This is an early film about Edith Cavell, a British nurse shot by the Germans during World War I for spying. Her case became a cause celebre at the time and she has remained a fairly iconic figure since. This is the centenary of her death and Park Circus has re-issued a 1939 film, Nurse Edith Cavell. The Hyde Park Picture House has gone one better and recently screened the earlier film in a 35mm print and with a set of interesting introductions. The film previously has only been screened at the Imperial War Museum and the British Silent Film Festival.
The essential record. Cavell was a British Nurse working in Belgium when the war broke out. She became involved in a network helping escaped POW’s make their way home. The network was betrayed and 35 members captured by the Germans. 30 of the members were sentenced to hard labour, five, including Cavell, were sentenced to be executed. Three of these had their sentences commuted to hard labour, but Cavell and a colleague were shot. There were protests both by the Allied enemies and by ‘neutral’ nations, especially by the US Legation in Belgium.
Herbert Wilcox was one of the more successful producers and directors in British film in the 1920s. He specialised in historical dramas, and he also produced and directed the 1939 version, which starred Anna Eagle. There had been some short films about Cavell, in which the Germans were portrayed as brutes and Cavell as an innocent victim. But by the late 1920s the British Government was concerned to maintain good relations as Germany was shepherded back into the ‘democratic fold’. The German Government raised objections when Wilcox’s production got underway. The British Government evaded the issue with reference to the British Board of Film Censors [set up in 1912] as an independent censorship body: somewhat economical with the facts. Wilcox did in fact make changes to the film including the ending, but it does not seem that there is a record of these.
In fact when the film was completed the BBFC refused it a certificate. However, the BBFC’s remit was only partial in this period, as the Local Authorities actually held the legal right of licensing. Wilcox was successful in getting the film licensed by the London County Council and it received a general exhibition. It was also screened in Germany, without much apparent incidents.
The film was shot in black and white and is six reels – running about 85 minutes at 22fps. The original release was 7,300 feet: now it is 6,510 feet which suggests cuts due to wear and tear. The Writing Credits (in alphabetical order) Reginald Berkeley … (story), Robert Cullen … (scenario) , Herbert Wilcox … (adaptation). Cullen also directed and one of his films is Every Mother’s Son (1926) a wartime drama. It is possible that Wilcox’s adaptation is to do with the changes: what these all were is not clear, though it definitely included the ending. My thoughts on re-watching the film was that some of the title cards were likely the result of this change in approach.
The film opens with a series of title cards. They first laud Cavell’s ‘heroic life and death’. Then they offer a sort of generalised anti-war message, ‘Rulers of Europe, puppets of carnage ..enslaved by war.’
The film then moves into its story, and we see the Belgium Institute where Cavell worked. Inside we are presented with a children’s ward, the use of children is a recurring trope in the film. One boy puts on a Prussian style helmet, ‘I am an Uhlan’ [light cavalry in Poland, Russia, and Prussia]. Another boy puts on a different cap, ‘I am a chasseur’ [French light infantry’. The ‘Uhlan’ chases the ‘Chasseur’ who runs and shelters behind Cavell in her office. Briefly and directly the film sets up the drama’s plot and values.
The war arrives, Europe ‘blazed into flames’. Then we see a man on the run (Jacques – Mickey Brantford ) and Germans searching. His mother, Madame Rappard (Marie Ault) attempts to hide him and when Cavell arrives she arranges to take the man to the Institute. There she burns his uniform: right through the film, with one other exception, escaping soldiers are seen in civilian clothes. Later Cavell and Madame Rappard hide Jacques in a part of the basement and move a large wardrobe to hide the entrance.
So Cavell is drawn into helping escapees: a flashback shows Jacques telling her that there are ‘hundreds like me’. In most cases the men are taken through the streets at dark and secreted on a barge which travels along a canal across the frontier. The group appears to consists of Cavell, Rappard and two other women (Madame Ada Bodart – herself and Madame Pitou – Mary Brough) and a Bodart’s young son Philippe (Gordon Craig): rather different from the actual network. This is a woman’s group. One man, the bargee (Richard Worth) , hesitates to assist the prisoners and is roundly ordered to do so by his wife, Madame Pitou. Later it is a man who betrays the network. The only positive m male member is Philippe, a teenage boy and an unnamed man who guides the prisoners from the Institute..
