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The battle for meaning: A cross-national film reception analysis of The Battle Cry of Peace in Switzerland and the Netherlands during World War I

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This article offers a cross-national analysis of the historical reception of the American war film The Battle Cry of Peace (J. Stuart Blackton and Wilfred North/Vitagraph, 1915) in the neutral countries of the Netherlands and Switzerland during World War I. Treating propaganda as a mode de lecture, the authors demonstrate how a fiction film that was originally intended as preparedness propaganda picked up very diverse and often conflicting meanings in cinema cultures outside the United States. In the eyes of its audiences, the film could have been qualified as ‘entertainment’ or ‘propaganda’, ‘fiction’ or ‘fact’ at the same time. When comparing the Dutch and Swiss reception contexts in more detail, it becomes clear that The Battle Cry of Peace was a popular film in both countries. However, the film made a different impact on its audiences on a national level. German propaganda officials in Switzerland considered the anti-German tendencies of the film highly problematic. This was hardly the case in the Netherlands. While The Battle Cry of Peace confronted Swiss audiences with their linguistic and cultural divide, here, the meaning of the film was generally tied into a unifying neutrality discourse. In both cases, however, a fact often neglected by contemporary (film) historians, cinema can be understood as an important agent in the public debate about the war outside the warring countries, as was acknowledged by individuals and institutions at the time.

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