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Old-fashioned posters outside the War Pictures exhibition Posters outside the War Pictures exhibition. Image: Mark Gambino
  • The Story of War Pictures


    Posted on: 23/04/2015

    Exhibition assistant curator Fiona Trigg takes you behind the scenes of our latest exhibition, War Pictures: Australians at the Cinema 1914-1918.

    The early stages of putting together an exhibition are full of possibility as you follow various research leads to determine what the shape and scope of the show will be. With War Pictures, the fundamental question we wanted to address was what did Australians see when they went to the cinema during the First World War? We also wanted to know how the war was represented on the screen and what role cinema played in shaping the mood of people on the home front.

    Cinema was still a young art form when the war began, so it was fascinating to find out just how popular an entertainment it was – tickets sales from the time show that on any given Saturday night in 1913, 65,000 Melburnians were at the movies.

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    The Screen magazine from 1917

    The State Library of Victoria holds a 1917 copy of The Screen magazine, a weekly publication produced in Melbourne, that lists over 60 cinemas in Melbourne’s city and surrounding suburbs. The eagle-eyed amongst you will note F.W. Thring as manager of the Paramount in Bourke Street. Thring went on to direct films himself, and also to father the famous actor Frank Thring.  

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    Spot the Thring

    Another great resource was the collection of digitised newspapers on Trove. The ads for cinema programs not only confirmed what films played where, but how they were promoted to audiences.

    By far the greatest number of films advertised were American entertainments – short comedies, drama serials and features. We’ve included a few in our show, but our focus is on Australian and war-related material.

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    A poster promoting John Ford's first feature film

    The name of this exhibition was taken from one such ad: ’war pictures‘ was the shorthand used at the time to describe any newsreel or short documentary film about the progress of the war or the activities of troops and home-front supporters. 

    Before TV and before radio (which began broadcasting in Australia in the 1920s), the cinema of WWI offered Australians welcome documentary footage and stories about the war. Audiences weren’t naïve, however, about what they were watching. Since the birth of cinema in 1896 they had been watching a range of genres develop and gain in sophistication; westerns, melodramas, slapstick comedy and drama serials all had their different ways of telling stories. When the Australian government pressured cinema owners to play official propaganda films that lacked entertainment value, audiences responded with catcalls and jeers.

    When I found this newspaper ad for ‘war pictures’ with the line “Come and see if you can find your friends in the firing line” it really illustrated for me the ways in which cinema offers a strange hybrid of information, spectacle, emotion and entertainment.

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    Indeed, trying to understand the attitudes and experiences of people from one hundred years ago was a major challenge. We wanted to piece together a program of films that contemporary audiences would find engaging, but at the same time we didn’t want to misrepresent the complex range of political and social responses to the war. 

    - Fiona Trigg, Exhibitions Assistant Curator

    War Pictures: Australians at the Cinema 1914 - 1918 is free and open daily from 10am-5pm (from 1pm on ANZAC Day) until 26 July.

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