The First World War in Scottish cinemas

The First World War was the first 'total war', mobilising the whole country and transforming civilian lives as much as the ones of those enlisting. By the time war was declared in August 1914, cinema had become part of everyday life, and a significant business sector. Thus, it could not remain unaffected by the conflict. The international nature of the film trade, and the increasing realisation by governments on both sides about the power of the moving image to sway public opinion, also bound cinema to the evolving panorama of the European catastrophe.

In Scotland, the exhibition trade was quick to offer its support to the war effort and to charitable relief efforts from very early on. Cinemas were used for recruitment meetings and to stir up patriotic sentiment.

During the first year of war, support for Belgian refugees was

The motivations behind the significant charitable efforts of the cinema trade were not purely altruistic. By showing that cinemas were 'doing their bit' and contributing to the war effort, managers hoped to avoid further government intervention and to protect their sector as an activity of national importance. This argument was severely tested when compulsory conscription was introduced in 1917. The National Archives of Scotland has several examples of applications for exemption from the draft, submitted by men who worked in cinemas. These were not always granted.

Even before then, in any case, many eligible young men had already gone from the front of house to the front line.

Green's roll of honour

women working in cinemas


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While the cinema trade faced these problems created by the war, it was also benefiting from the public mood. People wanted to see the latest newsreels, and official films like The Battle of the Somme and the Ancre were huge box-office hits. Continuing with existing traditions of the 'local topical', cinema managers incorporated 'roll of honour' series of photographs of local people who had enlisted. The frequent parades and drills also provided a spectacle that could be filmed and shown back to the punters lining the streets. Green's Film Service went a step further and made a propaganda film for the Ministry of Food, entitled Patriotic Porkers.

While all this was going on, the international configurations of the trade were also shifting. The United States had already dominated the film market since at least 1912, but by the end of the war their power was unchallenged. Scottish audiences had been captivated by Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, and their star power had reshaped distribution models, programming and advertising. The importance of the female audience was recognised more vividly, as for a time at least women became part of the work force. Cinema was now taken seriously by the State and the public, for better or worse.

By Maria A. Velez-Serna.


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