The March Toward War: The March of Time as Document and Propaganda
Introduction The Time Empire MOT as Document Marching into War Voice of Conscience Timeline/Index
Voice of Conscience
America's Hometown
Toward War
Baptism of Fire
Defining America
 Ramparts We Watch scene

Toward War

 Germany Enters War
(1) Shots like this one of newspapers help move the narrative along. (2) An effigy of the Kaiser.
Kaiser effigy

The sections of "Ramparts" which describe rising American support for England and France reveal American preoccupation with how Germany conducts itself in war. From the destruction of the civilian ocean liner Lusitania to the use of poison gas on the battlefield, Germany's tactical values met with American disapproval.

A Washington Post article on audience members' reactions confirmed the perception that German values threatened American liberty: the film "expresses a vigorous and militant faith in the capacity and the ability of a Republic of free men to meet and overcome any threat to the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to which it has been consecrated through a century and a half," wrote Nelson Bell.1

As war breaks out in Europe, teenagers in the film are shown discussing the conflict and eventually most volunteer for service. First-generation German-Americans are shown being taunted by other teenagers (the German father is later suspected of spying). Although President Woodrow Wilson has ordered Americans to be "neutral in thought and action," in an effort organized by Herbert Hoover, Americans send more than $1 million worth of food each week to Belgium.

The Lusitania Play movie

The German embassy warns the Lusitania not to set sail, going so far as to take an ad out in The New York Times, but warnings fail to stop its passage and 1,200 passengers—some of the "proudest" names on two continents—died when Germany attacked the ship. "No single disaster in half a century had stirred American emotions more profoundly," the narrator says. "It was unthinkable that Germany would sink the Lusitania." "Ramparts" shows long lists of the names of the dead as a bell tolls in the background, and depicts Americans protesting German actions (2). Americans rally in opposition to Germany, but the rally fails to turn into a call for outright war. This failure is portrayed in "Ramparts" as a meeting between townsmen and their Congressman, who says, "You don't want to do the only thing Germans understand—war....It's war or nothing, and I still think it ought to be nothing." Faced with the idea of their own children going to war, the townsmen can only agree. However, all their children do not—many head to Canada to join the Lafayette Escadrille, an elite corps of American volunteers.

On the home front, March of Time filmmakers show discrimination against German-Americans in a negative light. A group of women making bandages for the Allies tell a German mother and daughter that their efforts are not wanted; viewers likely felt sympathy for the mother's outrage at this news, and her family is shown in a positive light in other scenes.

Horrors of War Play movie

 Poison gas
(1) Gas used in World War I. (2) Teddy Roosevelt supported entering the war, as this parade sign shows.

As Germany's infractions built, the narrator explains that "the lines were slowly being drawn between peace at any price and intervention in the war." Teenager Walter tells his dad he is volunteering for the war, and his girlfriend says in response to the news, "I'd be proud of you, Walter." A man is shown saying, "you know as well as I do that if France and England are licked, we're next." Wilson's opponent for re-election in 1916, Charles Evan Hughes, runs under the slogan, "a vote for Hughes is a vote for preparedness." But Wilson is re-elected for his ability to keep America out of war and townsmen are shown drunk and toasting to the "real" president—Hughes.

On the war front, the British have introduced the tank to the battlefield, while Germans have begun using liquid fire—with the result that 5,000 are dying each day. Viewers learn the immigrant who returned to fight has died by the summer of 1916, and more of the town's teenagers and young men are shown training for war. Four million die during the winter of 1916, and as the next clip shows, Germany has started using chlorine, phosphene and mustard gas (1): "To Americans the use of poisonous gas seemed more horrible and barbarous than any other single action by the Germans...and Americans were fast reaching a decision," the narrator intones. The son of the German professor wants to sign up for war, and "by now, pacifist songs were finding little favor." To demonstrate this point, the film shows a club singer warbling "I Didn't Raise My Son To Be a Soldier," and an American remarks to a waiter, "Why can't you make up your mind whether you're Germans or Americans." A group of men with stereotypically German features applaud loudly as the song ends.

At Home: Ready for War Play movie

The film suggests that disasters in oil fields and munitions plants are "not all accidents," and the German professor is shown being recruited into espionage. But he refuses, saying "My home is now in America." This film later reveals that his son is ineligible to go overseas with other troops because of questions about his father. The narrator explains that spies and saboteurs were attempting the systematic destruction of munitions plants, and by 1917, "Americans were facing the inevitable." The next scene shows the Congressman's wife urging action: "The time has come when we've got to fight for the decent, civilized things in life."

 Flag in the water

A speaker at fallen soldier Walter's funeral explains: "There is a basic democratic principle and a primitive might-makes-right instinct. And today, these two are fighting to see which will survive." As the audience was aware, he could be as easily talking about 1941 as 1917. Germany declares it is resuming unrestricted warfare, and its government insists that only one American ship could send aid and supplies each week, with that ship being painted a certain way and scheduled at a specific time. Wilson sets the policy of "armed neutrality," allowing merchant marine ships to carry guns. A German sub sinks a ship (to symbolize this, filmmakers show a flag floating sadly in the water, 1), and three more are soon torpedoed. Wilson sets a special session date for Congress and the narrator explains that Wilson has compromised with Germany for three years, which only brought "indignities"; "now his people wanted war." Showing March of Time producers' own interest in the fourth estate, the newspapermen deliver the news of the declaration by reading Wilson's speech to his staff: "The day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood for the principle which gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured....God helping her, she can do no other." While he reads, the patriotic "My Country 'Tis of Thee" plays in the background. In the next scene, bells toll as Americans read the headline—first the man who works at the press, then a family outside their home. An older woman symbolically appears walking on her home's Widow's Walk.

Entering War Play movie

 Food will win the war
(1-3) The war effort is in full swing. Click the photo to view larger images.
Beat back the Hun with Liberty Bonds
Vive Wilson
(4) Crowds celebrate the victory. (5-6) March of Time plays up the spoils of victory.
Soldiers party
Celebrate with kiss

The film next shifts to the total war effort, emphasizing the home front as much as efforts abroad, perhaps readying the viewing audience for their own role. Being relatively unprepared for battle, U.S. troops have to train and mobilize, as American at home organize to feed troops and refugees (1-3 show the war effort). Soldiers are portrayed as excited to go overseas and fight in the war. One soldiers asks to be sent over to France "in a hurry," worried there won't be a war left to fight. The narrator explains, "It was the citizen army of the world's greatest democracy. For those ideals, one man in every 20 was destined to give up his life to fight in a foreign land for American ideals." However, as troops board ships, the mood is patriotic as "Over There" provides a soundtrack to their fervor.

"Courageous to the point of recklessness, American forces by the fall of 1918 had suffered nearly 300,000 casualties, 50,000 killed in action," the narrator says. But on Nov. 11, 1918, the end to war "had come with breathtaking suddenness." The film spends as much time on the celebrations—real footage of parades in the street (4), fake footage of soldiers celebrating with spirits and women (5,6)—as the Americans' actions in war. "It had taken four long years and the combined efforts of most of the nations of the world to destroy the great German war machine which had threatened their civilization," the narrator says. One of the richer townsmen says he will never forget Wilson's reasons for going to war—to protect the "rights and liberties of small nations...[have] peace...and make the world itself at last free."

Having set up this framework of comparison between World War I and the present, the film moves on to the threat posed by Germany.

1 Bell, Nelson B. "'Ramparts' Is Lustily Cheered at Premiere." The Washington Post. July 24, 1940: 14.