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Early Spy Films

Intrigue and paranoia in pre-WWI Britain

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Like most film genres, the spy film developed from a literary tradition. This can be dated to the first of the future war stories, G.T. Chesney's 'The Battle of Dorking' (1871), describing a surprise Franco-Russian invasion of Britain. So successful was the story (selling over 80,000 copies) that it spawned a series of similar fictional accounts. However, the first real spy story was probably William Le Queux's serial, 'The Great War in 1897' (published in book form in 1894). The serial outlined a French attack on Britain masterminded by a Russian spy. Other authors followed suit: Rudyard Kipling's 'Kim' (1901), about Russian advances in India; Erskine Childers' 'Riddle of the Sands' (1904) - filmed in 1978 - imagining a German invasion attempt, and Joseph Conrad's anarchists tale, 'The Secret Agent' (1907) - filmed as Sabotage (d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1936).

So popular was this sensationalist literature that The Times newspaper described it as "...[a] class of literature that is rapidly becoming a nuisance." Indeed, questions were asked in Parliament, and various factions, such as those advocating naval and military reform, seized on the books as an example of Britain's unpreparedness for invasion. Le Queux, and other authors, continued to feed the public's imagination for sensational spy stories. His most successful book, 'The Invasion of 1910' (published in 1906), sold over 1 million copies and is probably the inspiration for the film The Invaders (d. Percy Stow, 1909).

Such scare stories were not confined to print. The play 'An Englishman's Home' ran for eighteen months from January 1909 and was filmed in 1914. Although the nationality of the invaders was not mentioned, the ruler was coyly referred to as the 'Emperor of the North', and the spiked helmets worn by the soldiers gave the game away. So successful was the play that a recruiting office for the new Territorial Army was set up in the foyer.

The genre increasingly reflected the international situation. At first, the enemy was France or Russia, but over time these were gradually displaced by Germany. Britain was at the height of its imperial power, Queen Victoria had enjoyed a hugely successful jubilee in 1897 and the government followed an international policy of 'Splendid Isolation', largely due to Britain's superiority. However, growing colonial rivalries and developments within Europe led to a gradual retreat from this policy. The near-defeat in the Boer War (1899-1902) and the increasing rivalry with Germany (for colonies, industrial strength and naval developments) led to Britain developing alliances with Japan (1902), France (1904) and Russia (1907).

The German naval build-up proved a stumbling block to reconciliation with Britain. The Royal Navy was seen as the defender of Britain and her empire, and any attempt to outdo its numerical or technological advantage was seen as a threat. Britain was to develop a new breed of battleship - HMS Dreadnought - and in 1909 there was a public outcry when fewer battleships were expected to be built. Many of the spy films would feature the Royal Navy, its personnel, weapons or codes; indeed two of the main spy heroes were naval officers (as was their successor, James Bond).

This naval race led to widespread Anti-German feeling, and The Daily Mail newspaper offered the following advice: "Refuse to be served by an Austrian or German waiter. If your waiter says he is Swiss, ask to see his passport!" A series of newspaper articles appeared which seemed to support the fictional accounts of a Britain overrun by spies. Claims that an army of German spies masquerading as waiters and often working near naval bases or ports were printed in newspapers and widely circulated. Estimates ranged from 50,000 to a highly improbable military claim that 350,000 such spies were in Britain. The clamour for government action led to the establishment, in 1909, of MI5, whose brief to monitor espionage in Britain successfully resulted in the rounding up of all German spies on the eve of the war. However, the hidden army failed to materialise.

The anti-German feeling was a manifestation of Britain's increasing xenophobia. The Russian pogroms on Jews had led to large-scale immigration of eastern European Jews into Britain's urban centres. Widespread public alarm at this alien immigration led to the Aliens Act 1905, requiring all aliens to register while in Britain. Two films, The Alien Question and The Alien Invasion (both 1905), highlighted the plight of British workers being forced out of their employment by cheaper foreign (often Jewish) labour. The Invaders features foreign soldiers disguised as Jewish tailors preying on the fear of the alien.

Aliens were often seen as anarchists, and anarchists, in turn, as spies. Films frequently depicted anarchists as beard-wearing members of secret societies out to destroy Britain. Anarchy was associated with violent acts of terrorism, and there had been a number of high-profile assassination attempts (notably American president William McKinley in 1901). Britain itself had experienced the 1911 Sidney Street siege, in which anarchists fought off the police and army.

Thus was laid the foundations for the development of the spy genre: popular literature, fear of invasion, xenophobia and a stereotyped enemy. The first spy films were merely re-enactments of real events from the Boer war and later the Russo-Japanese War (1904). However, the invasion literature, newspaper articles and increasing international tension led to a flourishing of spy films. From 1909 there was a gradual build-up in their production to a high point in 1914-15, when around 30 such films were made. This peak reflected the outbreak of World War I and the genuine threat of invasion. As the war progressed, the films' popularity waned, possibly as a result of the continuing war and its hardships. The genre lay largely dormant in the postwar years, to revive somewhat with the rise of Nazism and its new threat to the British way of life.

Simon Baker

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