1914: High Point of the Spy Film

The German Spy Peril
R: Bert Haldane. B: Rowland Talbot. D: J. Hastings Batson. P: Barker Motion Photography. UK 1914
Print: BFI

“Like most film genres, the spy film developed from a literary tradition. This can be dated to the first of the future war stories, G.T. Chesney‘s ‘The Battle of Dorking’ (1871), describing a surprise Franco-Russian invasion of Britain. So successful was the story (selling over 80,000 copies) that it spawned a series of similar fictional accounts. However, the first real spy story was probably William Le Queux‘s serial, ‘The Great War in 1897’ (published in book form in 1894). The serial outlined a French attack on Britain masterminded by a Russian spy. (…)
Such scare stories were not confined to print. The play ‘An Englishman’s Home’ ran for eighteen months from January 1909 and was filmed in 1914. Although the nationality of the invaders was not mentioned, the ruler was coyly referred to as the ‘Emperor of the North’, and the spiked helmets worn by the soldiers gave the game away. So successful was the play that a recruiting office for the new Territorial Army was set up in the foyer. (…)
The German naval build-up proved a stumbling block to reconciliation with Britain. The Royal Navy was seen as the defender of Britain and her empire, and any attempt to outdo its numerical or technological advantage was seen as a threat. (…) This naval race led to widespread Anti-German feeling, and The Daily Mail newspaper offered the following advice: “Refuse to be served by an Austrian or German waiter. If your waiter says he is Swiss, ask to see his passport!” A series of newspaper articles appeared which seemed to support the fictional accounts of a Britain overrun by spies. Claims that an army of German spies masquerading as waiters and often working near naval bases or ports were printed in newspapers and widely circulated. (…)
Thus was laid the foundations for the development of the spy genre: popular literature, fear of invasion, xenophobia and a stereotyped enemy. The first spy films were merely re-enactments of real events from the Boer war and later the Russo-Japanese War (1904). However, the invasion literature, newspaper articles and increasing international tension led to a flourishing of spy films. From 1909 there was a gradual build-up in their production to a high point in 1914-15, when around 30 such films were made.”
Simon Baker
BFI Screenonline

“A common plot in the early propaganda dramas was the threat of invasion. England’s Menace, released in September 1914, ‘vividly illustrates a carefully planned invasion of England by the German Navy… Grim realism is imparted to the story by the introduction of fine naval spectacles.’ (The Sydney Morning Herald, September 19, 1914) (…) The German Spy Peril was released shortly after England’s Menace, and it too centers on the threat of German invasion. Instead of the German Navy, however, it features a group of German spies on a mission to blow up Parliament. This propaganda film is particularly important, not only for its message to the male viewer, but because of the event that sets the film in motion. The main character, Jack Holmes, walks down the street when he sees a poster of Lord Kitchener calling for his service. (…) The film not only acts as its own propaganda, but it also commanded the male viewer to obey the propaganda posters he would surely run into after leaving the theatre.”
Evan M. Caris: British Masculinity and Propaganda during the First World War. Louisiana State University (LSU Digital Commons) 2015, p. 40