Nervous of the ‘Cinema as an Art Medium’



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Nervous of the ‘Cinema as an Art Medium’”: governmental film propaganda in the Free State.

Kevin Hora

School of Media DIT

PhD Candidate, TCD

Free State Politicians viewed the cinema with distrust. Though adept propagandists, they were wary of cinema, seeing it as fodder for uneducated minds, and a communications channel that needed to be controlled by the state. Consequently, Free State politicians failed to fully explore the potential of cinema for domestic and foreign propaganda and implemented harsh censorship. This paper looks at attitudes and opinions towards film propaganda, and establishes that two arguments inhibited its development: finance and lack of understanding of the medium. It traces efforts to produce a state-sponsored film, Ireland, and assesses the use of feature films and newsreels. The paper suggests that Free State politicians, while adept propagandists, were unable to fully realise the potential of cinema, and were content to avail of it when opportunity was presented, but had no strategic vision for successfully developing film propaganda.

Why the state was slow to use film propaganda may be explained by its inability to fully grasp what it entailed. Self-imposed isolation from European organisations scarcely helped. An invitation forwarded by the Dominions Office to attend the 1926 International Cinematograph Congress, organised by the French National Committee of Intellectual Cooperation, was declined.1 In 1927 the state declined to participate in a Swiss conference on educational film when the Department of Education confessed that it had “no experience of the use of films of this kind”.2 The International Institute of Education Cinematography, a League of Nations funded Italian organisation, also met with apathy. The Italian ambassador to Britain sought support for it, citing “the great importance attaching to cinematography as a practical method of instruction and as an instrument of culture, education and healthy propaganda.3 His communication was passed to Education which, though again narrowly interpreting educational film, was influenced by more than its own aversion as the Dominions Office had already expressed Britain’s position:

the cinematograph is still in an early stage and … educational authorities hold divergent views as to the value … and the practicality of its employment…. Moreover, having regard to the varying conditions of the cinematograph in different parts of the world, it seems doubtful whether the establishment of an Institute … would … serve any very useful purpose….4

It fell to the Department of External Affairs to communicate the state’s position.5 Oddly, External Affairs had received the 1926 Imperial Conference report on empire-produced films, which contradicted the Dominion’s Office:

The importance and far-reaching influence of the Cinema are now generally recognised. The Cinema is … a powerful instrument of education in the widest sense … and even where it is not used avowedly for purposes of instruction, advertisement or propaganda, it exercises indirectly a great influence in shaping the ideals of the very large numbers to whom it appeals. Its potentialities in this respect are almost unlimited.6

Isolation did not mean that film companies ignored the state. Newsreel companies submitted frequent requests for political interviews. The style of filming in the silent era was to record politicians at events, or posing self-consciously. With the advent of sound films, the “piece to camera” became more popular. While a good relationship evolved between the state and film companies, including Pathé, British Movietone News, Paramount News and International Newsreel Corporation, the transition from silent to spoken film proved occasionally problematic. Agreeing to participate in a spoken film for the first time, Cosgrave clumsily essayed humour:

The apparatus though the medium of which I am now speaking for the first time possesses at least one stimulating property – while recording every word and motion of the speaker it gives no opportunity to the opponent. Oppositions tend to pessimism and I welcome their absence on this occasion as it enables me to present, uninterrupted, a cheerful view of our position in Ireland.

He spoiled the effect by continuing: “The world today is full of anxiety, political and economic.”7 As politicians became more accustomed to film, fears of the medium were lessened by exercising editorial control. A British Movietone News film for American audiences was deemed unsuitable at a private pre-screening, and Fox, the parent company, was given detailed editing instructions before presidential consent was forthcoming.8

Co-ordinating filming schedules was a more subtle form of control. Sean Lester introduced Alfred Brick of Fox Films to a number of state departments, and the Director of Army Intelligence, who indicated that a programme of “suitable items of Army doings” was in hand.9 Evidently Brick’s trip was successful. Having attended a private screening of the film, an impressed TW Smiddy, the state’s representative in the USA, apprised External Affairs of its content and suggested it would have a strong impact on American audiences.10 Fox returned in 1929, with an itinerary that included prominent political buildings, Cosgrave at home, the Lusitania memorial, the Gardaí and Air Corps.11

