemy propaganda concerned its untruthfulness. This was well illustrated in mid-January 1915 when the Dublin Evening Mail published a cartoon depicting how adept the German film industry was in keeping from the German public the realities of their army’s depredations in Belgium. Its two panels showed how a German filmmaker conspired with the German army to produce a faked film of soldiers helping vulnerable Belgian citizens, and how this film influenced public opinion in support of the war when exhibited in cinemas. The title of the cartoon – “German ‘Kultur’ Illustrated” – seemed to carry a criticism of cinema in general in suggesting that German culture should be associated with such a low form as cinema.

Alleged eyewitness accounts of the efficacy of German film propaganda were a part of this discourse, and in March an Irishwoman offered the Bioscope a particularly lengthy personal account. If she is anything more than an invention of propaganda, Norah Mahone seems to have been a remarkable woman. She was described as

a young Irish lady and a member of the theatrical profession, who, after being held a prisoner for several months, has recently succeeded in escaping from the enemy’s land, where she was staying at the outbreak of war.

A talented woman in more ways than one, Miss Mahone visited Dresden last July with the object of completing some business in connection with certain inventions she had patented, and also, incidentally, to take a “cure” in that city. (“German Allegorical Film Play.”)

Following descriptions of her mistreatment by the German authorities and a deluded public, Mahone offered details of such films as the departure of the Saxon army, “an almost barbaric scene in its uncontrolled emotionalism and riotous display.” Because films were so popular in Germany,

the Government are using the cinematograph shows and cafés for propaganda work. Practically all the films shown deal directly with the war, and nearly all of them are of a most filthy and scurrilous nature calculated to arouse in spectators, the worst emotions and most biased hatred against the Allies, and especially against England. These films are all manufactured, I believe, under the indirect supervision of the Government, many of them being allegorical plays, and the rest more or less faked “topical” pictures. (Ibid.)

The efforts of the industry and its supporters would soon convince the British government about the power of the cinema propaganda. Despite the prominence of such Irish people as Norah Mahone, however, these kind of films would always prove to be controversial in Ireland.

Denis Condon lectures in film at NUI Maynooth.

Contact: denis.j.condon@nuim.ie

 

References

“Amusements in War Time.” Bioscope 11 Mar. 1915: 875.

“Another Dublin Paper: Suppressed this Morning.” Evening Telegraph 5 Dec. 1914: 3.

“Atrocities on the Cinema: Austrian Films that Told Too Much: Destroyed by Authorities.” Dublin Evening Mail 27 Mar. 1915: 5.

“The Cinematograph at the Front.” Bioscope 3 Sep. 1914: 859.

“City Sensation: Arrest by Military: Man Pursued: By Motor and Cycle.” Evening Telegraph 16 Mar. 1915: 3.

“Danger of Spies: Stringent Regulation: Of Traffic with Holland.” Evening Telegraph 16 Mar. 1915: 4.

“Film of a Warship: Drastic Action by the Authorities.” Evening Telegraph 4 Mar. 1915: 1.

“A German Allegorical Film Play: An Irish Actress’s Remarkable Experience in Germany.” Bioscope 18 Mar. 1915: 1021, 23.

“Imaginary Spy: Exciting Chase in London: Dublin Fusilier Sent to Jail.” Evening Telegraph 16 Mar. 1915: 3.

“Irish Papers Suppressed by the Government: Defence of Realm Act: Instruction by Military: Copies Seized and Printers Warned.” Evening Telegraph 3 Dec. 1914: 3.

“‘Liberty’ Hall: Troops and Police Remove a Motto.” Evening Herald 21 Dec. 1914: 1.

“Our Duty in this Crisis.” Irish Worker 8 Aug. 1914: 2.

“‘Stop Spy’ in Dublin Streets.” Irish Independent 17 Mar. 1915: 5.

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