On Saturday, at the splendid Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds, we had a rare chance to see the 1929 film Dawn, about Edith Cavell. It’s a remarkable film, and it was made more enjoyable by the four short talks that preceded it.
The first talk was personal. Emma Cavell is Edith’s great-great-neice; she told us a little about the family background, and what Edith’s memory means to her. Alison Fell then did some demythologising, explaining the historical background to Edith Cavell’s activities; we learned about Cavell’s place in the escape network that helped over two hundred Allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium, and we heard some of the details that got omitted from the myth. Claudia Sternberg told us about the film, and the attempts of politicians to stifle it (of which I will say more later). Darius Battiwalla, the pianist whose playing would soon contribute hugely to our enjoyment of the film talked about the art of accompaniment, and the choices he made when planning his improvisation to this particular film.
So we were well prepared when the film began. This is a good example of a late British silent movie, with clear effective story-telling and minimal reliance on intertitles. Herbert Wilcox directs with a sure craftsman’s touch.
Some people lazily assume silent film acting to be crude and excessive; they should watch this film. Sybil Thorndike plays Edith Cavell, and she is superb. Upright, determined, gentle, an embodiment of kindness and mercy. Her performance is a masterpiece of minimalism. When arrested and condemned she stays upright and firm as before, and only the tiniest micro-expressions indicate her fear and distress.
The film parades its authenticity. Scenes are filmed in the actual Belgian street where Cavell lived. Ada Bodart, a member of Cavell’s network of helpers, played herself. (This was not uncommon in films about the war. The Walter Summers films, such as Ypres, were packed with ex-soldiers re-enacting their wartime exploits for the camera.) The tone is sober; while there is plenty of tension in scenes where soldiers are searching the house looking for escapees, there is no playing up of emotions.
Edith Cavell had been seen as a much-lauded heroine during the war years. In 1919 she was given a state funeral in Westminster Abbey. You can see newsreel footage of the funeral procession here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Snb_E6KUK6k
In 1920 her imposing memorial was placed just north of Trafalgar Square.
Claudia Sternberg’s talk explained the controversy surrounding the film’s making and first release. The German government heard about it, and tried to get the film stopped, on the grounds that it might reignite wartime animosities. The British government, keen to maintain post-Locarno harmony went some way towards appeasing German demands. I’ve done some mini-research on this, and found some contemporary newspaper reports. Here’s the Times explaining the German reaction:
Liberal opinion was worried by the film. A Manchester Guardian editorial insisted that it disliked censorship, but expressed regret at:
this harking back to an incident that was twisted in its time to all manner of propagandist purposes, and that even now cannot be recalled without some danger to neighbourly understanding. (Editorial 10 Feb, 1928)
When Sir Austen Chamberlain, the Foreign Secretary, intervened to condemn the film, the Manchester Guardian approved:
Reginald Berkeley, the film’s scenarist, answered Sir Austen in a letter to the Times:
He was up against responsible opinion, though, personified by Margot Asquith:
Sir Austen claimed that no pressure would be put upon the independent British Board of Film Censors about the film, and T. P. O’Connor, the president of the Board, agreed that he was immune to political influence. The Board did, however, consider that it was ‘inexpedient in present circumstances’ that the film should be shown, and refused a certificate. This did not prevent its being exhibited in many towns and cities, however, since, the Board had no legal force behind its rulings; it was simply an organisation set up by the cinema trade, whose recommendations were usually followed by the local committees responsible for cinemas. In this case (as in the biblical epic King of Kings, which the Board also disliked) many local authorities ignored the Board, and allowed the film to be shown.
The film had its supporters in the press, too. The Daily Mail, for example, came out strongly when Madame Bodart (Cavell’s helper, who appeared in the film) handed back her O.B.E. In disgust at Sir Austen’s intervention.
The Mail printed readers’ letters supporting the film:
Reginald Berkeley claimed that the film was anti-war rather than anti-German, and that indeed is what his intertitles repeatedly proclaim. The film’s pictures, however, tell a different story. Oppression wears a pickelhaube. The Germans in the film are carefully not presented as sadists, but are just functionaries obeying orders; they are contrasted, though, with the saintly and imposing figure of Thorndike’s Edith Cavell, and so come off badly. I assume that many viewers of this film would have come away with anti-German prejudices strongly reinforced.
This episode shows very clearly the late twenties official resistance to reminders of the war, except when filtered through dignified ceremonies of Remembrance, or an explicitly anti-war narrative. The understandable desire to promote international harmony meant that a lot of things had to remain unsaid. Dawn was released when Britain was deciding how to celebrate the anniversary of the Armistice. The controversy over the film reveals a nation divided over the meaning of the war.
Herbert Wilcox remade the Cavell story in very different political circumstances, in 1939, with his wife, Anna Neagle, as a more glamorous version of Edith Cavell. You can see that film in its entirety (in a slightly fuzzy print) on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABuLbuWZrRo
Many thanks to those at Leeds who gave us the rare chance to see this fascinating picture.