As newsreels became familiar to politicians, the state’s overseas representatives, exposed to cinema propaganda in their postings, began to advocate a state film. From Paris, Count O’Kelly suggested a film about the Wild Geese, for its romantic story and distance from politics.12 In 1926, he extolled the Belgian government’s film propaganda, particularly, a film promoting industry and tourism which was “precisely the type of publicity” the Free State needed.13 His letter aroused interest in External Affairs, which admitted that the prospects of a film were remote, but asked him to ascertain the cost of production and methods of exhibition.14 O’Kelly’s reply suggested that he viewed the film as useful for special screenings to select audiences, but not for general release.15 As the matter failed to interest other departments, it was not pursued.

Nonetheless, a state propaganda film, Ireland, was eventually produced, though it was a protracted process hindered by misunderstandings, inter-departmental spats and typical Department of Finance miserliness. In 1925, a request by Smiddy for state films to lodge with the philanthropic United States Bureau of Commercial Economics, caused chaos.16 External Affairs asked Industry and Commerce and Agriculture for films.17 Agriculture directed External Affairs to Industry and Commerce,18 who for their part referred to interdepartmental communication on railway films.19 Meanwhile, Smiddy, labouring under the misapprehension that films existed, again asked External Affairs to request films from Industry and Commerce.20 The department did.21 However, in copying Finance, Fisheries, Lands and Agriculture, and Justice, External Affairs seemed to imply that the department was obstructing it. Industry and Commerce chastened External Affairs, and placed the blame on Finance, which had already rejected several proposals. Clearly piqued, the correspondence suggested that if External Affairs felt so strongly about propaganda film, that department should bring proposals before the Executive Council.22

External Affairs replied in a conciliatory tone, enclosing a copy of a memo from TJ Kiernan, secretary to the London delegation. Kiernan recommended producing propaganda films to disseminate through the Imperial Institute and Empire Marketing Board.23 The new spirit of détente bore fruit as External Affairs assured Industry and Commerce that it would support proposals before the Executive Council.24 The new proposal outlined the overseas representatives’ clamour for a film that would allow them to compete with countries displaying a greater proclivity towards publicity. It observed that film propaganda in the state was haphazard, orchestrated by private interests, or subject to budgetary constraints. It suggested that a good deal of propaganda work was already under way, and referred to films, shot or planned by Fordsons and the Lee Boot Factory in Cork, the Shannon Works and the Irish Cattle Traders, as well as noting the success of Irish Destiny. Wisely anticipating Department of Finance objections, the proposal argued that the cost was negated by the necessity for a film, and by the trade, tourism and tax revenues that would accrue. The carrot to Agriculture, Industry and Fishing, and the defence forces that they would be part of the film was as much a sop for support as a propaganda necessity.25 The proposal was successful; however, sanction was delayed while Finance displayed its customary reluctance to open the public purse, and it was a further two years before a contract was signed with McConnell-Hartley Ltd to produce the film.26

Alongside official propaganda, independent film-makers sought inspiration in the state. George Dewhurst, Denis Johnston, and Tom Cooper used local knowledge or political contacts to make Irish Destiny, Guests of the Nation and The Dawn respectively. State assistance was readily available, and the state provided information on the American and French markets for Irish films to Daniel Coholan, an aspiring Athlone-based cinematographer,27 and to J Eppel on Belgian film manufacturers.28 However, assistance did not suggest capital. CS Clancy, an Irish-American producer who had filmed Will Rogers in Ireland, proposed producing ten single-reel travel comedies, and series of five-reel romantic dramas, modern comedy dramas, one or two-reel legends, one-reel illustrated songs and poems, and epic historical dramas. He anticipated vast audiences and revenues:

the Keith Vaudeville Circuit … will … book the series “solid” … $7.70 per reel per day.

… this means a booking of 3000 days per reel. Therefore ENCHANTING ERIN… could gross $225,000….

