/ Published April 28, 2011
War Wings: Films of the First Air War: A Guide to the World War I Aviation Documentary Motion Pictures Held by the U.S. National Archives by Phillip W. Stewart. PMS Press, 2008, 218 pp.
I should make clear up front what this book is and what it is not. Phillip W. Stewart’s War Wings: Films of the First Air War is not an examination of how World War I aviation films were made, nor is it a study of their meaning or effectiveness. Rather, it is a reference work that catalogues and documents the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) holdings of World War I aviation films produced during the Great War. As the author notes in his introduction, the book deals with what he considers a “forgotten, or at best, rarely used resource of information for those of us who are keenly interested in this period of aviation history: the motion picture” (p. xiii). Noting that many belligerents shot millions of feet of film during the war, Stewart sought to document the NARA’s aviation holdings, about 95 percent of which were filmed by the US Army Signal Corps.
The work’s three general sections encompass six chapters. The first section briefly examines “combat photography” of the US Army and Navy. The brief introduction, a reprint of historian K. Jack Bauer’s introduction to the book List of World War I Signal Corps Films (1957), is a dated—though still useful—overview of the subject. The second section examines what the author terms “A-List” films (p. xv)—those concerned primarily with aviation. The third section examines “B-List” films (p. xvi)—those that focus on other topics but that include brief aviation scenes. The author also offers three appendices: an alphabetical listing of the 71 A-list films in the NARA collection, a basic chronology of World War I aviation, and a reprint of an essay written in 1919 by Brig Gen William “Billy” Mitchell, in which the outspoken aviator describes the American Air Service in World War I.
Of course, the heart of the book is the 71 A-List films. Clearly, the author has spent countless hours in the National Archives painstakingly examining every reel of every film. Indeed, the level of detail with which he breaks down each film is impressive, as reflected by the following categories: “Training Airmen,” “Building Aircraft,” “Getting to France,” “American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in the Skies over France,” “Combat Films of Other Nations,” and “Films Shot after the Armistice.” For each film, Stewart provides a brief description of the contents, length, and number of reels, followed by an exhaustive frame-by-frame description. Consider the following from a film about the artillery training centers at Valdahon and Saumur, France: “Taxi of a Caudron G.4; G.4 takes off; G.4 taxis; G.4 takes off; French troops man the balloon ‘spider’ and walk it” (p. 32). (Obviously, the book is not meant to be read from cover to cover.) Finally, the author sprinkles the work with stills taken from the films. Of varying quality, some of the photos are striking and probably have not been seen before.
From a reference standpoint, this impressive work would certainly prove useful to researchers, particularly those who can visit the National Archives to view the films, since it would help them prepare and make the experience worthwhile. Furthermore, the author deserves praise for his research and for reminding us of the existence of some vastly underutilized primary source documents. Finally, readers interested in and knowledgeable about the Army Air Service during World War I should examine a copy of War Wings: Films of the First Air War. However, those who seek thoughtful study and critical analysis of the aerial campaigns during that war should look elsewhere.
Capt Gregory W. Ball, PhD, USAFR
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."