The Making of 'The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell' (1915)
Nurse Edith Cavell prior to the war. Source: Imperial War Museum via Wikipedia.
October 2015 marked the centenary of one of World War I’s catalysing incidents - the execution of the British nurse Edith Cavell. By the time war was declared in 1914, Cavell was already internationally known for her pioneering approach to nursing, having established teaching colleges in Brussels and published a scholarly journal on nursing practice. After the war began, she spent her working hours ministering to casualties from both sides of the conflict, and her spare time assisting several hundred Allied civilians and soldiers flee the now German-occupied country, sheltering them in her home and helping to furnish them with money, identity papers, and safe passage.
She was taken prisoner in August 1915 and charged with treason for her intransigence against the German occupiers. Cavell freely admitted to the charges against her. International efforts to effect her pardon fell on deaf ears.
The nurse was executed by firing squad on the morning of 12 October 1915. Her reputed final words - “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone” - echoed across the world. Cavell’s death met with unprecedented international condemnation. For months, people of the Allied nations had received stories about purported atrocities committed by the German side. Though these contributed to a growing horror of the ‘Hun’, it was the death of a single symbolic figure rather than those of the nameless hundreds which hardened the public mood.
Nurse Cavell’s death became a powerful tool of propaganda and recruitment, frequently described not as an ‘execution’, but more personally, as a ‘murder’ or even a ‘martyrdom’, befitting a figure who was transformed into a secular saint for the Allied cause. She became the subject of patriotic songs, plays, benefits, articles, memorial statues and even a commemorative postage stamp. It was inevitable that her story would form the basis of a motion picture.
The first such attempt, Nurse and Martyr (1915), produced by in the UK by the Phoenix Film Company and scripted by the prolific author Edgar Wallace, made its debut in late November 1915, only a month after Cavell’s death. This haste may have been evident in the quality of the finished product, as the film appears not to have received wide distribution outside the British dominions. On the other side of the world, a new Australian company was making its own plans to turn the incident known as ‘German’s crowning infamy’ into a feature film.
Jack Gavin, in a 1911 caricature. Source: Sydney Sportsman, 8 February 1911
Director Jack Gavin was a pioneer of Australian filmmaking, producing and starring in his first picture, bushranging drama Thunderbolt, in 1910. At around fifty minutes’ duration, it was considered a major production and a huge success, vindicating Gavin’s belief - highly unusual at the time - that it was in features rather than bite-sized shorts that the medium’s future lay. Thunderbolt was scripted by Gavin’s wife Agnes, screenwriter on all of his films. Gavin formed the Australian Photoplay Company. Sometimes described as Australia’s equivalent to America’s Biograph, it brought together Australia’s best on and offscreen talents, including Raymond Longford, Alfred Rolfe, and future Universal star Louise Lovely, then known as Louise Carbasse. During the year following Thunderbolt, Gavin produced roughly a film per month, most of them based on the popular bushranging theme, including Moonlite (1910), Frank Gardiner, the King of the Road (1911), and Ben Hall and His Gang (1911). The following year, the effective banning of films on this subject in New South Wales helped to bring Gavin’s prolific early period to a close. By 1916, he had not directed a film in several years.
Gavin’s collaborator was Charles Post Mason, an American-born former vaudevillian who had called Australia home since 1904. He had previously been associated with impresarios Hugh D. McIntosh, J.D. Williams and most recently, the prolific and powerful Australasian Films, but resigned to start his own venture, the Australian Famous Feature Company, in conjunction with Jack Gavin. Much like the similarly named Famous Players company of America, which initially sought to bring the theatre’s best known names to the screen, Famous Feature aimed to make movie stars out of Australia’s favourite stage actors.