The actions of the group are intercut regularly with the German military. At times this is quite stereotypical: the communication system is a post card mailed at the frontier. After a fruitless search one German soldier willingly agrees to post the card for the Madame Pitou. We also see the German high command, including the Military Governor, General von Zauberzweig (Frank Perfitt) . As they start to realise that there is an escape network investigations and searches are instigated. At one point it appears that escaped prisoners are being found among the allied dead after battles on the front line: clearly having rejoined the allies and their war effort.
The investigating officer is presented as quite intelligent. He remembers a conversation with Cavell which arouses his suspicions. His first search is fruitless, but after the betrayal he returns and discovers the hidden door behind the wardrobe. This is a moment of high drama in the film. Cavell is assisting a wounded and wanted RAF officer: the only other escapee seen in uniform. The search takes place as Cavell and an assistant attempt to smuggle him out of the Institute. This is done successfully: another rather conventional plot device. Meanwhile Cavell is incriminated by a discovered network document.
We then get Cavell’s trial and execution. ‘Trial between women and war machine’. Her women companions are also charged but the trial is predominately about Cavell. We do see the young Philippe who is a compulsory witness and who is committed for perjury. Cavell is found guilty and sentenced to be executed. A title tells us that the others are sentenced to hard labour: so unlike in actuality Cavell is to die alone.
Following the sentence the film includes the efforts of the US Ambassador to stop the execution. There are letters and visits by his aide, but the Commander cites ‘duty’. This section of the plot emphasises the ‘brutality’ of the sentence: the film does not raise the issue of spying by the actual network. It does provide sympathetic Germans who themselves sympathise with Cavell, undermining the German position. So an officer visits the Institute and sees the wounded airman, but ‘clicking’ his heels’ and saluting Cavell he leaves without reporting what he has seen.
Even more notably we see dissent among a member of the firing squad. This is Private Rambler, who demurs when he is selected for the squad. At the actual execution he hesitates when the order to ‘raise arms’ is given and then refuses. The officer commanding berates him. And there is an exchange of glances between Rambler and Cavell. This sequence is clearly cut, likely due to the changes made to placate the Germans. It would seem that there was originally more than one exchange of glances between Cavell and the soldier, and the suggestion of Cavell’s nod that he should ‘do his duty’. Note, ‘a legend long generally accepted’.
The execution took place at the Tire National, on the edge of a field behind the building. We see the preparations including an English Chaplain ministering to Cavell. She is them marched down stairs, through a basement to the yard. There is the business with Private Rambler but we do not see Cavell actually shot. What we do then get is a title showing the words that Cavell spoke to the Chaplin,
“Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
These are famous and off-quoted words.
The film has a very restrained feel. Partly this is down to the performance of Sybil Thorndike as Cavell: she is magisterial and even her emotional displays are restrained. There is some difference between her and other cast members’ performances: Madam Pitou and Rappard are quite a bit more expressive. This restraint is emphasised by the film’s direction. Wilcox is a fairly static director, his films concentrate on performance and mise ne scène. So the film is shot predominately in long and mid-shots. And even when there are close-ups they are not large, but almost themselves mid-shots. There is very little moving camera: though already Graham Cutts, Maurice Elvey and Alfred Hitchcock were using these techniques in their films. All I noted were several pans, especially during the court sequence.
The cinematography by Bernard Knowles is well done and there is some expressive lighting in certain sequences. The art direction is by Clifford Pember and would seem mainly to relate to interiors,. Much of the exteriors were shot in Belgium, frequently using actual locations from the events recorded. Note, the 35m print we watched was a composite, one could discern changes in lighting and definition within sequences. It appears this BFI print combines four reels from its own archive copy and two reels from a copy in New Zealand.
