UK 1914/15: Acts of Heroism

The Man Who Came Back
R: Charles Weston. D: Arthur Finn. P: Regent Film. UK 1914
Print: BFI

“Dramas in the early days of WWI often focused on individual acts of heroism, as they had during the Boer War era. With little aesthetic or dramatic progression since those early reconstructions, The Man Who Came Back seems, in some ways, a pale imitation of AEW Mason’s ‘The Four Feathers’*. But the plot introduces an interesting class angle, with the hero condemning the irresponsible upper classes.”
BFI Player

(*’The Four Feathers’ is a 1902 adventure novel by British writer A.E.W. Mason that has inspired many films of the same title. The novel tells the story of British officer, Harry Feversham, who resigns his commission in the East Surrey Regiment just prior to Sir Garnet Wolseley’s 1882 expedition to Egypt to suppress the rising of Urabi Pasha. LibriVox)

“The turn to pathos (and Chaplin’s move toward respectability) in The Vagabond depends on a recognition scene and like The Roll of Honour portraits the recognition is of a loved one who has been lost, her salvation dependent upon the investigating gaze of the mother. In The Man Who Came Back, Harold Marsh/John Learning is positioned in the same space in the homefront imagination as the men in the ‘Roll of Honour’ films. He can never be known but by a few, and through a similar mechanism of distance/personal he is able to traverse class boundaries and oddly acknowledge the irresponsibility of the upper class while at the same time covering it up. What marks this film is the scene when the father and the stepmother read of his death in the papers. This re-enacts the terrible moment of recognition which accompanied the arrival of the telegram for officer’s families and letters for enlisted men. The film then generates through a fantasy of loss of identity a re-establishment of the family, if only for the audience. He still exists but is carrying out his duties to his country under another guise.”
Michael Hammond: “The Men Who Came Back”: Anonymity and Recognition in Local British Roll of Honour Films (1914-1918)

“With 20 million people visiting cinemas each week, exhibitors could have a real impact, recruiting and raising funds – notably for ambulances to go to the Front – and organising community screenings of ‘Roll of Honour’ films to commemorate local men lost or wounded. Inevitably, film producers focused on war subjects, and although newsreel cameras were still banned from the fighting, images of allied troops away from the Front were a regular feature of newsreels – and of course the home front was covered extensively. The war profoundly affected drama too. The first ever version of the Edith Cavell story, Nurse and Martyr, was rushed out only a month after her death at the hands of a German firing squad, and the cinema offered escape through the new long features, which continued to grow in popularity with historical subjects like Jane Shore, a lavish medieval spectacle.”
BFI Player

Nurse and Martyr (not complete)
R: Percy Moran. B: Edgar Wallace. D: Percy Moran, Cora Lee. P: Phoenix. UK 1915
Print: BFI

“Edith Cavell’s afterlife in myth began almost at once, with a short film ‘Nurse and Martyr’ rushed out and dated November 1915, shot within days of her death. The BFI version runs for eleven minutes and opens with a nurse lying on her bed, smoking, then escaping from her room by means of knotted bedclothes, threatening to get her own back on Edith Cavell. We’ll probably never know why. Under arrest, Cavell is seen being vigorously denounced by this woman now in civilian dress. From then on, arrest and imprisonment, praying and death are clear enough to make perfect sense to an audience who already knew the story. It’s in effect a staged newsreel, though one with a slant. The Germans behave badly, carousing outside her cell door while she’s praying. Cora Lee’s eye-rolling performance leads seamlessly to, after her death, the intertitle ‘The Blood of the Martyr calls to YOU’, and her apotheosis in a screen blocked out in the shape of a cross. She could stand in for any martyred or victimised heroine in the calendar, from Sts Barbara to Bernadette, and has turned into a recognisable recruiting poster.”
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