Source: Sunday Times (Sydney), 30 January 1916
Accordingly, the title role of The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell was given to Vera Pearce, then appearing in the Tivoli Follies stage show. Often described as Australia’s most beautiful actress, she had already made her film debut in The Shepherd of the Southern Cross (1914). Offscreen, she was romantically involved with Tivoli Follies producer and Mason’s former boss, media mogul Hugh D. McIntosh. Much like William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, Pearce was genuinely beautiful and talented, but McIntosh’s attempts to promote his lover via his own newspapers sometimes harmed rather than helped her career.
Appearing alongside Pearce were a number of other well-known stage actors, including Charles Villiers as the German spy Cries; Percy Walshe as a German military governor, Harrington Reynolds as Reverend Gerard, who sees Nurse Cavell through her final hours, and Jack Gavin himself as Captain von Hoffberg, a villainous German cavalry officer. Ethel Bashford, as Belgian noblewoman Yvonne Loudet and C. Post Mason as her fiancee, Belgian lieutenant Georges Renard, furnished a conventional (though fictional) love story. Financial backing was provided by Stanley Crick and John C. Jones, both of whom would have a long involvement in Australian distribution and production, as would cinematographer Lacey Percival. Production likely took place in late December 1915, using real-life locations that included Darlinghurst Gaol, and Cozens Spencer’s purpose-built studio at Rushcutters Bay. The production was registered for copyright on 5 January, and advance advertisements began appearing shortly thereafter.
Premiere and Release
Newspaper advertisement. Source: Sunday Times, Sunday 30 January 1916
The completed four-reel film was given its first preview in Sydney on 25 January. Though essentially a private event, invitations were extended to ‘members of the clergy of all denominations, the press, and all nurses in uniform, also all picture-show proprietors.’ Glowing endorsements were soon forthcoming, and featured prominently in advertisements.
So too did a note from the Prime Minister, William Morris Hughes, who apologised for his absence from the premiere due to an imminent trip to London, and thoroughly endorsed the film’s subject matter. In Australia, as in England and Canada, it was expected that the story would prove a formidable recruitment tool - a matter of increasing concern to Hughes, who would controversially be ousted from his party after the failure of his plebiscite on conscription later that year.
The Sunday Times gave Vera Pearce a grand ovation, proclaiming that "She has the beauty and grace that fits her admirably to the motion pictures. She is not only screen pretty; she also proves the possession of undoubted dramatic talent.” The praise was no surprise, given that the Sunday Timeswas owned by Hugh D. McIntosh, and yet a rival newspaper, The Mirror, agreed that Pearce “showed considerable dramatic talent,” improving upon her work in The Shepherd of the Southern Cross. Plump and pretty, the twenty year old brunette was hardly an accurate choice for the patrician silver-haired Edith Cavell, aged 49 at the time of her death, but she certainly proved a popular one.
The film can be reconstructed from a detailed précis published in Brisbane’s Daily Standard, which also noted ‘the unstinted and spontaneous applause which punctuated the screening of the film’:
The opening scene shows Nurse Cavell’s home in England, and the action then changes to Belgium, where Nurse Cavell is seen in the midst of her friends, Mons. and Madam Renard, lieutenant Georges Renard, and Yvonne Loudet (Lieutenant Renard’s sweetheart). Sydney’s Sunday Times provides further details about this section:
While at the house [Cavell] meets Herr Cries, a German military spy, posing as a medical student. Trouble ensues between Cries and Renard, and the former, vowing vengeance, prepares his plans for the betrayal of the city’s defences to the oncoming German hordes.
The Brisbane Standard picks up the story:
The next act shows Belgium under the heel of the savage conqueror, and hordes of German soldiers and spies are seen on all sides. Nurse Cavell’s military hospital is then shown, and the noble nurse herself is seen tending a soldier’s wounds. “Why, he’s a German!” exclaimed one of the other nurses. “It doesn’t matter—he’s some poor mother’s son,” replied Nurse Cavell, and it was this scene that roused the audience to the highest pitch of enthusiasm this morning.
