Date of Degree
Access restricted until 01/31/2021
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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This dissertation argues that a critical anti-war cinema emerged with the birth of the so-called war documentary during World War I. Focusing on Leon Caverly, the first official war cinematographer of the United States military, I that argue America’s first war propaganda films gave birth to America’s first anti-war cinema. Military-produced images of World War I are available in various archives such as the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Marine Corps History Center. In addition to unedited reels of war related footage, the archives hold propaganda films such as Pershing’s Crusaders (1918), America’s Answer (1918) and Under Four Flags (1918). These feature films were shot by cameramen in the Marines or the Signal Corps and then edited into works of propaganda by the United States Government’s Committee on Public Information. Caverly was the first cameraman to join the effort of filming at the front. While he was a Marine and an instrumental player in America’s propaganda program, he also completed a cinematic history of the Great War through his creative nonfiction camerawork that was more subtle and critical than conventional war documentaries would suggest.
Previous studies of World War I propaganda provide context for America’s cinematic efforts or profiles of individual cameramen. But little or no attention has been paid to formal analysis of the films themselves. Furthermore, scholars have not yet regarded these films as anything other than examples of early documentary or government propaganda. The same holds true concerning Leon Caverly. Not only was Caverly the first United States war cinematographer, but the most significant work of propaganda made during the war was composed of footage shot entirely by him. Released in 1918, America’s Answer captivated audiences in America and Europe, providing inspiration for the home front to support the war. However, a striking discrepancy exists between the content of Caverly’s shots and the rhetorical editing structure of the film. In contrast to the pro-war sentiment articulated by the editing and its intertitles, America’s Answer’s individual shots reveal a practice of camera-writing that represents an aesthetics of anti-war cinema at odds with pro-war propaganda.
Caverly’s work does not show the horrors of war with documentary realism. Nor does his work openly critique America’s war effort. Rather, Caverly aspires to be a camera-historian whose moving images and photographic work demonstrate a preoccupation with writing history steeped in the temporal aesthetics of the camera arts. This dissertation considers still and moving image practices that “write with time” such as double-exposures, shots that emphasize duration, moving camera shots that evoke temporal relationships, and framing that gives metaphorical expression to time. The fact that these practices appear in Caverly’s wartime work indicates that World War I footage has a greater significance for film history than simply exemplifying documentary realism or propaganda. This dissertation shows that, while the most harrowing aspects of World War I combat remain unseen in Caverly’s work, his creative camera-writing approaches war and the fragility of life in unconventional ways.
x, 249 pages
Includes bibliographical references (pages 243-249).
Copyright © 2018 Richard Pelster-Wiebe
Pelster-Wiebe, Richard. "In the jaws of death: Leon Caverly’s camera-history of World War I." PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2018.
Available for download on Sunday, January 31, 2021