The film had a musical accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla on the piano. Darius gave a short explanation before the screening. His performance was partially prepared, partly improvised. He explained that in the 1920s there was a range of musical accompaniments: some using prepared musical sequences, some composed or arranged. The latter had at one extreme the Wagnerian romantic approach, The sort of music that Korngold bought to Hollywood in the 1930s. Some of it was closer to neo-classical, for example Kurt Weill. Darius’ accompaniment for this film was closer to the latter, re-enforcing the style of the film. Much of it was low-key and often with sparse notation, but he also bought in martial chords at certain points in the film,. I thought it set of the film exceptionally well. though it of course re-enforced the values the film offered.
Darius at the piano.
The pre-screening talks were also informative. Dr Emma Cavell was related to Edith Cavell through an Australian connection. She filled out some of the family history. But her project around Cavell also bought her into contact with the Cavell heritage events. It is worth noting that Cavell was given a state funeral in the UK and there is a statue to her in Trafalgar Square where there is an annual memorial event. She was also added to the Anglican Church listing of ‘saints’.
Professor Fell talked about the history of Cavell and the network in which she was involved. There is evidence that the network not only assisting escaping soldiers but that they also passed on information concerned with the war effort – i.e. spying. She also pointed out that Cavell was not tried alone, nor was she executed alone but along with Philippe Baucq who was a key member of the network.
The disparities between the film and the record made sense when Doctor Claudia Sternberg talked about the representations of Cavell , including on film. Early illustration showed Cavell with long, streaming hair, younger than her actual 49 years and in some suggestions of rape. One newspaper illustration depicted the Germans as pigs or ‘swine’. One film of 1915 was entitled Nurse Martyr. She also talked about the depiction of Cavell as a lone victim in illustrations of the execution and the use of nurse uniforms rather than civilian clothes. She went on to fill in the context of the Wilcox film and suggested that this was a transitional work, with ‘civilian society’ portrayed as ‘subordinate to the military’.
The talks filled out the film and enabled a fuller appreciation of the representation and its relationship to the historical person and events. My main reservations were two-fold.
The suggestion was that the changes made by the film after the German objections gave the film a more general anti-war tone. I thought there was a discrepancy between the title cards and the visual representation in the film. The opening title cards in particular were quite strident and appeared to put together European powers on both sides of the conflict as war-mongers. However the actual narrative was much closer to conventional war films. Cavell and the network were portrayed sympathetically and shown as non-military. The fact that the key member were women seemed more about this type of discourse than any feminist rendering, though they did come across as strong characters. The Germans were portrayed through the film in conventional militaristic terms, re-enforced by the dissensions by individual Germans and the depiction of the US Legation. I incline to think that one of the ways that German objections were responded to was to change title cards rather than the actual imagery, a not uncommon way of ‘sanitising’ silent film.
Edith Cavell with Don and Jack in 1913, neither feature in the film.
The key changes to the visual imagery were the execution. Here there are clear cuts, at one point there is a shot of Cavell facing the squad and then a reverse shot, and we discover a field behind her. It is a disruptive moment. Presumably this cut was seen as diminishing the literal visual violence in the film, but all the business with the dissenting soldier remains.
I also had reservations about the idea of a transitional film. I can see that it has some of these aspects in terms of British film. But the anti-war tone had already appeared much earlier in the 1920s. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA 1921) has a powerful anti-war drive and in this film civil society is clearly subordinate to the military. And in British film the jingoistic support of the allied war effort continued, a good example being The W Plan from 1930. Here Brian Aherne plays an British Officer and spy who outwits the stereotypical Germans.
It also need to be pointed out that ‘anti-war’ has a limited connotation in such films as Dawn. As pointed out by Andrew Britton such films rarely address the actual politics of an actual war. This is centrally true of World War I. This was an imperialist war between European colonial powers and ‘plucky little Belgium’ had one of the worse records for colonial atrocities in the Congo.
But a great opportunity, so felicitations to the Hyde Park Picture House and to the contributors to the event.
There is more material in Rachel Low’s the History of the British Film 1918 – 1929, Allen and Unwin 1971.
The Belgium archive also have a print which is being restored.