According to the Sunday Times, Cries sees to it that Renard is sentenced to death as a Belgian spy. With Nurse Cavell’s help, Yvonne Loudet escapes across the border - but Cries is following the situation closely, gathering information in order to incriminate the nurse.
From the Brisbane Standard:
The action of the story then moves very swiftly. Lieutenant Renard is seen making a clever escape from prison, and, attired in German military uniform and motor goggles, he makes his way to his parents and his sweetheart’s home. Yvonne implores Nurse Cavell’s help to secure passports, and after several thrilling encounters with the suspicious Huns, Georges and Yvonne safely arrive at Ostend, where the former rejoins his regiment, but not before he experiences a fierce dose of Hun “kultur,” his parents being killed, and Yvonne threatened by von Hoffberg and his men. Yvonne saves herself and Georges, however, by violently striking the officer with a powerful missile.
According to other sources, the ‘powerful missile’ was a vase - an element improvised by Ethel Bashford in order to find a plausible way for the slight Post Mason to be seen defeating the burly Gavin. The Brisbane Standard continues:
The military hospital is then searched for proof of Nurse Cavell’s complicity, and another powerful scene is brought to a sad ending with the nurse marching out under military escort, and a Hun batoning a crippled soldier, who shows sympathy with the nurse. The last episode witnesses the imprisonment and the execution of the nurse, who scornfully sweeps aside the bandage that the German officer endeavors to place over her eyes.
Rev. Thomas Gerard, the clergyman who attended Nurse Cavell right up to the moment of her execution, plays a big part in this last act. The memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, is a fitting finale to this beautiful picture, which treats a noble subject in a reverential manner.
Critical opinion was varied - a few reviews were laudatory, many optimistic, others merely polite, and some openly critical. “It is interesting at any time to watch a locally made picture play when the performers are personally known to the onlookers, but when, in addition, it is a most touching representation of an event which concerned the whole civilised world, the interest is increased tenfold,” noted Melbourne’s Table Talk. "The story is vividly set forth on the whole, and in a superficial way it is satisfactory … but when there is so much good it is to be regretted that there has not been more care as to detail and local atmosphere.”
Within the local film industry, it appears there was little enthusiasm forThe Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell. Moving Picture World’s Australian correspondent Tom Imrie gave a blunt assessment: "The picture is everything it should not be. The acting is the worst I have ever seen in any Australian subject. Of course, because of the story, the production is having a very successful run. Perhaps this is all the company thought of.” This may well have been the case - and it proved that their selection of this particular story was a stroke of commercial genius. It was soon clear that The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell would be one of the greatest successes the Australian industry had yet produced. The film had the rare honour of being held over for a second week in Sydney before moving to suburban theatres. There were sell-out crowds for its debut in Brisbane and Melbourne in early February, while Governor General, Minister for Defence and other high-ranking government officials attended its Adelaide premiere later in the month. By the middle of the year, it was reported that the film had earned an astounding £10,000 - nearly a million dollars in today's money.
Imitators and Rivals
Source: Muswellbrook Chronicle, Saturday 11 March 1916.
By the end of February, a rival Australian production of the story, entitled Nurse Cavell, also entered the market. Working under the auspices of theatrical producers J.C. Williamson, producer W.J. Lincoln made the dubious boast that his film had been written, shot, and screened within the space of a single week. To further muddy the waters, it was later advertised as England’s Nurse and Martyr, Edith Cavell - the British version of the story, Nurse and Martyr, having been rushed into the Australian market in early March.