In addition these ten reels should play in at least 6000 … theatres in America at a minimum average of $4.00 per reel per day.29

Profit was one thing, production costs another, and his figures must have confounded the impoverished state. They ranged from $3,500 for a single reel film, to $500,000 for an epic, and Clancy merely required a five-year contract, with a profit-share and salary. His pitch for public or private funds would have met with official resistance, no matter that he offered an annual return of up to 100%.30

While Clancy’s proposal was the most professional, several amateurs made such dubious entreaties that the state could be forgiven for assuming a fearful attitude towards cinema. Most were politely rejected and promptly forgotten. O’Kelly was horrified at a glib rewriting of history proposed by a Monsieur Chauvelot, who, he reported, was:

anxious to produce an Irish propaganda film…. When I asked … he said that the plot was based upon the flight … of Irish Nationalists implicated in an uprising against England, and the return of their children who now find Ireland free…. M. Chauvelot … explained that he was going to begin with … the Phoenix Park murders of 1882. Two of the assassins were to have fled to Australia, and it was their children who were returning to Ireland….

When I had recovered my breath I suggested … he was about to write a most excellent British propaganda film against Ireland. He seemed quite undismayed and said he was prepared to change the plot to please me – or … anyone else.... I am using all my best efforts to make him forego it, as I shudder to think what he would produce if given the slightest encouragement.31

Fortunately the state did not need to discourage film-makers, when the blunt instrument of censorship was available. The Censorship of Films Act, 1923 signalled the state’s moral intent, requiring the censor to decide whether a film was “indecent, obscene or blasphemous” or “subversive of public morality.”32 The censor, James Montgomery, demonstrated a devotion to duty that was more than the prudishness of the religious fundamentalist, or the superciliousness that regarded cinema as dangerous fodder for working-class minds: he was an officer of the state, appointed by the Minister for Justice. Consequently, some decisions were motivated by nationalism rather than morality. Ourselves Alone, Beloved Enemy and two versions of The Informer rankled for their depictions of Ireland. Ford’s Informer was eviscerated:

A sordid & brutal travesty of the Black & Tan period. The prostitute and brothel tone … is very clever and artistic but it is unfit for exhibition in this country. The issue of a cert by this Censorship might be taken as the states [sic] approval of a gross libel.33

He dismissed Beloved Enemy as the “most extraordinary romanticising of Michael Collins34 and perceived an anti-Irish bias in Ourselves Alone:

it seems ‘fairly fair’ to the British but not to us - ie that is the hero is a Bayard of the RIC. The leader of the gangster IRA is an Oxford man from the big house. I’d reject it if I could. It is likely to lead to protests.35

His prescience was well-founded: a week later, he noted “Old IRA sent me a protest which I sent to the Ministry.”36

Irish-made films fared better. The Dawn was: “A good attempt from our side. A good contrast to ‘Ourselves Alone’.”37 The censor’s imprimatur was essential, as was the approval of Frank Aiken, Minister for Defence. Tom Cooper successfully used the precedent set by Aiken’s granting of army equipment to the makers of Guests of the Nation to request similar support. Domestic features were more polemic than Hollywood’s efforts. British soldiers were brutish in The Dawn, but the RIC were Irish, which mattered more than the uniform. Although more policemen than soldiers perished in the conflict, the propaganda implication was that the disestablished force would be portrayed as never having been the real enemy. Moreover, the IRA displayed courage and respect for law and order. In Irish Destiny, the villain, Gilbert Beecher, produces illicit poitín, the scourge of the country, and kidnaps the hero’s sweetheart, before natural justice is meted out at the hands of the IRA and he perishes in a conflagration at his still. Furthermore, the old woman’s reaction to the execution of two English soldiers in Guests of the Nation, and the emotions it evokes in their executioners, establishes the compassion of the Irish, even to their enemy. Such portrayals may suggest that where the state had the opportunity to influence productions it did so discreetly, but effectively.

Hollywood smut damaged the state’s morals, but seditious films struck at democracy. In 1930, the Dublin Film Society asked TM Healy for patronage.38 Healy’s staff received advice from Cosgrave’s office that the society’s promoters included a group:

who regard themselves as ‘intellectuals’…. Paul Farrell is a re-instated Civil Servant with artistic leanings. Miss Manning… is a journalist in the Film and Fashion domain. The others … are interested in Art and Drama. With the possible exception of Mr. Farrell none of the promoters has been prominent in contemporary troubles.

Nevertheless their programme is disturbing. The film ‘Potemkin’ is largely Bolshevist propaganda, - so also is ‘Mother’; ‘Storm Over Asia’ is … an anti-British film and a gross libel on the British Army, - and while I have not particulars of the other films they seem to be … ‘of unusual interest’.

