War, Camera!

By Homer Croy

[Everybody's Magazine, October 1917]

The enemy was coming up the face of the ridge against the pitiless cannon fire, running from cover to cover, seeking surcease behind a stump, and dying in the open. The boys, with their faces tense set, struggled on, fitting the cartridges between their teeth, savagely tearing their casings open, to fall with the glistening black powder still dry on the red of their lips.

It was a bitter battle, Bull Run was, but it was almost worth it to hear what they said afterward about somebody taking a picture of it. That was going a little too fast. If they would confine their accounts to the number of the enemy killed, or to the number of guns shot from their hands, it wouldn't be so bad; but going around telling that a picture had been taken of a battle! Well, that was too much. Nobody could take a picture of a battle! A battle was too big. And, besides, how could you make a picture of anything without drawing it? A machine can't draw, and even if it could, do you think a soldier would stand still, with the enemy shooting his clothes full of holes, just to have something to send home? He would be a fool. All kinds of crazy stories get out after a battle. But a machine making a picture of a battle—that was a little too strong.

Thus Brady took his pictures of Bull Run. It was not until twenty years after the Civil War that the strategic and historic values of his pictures were appreciated. Guarded tenderly, they are now in the archives in Washington, and to-night and to-morrow and the next night and the night after that they will be studied in dozens of training camps and schools, from Missoula to Mineola.

In another fifty years who can say that they will not be studying the photographs we are now making, just as eagerly, just as diligently? How are they being made now? How is our war being photographically waged?

We are "Over There." The flying-machines are ready, in a bunch, like prairie cattle with their heads up, scenting danger, their nostrils opening and closing, awaiting the word. When the smoke bomb goes—there it is—the propellers clack-clack, and the tractors skim along the ground, like ducks looking for a place to light. Then they are specks, followed by prayers and projectiles, but with their camera-eyes recording all below.

At San Juan, at Manila, to be sure, the battle was recorded quite differently. More thrillingly perhaps, but not with the same fidelity, for a camera is as easy to fool as a German Hausmeister is by his government.

All preparations were made for the filming of the Cuban campaign, with a motion-picture photographer sent across by a special boat from Key West. The battle was in the daytime, and the photographer was there with his motion-picture camera, and the perspective was wonderful. But the camera buckled—buckled just as the boys came out of the trenches; and when, it was straightened out again they were washing up.

But in six weeks San Juan Hill—that splendid charge up San Juan Hill—was thrilling multitudes in and around Fourteenth Street, New York, You could see the boys coming out of the trenches, with the white, angry puffs of the guns, the bitten branches, the recoil of the machine guns, and heroes dying inside the camera lines. Dying—only the way people well paid die—by throwing out their hands and falling backward, spine stiff. Not the way acrobats fall, but the way soldiers fall who want to work the next week.

Pretty good pay they were getting, too. Three dollars a day, with transportation both ways and lunch furnished by the general staff. It was a good picture, except that Summit, New Jersey, was awfully hard to get to and back from.

Battles to Order

And then the battle of Manila. A pleasant time was had by all; by all except the camera man, who couldn't get in a hundred miles of the scene and who would have to explain it to the boss when he got back home. Worse than being a deserter is being at a country club when a battle is going on. But six weeks later the public saw the battle in all its smoky detail, with the ships belching the broadsides, mentioned so descriptively by the newspapers, and gurgling to the bottom without a soul saved. Wonderful effects may be accomplished in a camera pond in the studio back yard, with the sky painted on a back-drop, and miniature models of the ships coming and going on an inland sea twenty feet between the posts— providing the photographer knows his business and uses a short-focus lens. Then the model, three feet from stern to bow, from the Army and Navy stores, looks as big as the Oregon in dry clock.

Villa Obliges

Nor did the Mexican disturbances cost the photographers any great preparation or loss of sleep. Especially after Villa signed the contract guaranteeing exclusive cinematographic rights, with Article A in the agreement stating and setting forth that all important battles should beheld in the daytime, and, unless otherwise specified and initialed, between the hours of nine and five. That simplified matters greatly and insured some fine close-ups of banderilleros in sombreros, and conquistadors savagely peering from behind cactus bushes. Any one of them was glad to peer for a peso.

It was all very lovely, but it had its drawbacks in Villa's constantly increasing demand to have himself shown on horseback; in conference with his advisory staff grouped unostentatiously in the background; at breakfast; signing orders; off for an inspection of the lines; questioning a captured prisoner; romping with the commandant's child, with striking scenes from his home life and early conquests. The remainder of the film, in the space devoted to fighting scenes, was all that the business management could ask, especially when the photographer gave the word and had them stop promptly at five. But if it was found that he didn't observe his watch closely, the army would run over into the cool of the evening, carrying on their most spirited fighting when the negative would be so thin as to make the time and ammunition practically wasted.

