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Media images of war have often been 'improved', either on location or in the editing suite afterwards. Andrew Calcutt reports on the staging of history

Making War Films

'Some of the most famous war footage and war images have been at the very least "improved" and not infrequently faked for the camera,' says Roger Smither, keeper of the film and video archive at the Imperial War Museum. The staging of history is as old as war photography itself.

First World War: 'It does give a wonderful idea of the fighting', wrote Rider Haggard of the 'over the top' sequence at the climax of the film The Battle of the Somme (1916). Noting that one of the 'casualties' crosses his legs and looks back at the camera, and that the cameraman would probably have been shot dead if he had filmed a real battle from that angle, Smither concludes that the sequence is 'not genuine... its development into a classic part of the imagery of the First World War is one of the ironies of how media images shape historical memory'. (Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol 13, No 2, 1993.)

The staging of the First World War is ongoing. Landmark television documentary The Great War (1964) made up for a lack of actual footage with imported movie material. This was 'wholesale and without acknowledgement', says Smither.

Spanish Civil War: Legendary cameraman Robert Capa is thought by some to have staged several of his pictures, and questions have been asked about the authenticity of his most famous shot, captioned in Life magazine as 'a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head in the front of Cordoba'.

Second World War: Newsreel footage depicted Hitler dancing a jig as he waited to accept the surrender of the French in 1940. The film editor who created this sequence later admitted that Hitler only did 'a minute little jump of joy', which he then looped, freezing it at the 'silliest...sissiest point' to make Hitler look effeminate (Esquire, October 1958). This creative piece of editing was carried out by John Grierson, widely revered as the founding father of the British realist school of film-making.

One of the most famous pictures of the Second World War, which appears to show Desert Rats running into battle against the Germans at El Alamein, is believed to have been staged by a photography unit known as 'Chet's circus', described in The Camera At War by Jorge Lewinski as 'well known for their skilful fabrication of war pictures'. The Australian troops depicted are thought to have been storming their own cookhouse.

Because of the impossibility of filming night battles, some footage for the highly acclaimed film Desert Victory (1942) was shot at Pinewood Studios. Director Roy Boulting insisted that the re-enactment was not false. 'Sometimes fiction is the ultimate truth', he claimed (Sunday Times, 11 June 1995). General Montgomery is also said to have arranged for 'action' scenes to be filmed behind the front line and before fighting began. In his autobiography Hollywood director John Huston recalls how the US army faked the Tunisian landings for the film Tunisian Victory.

Footage purportedly of the D-Day landings was filmed during the invasion rehearsal in Devon. Joe Rosenthal's famous photo of US marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima was staged after hand grenades thrown by a Japanese survivor disturbed the filming of the original event. The editors of Life initially refused to print Rosenthal's composition, but after its publication in Time they relented, and Rosenthal went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Pictures of what really happened remain in existence, but the staged re-enactment has become the official version.

According to Jerome Kuehl, the 'guru' of historic film fakery, dozens of films purporting to show Nazi death camps are misleading. The pictures normally shown are of Westerburg, a German camp in the Netherlands, or from a Polish film showing Auschwitz a year after the war (Sunday Times, 11 June 1995).

Gulf War: Broadcast film of two British Tornado pilots shot down over Iraq showed their bruised faces and gave the impression that they had been tortured into saying what the authorities in Baghdad wanted them to say. This message was repeated in blanket press coverage. Meanwhile a copy of the complete, unedited film was given to the wife of one of the pilots on condition that she kept quiet about it (Private Eye, 15 March 1991). On that part of the tape which was not broadcast, the airman sent his love to his family, and told them not to worry about the bruising to his face which, he said, had occurred when ejecting from the cockpit of his aircraft (a common enough injury in such circumstances). The misleading impression given in the edited version of the film remains uncorrected by the mainstream news media.

The photograph of a cormorant soaked in oil, allegedly as a result of the release of oil into the sea on the orders of Saddam Hussein, is widely believed to have been taken in Alaska.

This article first appeared in LM 98

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