We have some reason to fear … that Bolshevist propaganda agents look to this Society as a medium for the dissemination of films which would otherwise fail to secure publicity here. Apart from this I am somewhat nervous of the ‘Cinema as an Art Medium’ in the hands of a Society such as the present.39

Watching such films was sufficient to mark a citizen as dangerous, though the notion that the society’s members were dupes of dastardly Bolsheviks supported the view of cinema as a moulder of malleable minds. Indeed, the group was already under Garda surveillance, and a file identified committee members.40 Aside from O’Farrell and Manning, Lillian Dalton, daughter of a senior civil servant, worked in the Belgian Consulate, and was described as “a supporter of the present government”; George E Cowell was a Trinity College student; and Harold Douglas was the son of Senator Douglas. Respectability was no defence against a state determined to control its citizens’ cinematic preferences.



Control over film was achieved through extraordinarily severe censorship. It may not be unfair to suggest that, under Cumann na nGaedheal, this was a direct consequence of a moral imperative and religious influence, while under Fianna Fáil it was a continuation of this, with the added element of a carefully constructed notion of a self-contained Irish identity that came from the depths of the party’s own ideology. High-brow preoccupations within the administration saw little cultural value in film, and this resulted in a failure to adequately explore its potential. Film required a concentration on the visual element until sound films became a possibility, and words and image could be married to create a more potent message. That propaganda films could have been used more frequently or expertly is undeniable, but early wariness, antipathy, and financial considerations, were forceful issues that first had to be overcome.

1 NAI, D/Taoiseach: S5121

2 NAI/D Taoiseach: S5326.

3 NAI/D Taoiseach: S5514. 7 September, 1927.

4 NAI/D Taoiseach: S5514. 21 September, 1927.

5 NAI/D Taoiseach: S5514. 29 February, 1928.

6 NAI/D Taoiseach: S5403. 18 November 1926

7 NAI/D Taoiseach: S2365. 18 November 1930.

8 NAI/D Taoiseach: S2366. 30 April, 1930

9 NAI/DFA: GR837-3. 31 July, 1925.

10 NAI/DFA: GR837-3. 15 December, 1925.

11 NAI/DFA: GR837-3. 30 October, 1929.

12 NAI/DFA/P/1/VII. 22 November, 1924.

13 NAI/DFA: GR837-2. 23 February, 1926.

14 NAI/DFA: GR837-2. 4 March, 1926.

15 NAI/DFA: GR837-2. 11 March, 1926.

16 NAI/DFA: GR837-4. 11 July, 1925.

17 NAI/DFA: GR837-4. 1 August, 1925.

18 NAI/DFA: GR837-4. 31 August, 1925.

19 NAI/DFA: GR837-4. 4 September, 1925.

20 NAI/DFA: GR837-4. 29 April, 1926.

21 NAI/DFA: GR837-4. 17 May, 1926.

22 NAI/DFA: GR837-4. 25 May, 1926.

23 NAI/DFA: GR837-4. 15 June, 1926.

24 NAI/DFA: GR837-4. 16 June, 1926.

25 NAI/DFA: S5105. 28 July, 1926.

26 NAI/DFA: S5105. 10 July, 1929.

27 NAI/DFA: GR837-12. 20 June and 7 August, 1930

28 NAI/DFA: GR837-6. 7 January, 1926.

29 NAI/DFA: GR837-5: 12 August, 1926.

30 NAI/DFA: GR837-5: 12 August, 1926.

31 NAI/DFA: GR837-18a: 10 February, 1932

32 No. 23/1923: Censorship of Films Act, 1923: 7.2

33 NAI/D Justice - Film Censor’s Office. 28 June 1935

34 NAI/D Justice - Film Censor’s Office. 29 April 1937

35 NAI/D Justice - Film Censor’s Office. 5 May 1936

36 NAI/D Justice - Film Censor’s Office. 12 May, 1936

37 NAI/D Justice - Film Censor’s Office. 23 May 1936

38 NAI/D Taoiseach, S6002. 11 February, 1930

39 NAI/D Taoiseach, S6002. 19 February, 1930

40 NAI/D Taoiseach, S6002. 3 March, 1930.

Kevin Hora, School of Media, DIT

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