That is all right along the border; but the Marne is a long way from Mexico. They don't have any over there. Lots of times they don't begin their battles until after five, and if anybody can hold up his hand and tell them to stop, that person , up to the present time has successfully concealed his identity.

Taking motion pictures over there makes photographic work below the Rio seem like a pillow-fight. But, just the same, motion pictures are being taken every day. Some are shown; mostly they are not.

In the early days of the war, motion-picture cameras were given about as much respect as the Germans give the Red Cross. A photographer applying f o r a front-line permit had as much chance of securing it as a person had of getting an interview with the Kaiser on "Brotherly Love, a Crying Need." As the war went along, it was seen that it was not to be the fall affair that it was at first thought, and the need of having some pictured productions of it began to be appreciated. A few experimental cameras were let in to see what they could get, but their negatives were confined to hospital work and patriotic preparations. Nothing nearer the front than the second hospital line was permitted the photographer. He was perfectly free to take pictures of prominent men making speeches, children drilling for charity and the king dedicating a hospital, but that was as much of the conflict as he was permitted to transfer to celluloid.

When the ban was lifted and photographers were permitted to go down where the ground was plowed up, there was a great hastening to the lines; but after one or two cinematographers set up their cameras and had to be taken back on a sheet, the demand for photographic coigns of vantage showed a marked falling off. Equipped with a regulation studio camera, which, on its tripod, stood four feet above the ground, the photographer twisting at the handle was meat to alien marksmen.

It was then seen that an entirely different system would, have to be devised, if they wished to take motion pictures in the danger zone. A camera that stood up like a Dutch windmill was not equal to the exigencies of the occasion. It made too much work for the Red Cross. Then it was that a photographer from Kansas, seeking adventure in the first line of trenches hit on a method. He had a steel jacket built for his camera, with an aperture for the protection of the lens, so that an ordinary bullet would be deflected from its course. Without a blow of considerable earnestness, the camera was safe. His machine being operated by a storage battery, the photographer had but to crawl back where the chance of casualty was not so pronounced, and wait until he saw something worthy of reproduction. This he was able to do by the trench periscope; and by touching the button that led the connecting the connecting wires to his camera, he was able to stop and start his machine at will. Equipped with a telephoto—a "Long Tom"—he was able to bring the Germans—optically, at least—up to sixty yards.

Though he solved the problem of his own protection this way, and found a way of operating his camera without twisting an exposed crank, he was not in a photographic heaven. Carefully he would crawl out at night, erect his camera and crawl back again, impatient for the morning, only to have a bomb, detonating a few yards away, hurl his camera to the ground. When opportunity offered the following night, he would set up his machine again. To have shell lay it flat merely made the film jump. That is why in war pictures the film suddenly wavers, much after the fashion of the early days, when the train, with the camera lashed on the cow-catcher, suddenly rounded Dead Man's Curve. The film then fluttered and rocked as if the operators had gone off, finally to come back and go on with the picture. But though the film does jump, it is better than having all the agitation on the photographer's side. The picture shows, with faithful detail, the bleak, barren stretch of No man's Land, the spiteful spatter of shells. Along comes a Busy Bertha, and the camera looks as if somebody had taken a spade and tried to secrete it. The next night, or at the first opportunity, the camera is dug out, the lens wiped, the wires joined and it is returned to its post of observation.

Day by day, bit by bit, the camera is made to tell its story. More vivid are the films made by photographic manipulation, for there are triumphs in all trades. The camera would show men at work in the trenches; at meals. There would be a blinding flash; then the men would be gone. The supposition is that a bomb had come along. But not always. If the photographer was near enough to show that particular scene, something likewise happened to him. Something that made him a changed man. So another method was used to give the audience its money's worth; a method that did not put such a strain on the hospitals. It was found that the same effect could be secured by taking a picture if a squad of men at their coffee, then cutting the film and inserting a bomb explosion. The bomb explosion may have taken place a week later and half a mile down the line, but, following immediately upon the picture of the men in the trenches, it looked as if only the fractional part of a second separated the two scenes. The audience, furthered in its belief, did not suspect that a week and a mile intervened. Such things did happen, are happening; so the photographer felt free to do a little skilful film-joining and keep off the casualty list.

Hardly is a camera rigged up without finding scenes too gruesome to be shown to an unselected audience. Not so much for fear of giving information to the enemy as of giving hysteria to friends. The film, is censored as carefully as correspondents' reports, with a further demand on the part of the French or .English Government for a print. These prints are not only for the archives of the Government, as a pictorial record of the war, but also for the instruction of officers and men far removed from the point of exposure. The French command, seeing a film from the English front, have as fair an idea of conditions as if back from a tour of inspection.

