A soldier on horseback leads a number of other soldiers on horseback.

Movie-going during the First World War

28 Jan 2016
Going to the movies was a favourite pastime for New Zealanders prior to the First World War, and over the course of the war it became even more popular.

By James Taylor

The “pictures” as they were then known arrived here in the mid 1890s, and during the nineteen-teens “Picture Palaces” began sprouting up in cities and towns around the country. Rural areas, small country towns and outback communities didn’t go without either.  Travelling showmen toured the country in horse-drawn carts, motor-cars or lorries, and set up temporary screens in shearing sheds, halls, churches, or wherever else there was a suitable space for a screen, a film projector and an audience.

The films watched by the picture-going public were different than those today’s audience are used to, as the one hour plus feature film was in its infancy. The typical cinema programme changed over this time: in 1914 cinema-goers saw a series of short fiction and non-fiction films, comedies or dramas, as well as newsreels and “topical” news films showing events of interest filmed by cameramen working for a local cinema, like Henry Gore of Dunedin.

Film of the 'HMS New Zealand', June 1913 (filmed by H.C. Gore)

These films were made specifically for local audiences, and the filming of events of interest was encouraged as much for economic 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.

'Jimmys and Nellies' - scenes at the East End Annual Picnic in New Plymouth. (filmed by Garnett Saunders, 1912)

By the end of the war, in 1918 – 1919, cinema’s “classical” format was established: a feature length film, accompanied by advertising, short films, and a newsreel or two. During this period the “star system” became entrenched, and stars like Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and Mary Pickford, were household names, as were directors such as the American D. W. Griffith. Watch 12,000 Aussies Send their Love to “Little Mary” (Famous Players, 1912) here.

While films 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, and orchestra members would also add sound effects. 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 being shown. Spectators were more raucous as well, with plenty of cheering the heroes and booing the villains as they appeared on the screen.

During the war most of the films watched in New Zealand were made overseas – though a number of foreign directors took the long journey to make films in New Zealand, with the French Gaston Méliès arriving here in 1912. There was also a steady flow of imported topical and newsreel films into the country. In addition, foreign companies also had cameramen on contract shooting events of interest as New Zealand was seen as an exotic location.

Pathé was particularly active capturing local scenes and events, and along with their competitors Gaumont and the Topical Film Co., tended to edge out local companies in the newsreel genre. The Pathé Gazette, Gaumont Graphic and Topical Budget filled out many cinema programmes, and gave cinema-goers a glimpse of foreign news, people and places.

Of course during the war, images of New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) troops were big box office draws. It is amongst both local and foreign made newsreels and topical films we see NZEF troops training, departing for the front, as well as serving overseas.

'Farewelling Troops in Wellington' who are off to the front. (1914/15)

Yet while “war pictures” were being advertised as early as September 1914 in newspapers up and down the country, many of them were barely that. Censorship on the Western Front, where cameramen were banned, and heavy unwieldy equipment meant that the pictures being shown in the foreign newsreels that made their way here were mostly incidental, or very loosely related, to the war. So, while New Zealanders saw soldiers go off to the front it wasn’t until 1915 that they saw a glimpses of them overseas, in Egypt, and in Gallipoli in 1916.

As the war progressed, combatant nations realised the need for better planned film propaganda to sustain morale and gain the support of civilian populations. By 1915 France, Germany and Great Britain had all created institutions to organise war film propaganda. However, it was not until 1917 that the New Zealand Government employed its own Official Cameraman. In March, Henry Sanders, a Pathé employee, became the Official Photographer of the NZEF in France.

This deal occurred after an earlier arrangement made with the War Office Cinematograph Committee to share a cameraman with the Australians fell through. The New Zealand Government was given all rights to the material that Sanders shot, after it had been cleared by the Censor at the War Office, while Pathé were allowed to use the material in their newsreels. Later, in November 1917, a similar arrangement was made and another Pathé staff member, Tommy Scales, became Official Cameraman of the NZEF in the UK. With two cameramen working there was now a “constant stream” of material showing in New Zealand theatres — though much of it captured events far from the battlefield, such as soldiers resting, on leave or at play. New Zealand rugby teams were a popular draw card for all three newsreel companies throughout the war.

However, despite the pair filming many thousands of feet of film, relatively little of what they made survives. That which does will feature in updates on our website www.anzacsightsound.org.

One of the most prominent absences from the films is images of fighting during the war itself. Censorship, the restrictions of bulky, heavy equipment, and the constant dangers of snipers played a part in this, but so too did the nature of the war. D. W. Griffith, the American film director, went to the Western Front in 1916, commissioned to make a feature film about the war, and noted wryly that the best position for filming was between the trenches in “No Man’s Land” – but “the Germans are not sufficiently sportsmanlike to leave you alone in your work.” In a more serious vein, he grasped the essential problem of covering the war: it was “too colossal to be dramatic… You might as well try to describe the ocean or the Milky Way. A very great writer could describe Waterloo. But who could describe the advance of Haig? No one saw it. No one saw a thousandth part of it.”[2]

During the war going to the cinema was arguably New Zealand’s most popular form of mass entertainment. By 1916 Henry Hayward, manager of one of the largest theatre chains, estimated a weekly attendance of 320,000. One year later it was stated in Parliament that “not less than 550,000 people go to picture entertainments every week.” Numbers for individual films are difficult to track down, but it was reported that over 18,000 people saw the Battle of Ancre when it screened over five days in Wellington in June 1917.

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.

The legacy of the films made during the war are the fragments that survive in the collections of Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision showing images of soldiers training, at rest and at play, as well as some haunting images from the front.

Review of New Zealand Troops by Hon. Walter Long (filmed by the NZ Government, 1917)

There was also an important cultural legacy. When the war broke out in 1914 the main producers of the films viewed by audiences 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 UK industries mean that Hollywood producers and American films were ascendant and became the dominant influence in New Zealand popular culture, a situation which remains much the same today.

World War I Resources:

  • Visit anzacsightsound.org to experience the sights and sounds of the Anzac corps and the World War I era online.
  • Loan For King & Country. This film programme covers New Zealand’s experience of the World War I, and includes excerpts from 38 films.


[1] Chris Pugsley, “The Magic of Moving Pictures: Film Making 1895-1918.” In Diane Pivac, et al (eds), New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History, Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2011, p.50.

[2] The quotes are from D.W. Griffith in Exhibitors Herald, 7 July 1917, p.13. In David H. Mould and Charles M. Berg, “Fact and Fantasy in the films of World War One,” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, vol. XIV, no.3, September 1984, p.54; and Stephen Badsey, The British Army in Battle and Its Image 1914-18, Continuum, 2011, pp.176-177.

[3] “The Pictures. Censorship on Films,” Evening Post, 12 June 1916, p.8; New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 21 August 1917, CLXXIX, p.449. Quoted in P. A. Harrison, The Motion Picture Industry in New Zealand 1896-1930, MA Thesis, University of Auckland, 1974, p.66. Also, North Otago Times, 29 June 1917, p.8.