Monday, November 2, 2015

Walter Niebuhr and "Pershing's Crusaders" (USA, 1918)

America's first official war film, Pershing's Crusaders (1918), has a stunning opening scene by Walter Niebuhr. As mentioned before in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, we wouldn't have found out about this remarkable footage if it hadn't been for Dr. William G. Chrystal who has studied the Niebuhr family for over 35 years and is an authority on theologian and political philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr. Many thanks, Bill, for providing us with your astonishing research material!


Walter Niebuhr (right) on the Eastern Front

Born in 1890, Walter Niebuhr was a journalist from Illinois. In 1915 he went to Germany to cover the First World War. On his visits to the eastern front Niebuhr frequently accompanied cinematographer Wilbur Durborough, and he also appears in his film On the Firing Line with the Germans which was recently restored by the Library of Congress. After America entered the Great War, Niebuhr was named Associate Director of George Creel's Commitee on Public Information's Division of Film. It was Niebuhr's job to produce America's first war films. The iconic movie poster as well as the opening shots of Pershing's Crusaders (1918) were all based on work by Walter Niebuhr.





German "Rule by Might", designed and played by Walter Niebuhr


Opening shots 

Pershing's Crusaders begins with a shot of a mounted crusader in armor (Niebuhr’s work), holding a flag in one hand and a shield in the other. On either side of the crusader a doughboy in uniform marches. The narration next reads: "The mailed fist of the 'Rule by Might' (Niebuhr also played that part) lies heavily upon Europe. To it no contract is binding, no obligation is worthy of fulfillment, no word of honor sacred." A point of light appears on the center of the screen, moving outward, as though a drop of acid was spilled on the film, burning it from the center to its edges at a more or less equal rate.  As the entire frame lightens, the viewer sees sand, nothing but sand, sand like that found in the Sahara or Mohave deserts. Suddenly, an arm emerges from the sand, wearing chain mail.  In the throes of an unnamed agony, the arm stretches and contracts, before falling back, into the sand. Symbolically, the mailed fist, "Rule by Might," is defeated. It lies heavily upon the sandy wasteland, an apt visual metaphor for the defeat of Germany.

Viewed from a modern perspective, Pershing's Crusaders frequently appears dreary, but Niebuhr's work on the opening "punch shots" still stands out as a powerful piece of cinematography. After the war, Niebuhr set up the American Cinema Corporation and in the 1930s he tried his hand at documentary production. During the Second World War Niebuhr edited footage shot by the Signal Corps. He died suddenly in August 1946 as a result of a heart attack.

Footage from Pershing's Crusaders of good quality is hard to find on the internet, but we managed to locate the original opening scenes and uploaded the film with contemporary World War I music added to the film clip.

Enjoy!

                          


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