But films direct from the firing-line, uncensored, do not reach this country, that is, the general public. One never knows who his next-seat neighbor is in a picture theatre. But in Washington it is different, as may be judged by the fact that two projectors have been installed in the Capitol. One is in a room off the Senate Chamber, and the other for the benefit of the committeemen from the House of Representatives. There the films are seen unedited. Not only films from the front, but films of the drilling of our own soldiers and of our own preparations. Before they are permitted to go to the theatres, they are gone over by the censors from the Division of Pictures under the control of the Committee on Public Information. For we now have our own moving-picture war censors.

Taking It on the Run

Hiding behind a trench and doing your photographing with a wire would be perfectly lovely if it were not for the attacks. When the boys are outward bound there isn't anything left to photograph but their coat tails. If you have ambitions to show them putting bombs where they will do have to be along— and you can't be along if your camera is staked down. If you wish to show the boches coming out of their trenches with their hands up, you will have to depend on other means an methods of taking your bombing pictures. It can't be done with a tripod camera. Not if you wish to come back under your own power.

The First-Line Camera

It is down where the excitement is thickest that the compressed air comes in. It is the first-line camera. You open up your kit, take out a piece of gas-pipe, stand on two little treads and pump up your camera as if it were a bicycle tire. Fill it tight before you leave and it will run off four hundred feet without a hitch. When the machine gun rattles the signals—four, rapid shots, three, two, four—then come up out of the trench with the boys, and with your gas-helmet hanging in front of you like a bib, keep right along with them—not so far ahead as to get all the glory, and not so far back as merely to show a striking picture of "the trenches as they appear in modern warfare.' ' You work your air with your left and have your right free for your mask and to get your automatic, when some one you thought done for props himself up on his elbow and comes down on you. You always have to watch them. You think they have done their bit and then one of them turns over on his side, and the reports that night will say :the day was marked by a few unimportant engagements, with a slight number of casualties on our side."

You have only to keep your eye out for small shell craters and open places between the ranks. But be careful of the shell holes, for if you step in one of them and the box comes down on top of you, the picture will never be the same, even if you can get it back intact. With four hundred feet in the magazine, you can take four hundred sections of pictures—almost seven minutes. When you start across, you push the button, and when you get over there you think you have exposed film for a six-reeler. But you look at your dial and it says forty-right. Forty-eight feet is a great deal of time when you are crossing a disputed plot of ground on No Man's Land, with a box like an organ-grinder's dangling in front of you. It is a long time and the chances are that you will not get back. But if you do, people in the theatres will yawn and say, "These pictures are pretty fair, but in some places they are awfully jumpy."

J. A. Dupré didn't get back. With his compressed-air camera he came up out of the French trenches with the boys at Verdun and started across. He was squatting to offer as small a temptation as possible, when the bullet came along. He slouched forward, but the camera went right on taking the picture—went right on taking the picture until four hundred feet of film was used up; but the vampire lovers, home, thought that the film might have shown more variety.

The Gyroscope Camera

But all pictures can't be taken from a trench. Not with the way the firing has been the last few months. "Long Toms," compressed air and steel jackets don't do you any good when a periscope will start a whole battery going.

The gyroscope does the work. The camera, worked by compressed air and held stable by a gyroscopic disk, will get more in five minutes from an aeroplane than will a dozen cameras behind the trenches. Even a hand-operated camera set in the machine-gun rack of the aeroplane is better than a half-dozen trench cameras; but that means taking a photographer along in addition to the pilot. With compressed air working in connection with a gyroscopic attachment, the pilot manipulates the camera himself. Flying as low as is consistent with his reception, he sails over the enemy trenches, presses the button, and no matter how he swerves or capers, the camera will remain steady without fear or flicker. Swooping by, he gets all he can, turns off the air, swings around, gives it pressure and takes again from another angle, until things get so unpleasant that he deems a return the better part of valor.

Developed in the photographic room back of the lines and projected for the benefit of those most concerned, the latest changes in communication lines and trenches may be seen. Then the negative is turned over to the map-making department, which enlarges direct from the negative and uses the motion-picture exposures along with its "stills," piecing out a complete photographic map, until the enemy has few geographical secrets left.