With The Martyrdom moving into country markets which had already seen one or other of the rival productions, cinemagoers were understandably confused, and exhibitors who had paid a premium for the exclusive rights for The Martyrdom angry. After an injunction was sought by a number of Melbourne cinema proprietors, W.J. Lincoln’s film largely disappeared, to be swiftly followed by La Revanche, marketed as a ‘sequel’ to the Cavell tale. If La Revanche was not simply Nurse Cavell retitled and slightly recut, it is at least very likely that footage from the first film was reused in this second, as the cast was largely identical. The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell was given a further vote of confidence when it was purchased by the Famous Players Releasing Company for release in Canada and Britain. The film made its debut at Toronto’s Gayety Theatre on 8 May 1916. Against such formidable competitors as Britain Prepared and even D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, it was declared by Moving Picture World as the greatest success ever shown in Toronto. It travelled Canada during the rest of 1916 on a double bill with a second Australian-made war picture, Australasian Films’ 2,000 foot short The Sinking of the Emden, also known as How We Beat the Emden, about the newly formed Australian Navy’s first triumph against its German counterpart. This package apparently outperformed the British-produced Nurse and Martyr, which had debuted there at around the same time. The film also played successfully in South Africa, and appears to have secured a minor release in Britain.
On To Bigger Things?
Co-director C. Post Mason and actress Ethel Radford portray the protagonists of a fictional romance that was added to the story. Source: Punch (Melbourne), 10 February 1916
C. Post Mason quickly saw an opportunity to conquer the world’s largest film market. By June 1916, he had returned to his home country, established a New York office, and aimed to sell The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell on the American States’ Rights market. Back in Australia, Jack Gavin made ambitious plans for the continuous production of features, the first of which was envisioned as a patriotic super-production to be entitled The Birth of Australia - in both title and in subject matter, an obvious nod to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.
The future seemed bright. Famous Features had already produced another feature starring a Tivoli Follies star, Ernest Vockler, whose onstage impersonation of Charlie Chaplin was expanded into Charlie at the Sydney Show (1916), but it was The Murder of Captain Fryatt(1917) in which they placed the majority of their hopes. Based upon a similar wartime atrocity, the company hoped it would inspire the same sense of dedication as had its predecessor. They had not reckoned with the change in national sentiment following revelations of mismanagement of the Gallipoli landings and the costly Battle of Fromelles. The patriotic enthusiasm of the public had begun to sour, enlistments were dwindling, and the spectre of conscription was dividing the nation. In short, the theme of selfless sacrifice to king and country was no longer in fashion. Despite a strong start, Captain Fryatt faltered at the box office, and was a financial failure.
The news from America was not much better, where C. Post Mason reported his difficulties in selling The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell, or A Nurse’s Sacrifice as it was planned to be retitled there. “It is impossible for you to understand the conditions on this side unless you were here yourself,” he wrote to Gavin in early 1917. “The German population here is enormous, and they are in the picture business to a great extent … the facts of the case are that they don’t want war here, under any circumstances … you cannot talk with anyone; the subject is left alone.” The entry of America into the war shortly afterwards did bring a new interest in the Nurse Cavell story, but it was filled not by the Australian film but by an American production, The Woman the Germans Shot, also knownas The Cavell Case (1918).
After such promising beginnings, Famous Features collapsed almost as quickly as it had been built up. One last film, A Convict Bride (1918), based on the classic novel For The Term of His Natural Life and completed in December 1917, marked the end of Jack Gavin’s second and final experiment with continuous production. Mason, meanwhile, had remained in America to market his travelogue Greater New York(1916), also known as The Wonder City of the World (or to give it its full official title, The Wonder City of the World - Greater New York - By Day and By Night). He later became a publicity man for First National in Denver and Sol Lesser in San Francisco.
In 1918, the worldwide Spanish Flu epidemic created a new crisis for the motion picture industry, with many cinemas and studios shuttered to prevent the spread of the disease. In late November that year, C. Post Mason was reported to have left the film industry for what he expected to be a temporary job as a timekeeper at San Francisco’s Union Ironworks. Sadly, he himself fell victim to the flu only a few weeks later on 11 December 1918, less than two years after his greatest screen triumph. The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell, Nurse Cavell, and The Woman the Germans Shot are all lost films, while Nurse and Martyr survives in the collection of the British Film Institute.