By the time the First World War broke out, going to the movies was a favourite pastime for
Australians and New Zealanders. Available to everyone, it was for many the
social event of the week, a place to go for fun with family and friends,
perhaps even for a little romance.
The ‘pictures’, as they were called, had arrived
in Australasia in the mid-1890s and during the 1910s huge
‘Picture Palaces’ flourished across both countries. Small towns or remote areas
didn’t go without as travelling showmen toured in motor- or horse-drawn
vehicles to set up temporary screens in shearing sheds, halls, or wherever they
could attract an audience. But from the outset of the war in Europe going to
the cinema had a new purpose, a patriotic purpose – to keep up with
international events and to support the war effort.
audiences would not recognise the cinema of 1914. Early 20th century
cinema-goers saw a series of short fiction and non-fiction films, comedies or
dramas; the “star” feature would be a “two-reeler” not more than 20 minutes
long. The program also included newsreels, national and international, and
sometimes ‘topical’ news films showing events of local interest filmed by and
for the local cinema, like those made by Henry Gore of Dunedin or Leslie Lester
of Burra, South Australia, both of whose films feature on this site. These
films were made specifically for local audiences and the filming of events of
interest was encouraged as much for commercial reasons as any sense of
recording posterity-- local images drew local crowds, keen for the thrill of
catching a glimpse of themselves, friends or family on the big screen.
By the war’s
end in 1918/1919, cinema’s ‘classical’ format was established: a feature length
film of around 80 to 90 minutes, accompanied by advertising, short films and a
newsreel or two. The ‘star system’, already entrenched from the early 1910s,
meant that stars like Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and Mary Pickford were
of the era had no recorded sound, the viewing experience was not silent.
Musical and sound accompaniments were almost always supplied by a pianist or an
“orchestra”, defined as two instruments or more. As the clip featuring Violet
Capstick makes clear, orchestra members would also add sound effects. The
“sing-along” It’s A Long Way to Tipperary
was designed for the audience to directly interact as the orchestra played the
music, encouraging everyone to sing. It was not unusual for a lecturer, or
raconteur, to accompany educational or topical films, and provide a spoken
commentary; this was particularly common when travelogues, or in our case films
from the front, were shown. Spectators were more raucous as well, with plenty
of cheering for the heroes and booing of the villains as they appeared on the
During the war going to the cinema
arguably became Australia’s and New Zealand’s most popular form of mass
entertainment. By 1916 Henry Hayward, manager of one of the largest New Zealand
theatre chains, estimated a weekly attendance of 320,000. A year later it was
stated in Parliament that “not less than 550,000 people go to picture
entertainments every week”.
People went to the pictures for a
number of reasons: to be entertained, to escape the drudgery of daily life and
to be kept informed of world news and events. Cinemas were also sites for
recruitment and early forms of propaganda. The pictures had an emotional effect
on their audiences as well: one of the reasons films from the front showed
seemingly never-ending parades of men was to give parents, siblings or
sweethearts the chance to glimpse familiar faces; and to encourage return
patronage on that basis.
of the films made during the war can be found in the fragments of films which survive
in the collections of Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision and the National Film and
Sound Archive. Images of soldiers training, at rest and at play, as well as
haunting images from the front sit side by side with the hopes and aspirations
of national industries focused on wartime propaganda and feature films.
was also an important cultural legacy. When the war broke out in 1914 the main
producers of the films viewed by audiences in Australia and New Zealand were
based in Europe and the United Kingdom. This would change dramatically during
the war, and by 1919 the devastation of the European and British film industries
meant that Hollywood producers and American films were ascendant and became the
dominant influence in Antipodean popular culture, a situation which remains
much the same today.