But all motion picture activity in wartime is not confined to taking pictures. Not by a good deal, for all fighting and no play makes Jack a dull boy. He must have his movies. Human nature runs just about the same, whether it be behind the counter or the cultivator or back of the first-line trenches. Jack doesn't mind getting out and hurling bombs eighteen hours a day, if he knows that at the end of a reasonable number of days Mary Pickford and a hot cup of coffee will be there, in the order named. Just to lam bombs day after day, with nothing to look forward to but the mail—that is what makes war unpopular. But if he can be assured, when he comes out of the trenches, of meeting Charlie Chaplin and Marguerite Clark and Max Linder and Pauline Frederick and all of them—then he doesn't mind taking off his shoes with a bootjack. So, back of the lines, in the recreation camps, you find them—big, splendid motion-picture machines, grinding them off without a flicker, and the best orchestra in France fiddling away as if Hindenburg's downfall depended on what they were putting on the strings.

Big concrete theatres they are, with lots of room to yell; and you ought to hear us when the villain finally gets his. You'd think we had a mess of German officers in a dugout. When we come to crawl back into the trenches the boys don't say," How are the reinforcements? What have the U-boats done this week?" They say, "What's it to be—a six-reeler?" You know, fighting out there under the bombs and stars without much to think about—except when somebody starts something and you toss back two to his one—then these screen people seem mighty close to you. They don't seem away off in Los Angeles. They seem just back of the third line, holding out their hands and waiting for you. I guess you don't understand, but you would if you went to sleep a few times and the last thing you saw looking at you was, a rat's eye.

What are they doing? The latest thing? Why, teaching us to drill with movies. Not a picture of real soldiers, but drawings, just drawings. Animated drawings. You see a row of footprints walking; nobody there—just footprints. Nothing but a line of footprints, and that is the way we ought to step. Then a lot of legs walking. Then something else, so that you can't help seeing how it ought to be done—right shoulder arms. Company front. How to put up a shelter tent. How to fold a pack.. A company knows how to drill, and a lot about the manual of arms before they have even got their uniforms. It's mass instruction. Instead of a drill sergeant getting off and swearing over one man, he runs off a motion picture and shows the whole company. It's a wonderful saving in time and cussing. If Billy Sunday would go among the drill sergeants now he would think they were trail-hitters. It's getting, so that a drill sergeant doesn't have any vocabulary. He just shows the pictures and tells the boys not to forget to write home regularly.

And a lot of ammunition the movies save in rifle practise, too. It's all right to set up a rifle-range, shoot at a bull's-eye painted on iron and have your chest hung with medals; but when you get over on the other side you find that they have run out of bull's-eyes. Alongside what you have to shoot at over there, a saucer looks as big as a barrel of flour. Then your objective's on the move, too. You whang away at it and you don't know whether you have landed or plowed up a potato patch. That's where the new military animated targets come in. They bring the pictures back from the front—pictures of the Germans coming up out of the trenches—and throw them on the screen, and they're your target. Instead of having a silver screen, like, a regular motion-picture theatre, the screen is made of paper and it keeps moving. And instead of having an audience sitting around sighing every time the world mistreats the beautiful lady, there are recruits with rifles in their hands.

Under the shooting counter is a picture projector, and there on the screen are the Germans just coming up for a charge. You let go and the bullet hits the paper, closing an electrical contact, stopping the projector, and a light shows, so that you can see where you have placed your shot. At the end of two and a half seconds the picture automatically begins to move again and the Germans come head on until you let drive. Although you are firing only sixty feet; the object you are shooting at is the same size as if you were somewhere in France blazing away at the real thing.

Nor is the movie for infantry practise alone. Nor alone for the revolver. When you shoot off a six-pounder it takes a lot of powder. It takes a lot even when you’ve got somebody at the other end you don't like. But when you just want to get a little practise, then put up the animated.

It is Long Island where the most exclusive preparations are being made ready to receive the Germans. The waves are breaking high on the bungalow-bound coast when—the Germans! They come! They come! Their destroyers are sailing in. They have attacked America. A half-dozen six-pounders begin to speak. Quickly, accurately the bullets are placed—by means of a sub-caliber shell. A twenty-two short, mounted on the barrel of the six-pounder, is used, and the big charge of powder is saved!

So is periscope firing taught. Pictures are taken of it at three hundred, at six hundred, at three thousand yards from the hurricane deck of a destroyer. They are thrown on the screen. With their sub-calibers the gunners try to close the case. With the submarine stopping for a while, the marksmen have plenty of time to study their shots and receive the comments of their instructors. Then the submarine comes to life and tries for its element, and another shot cuts short its ambitions.

Photographically, Bull Run is raging again. Pictures—the new kind—are just coming into use. But not alone for journalistic and historic reasons. Not to make the school-books interesting. Now they are a means of defense and offense; to take lines and to keep lines. And all their new uses have been developed with this end in view—from signing up "Sammy" and training "Sammy," to keeping "Sammy" cheerful Over There.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury