The Reawakening (1919)
This live-action documentary short from the Ford Motor Company is quite different from the animated political cartoons we’ve seen from them in the past, but it still has a basically political message. In this case, it’s a positive one about re-integrating wounded veterans in the workforce and American society.
The movie consists of a series of documentary images tied together with intertitles. It begins with footage of an ambulance crew on the battlefield, loading a stretcher into their (no doubt Ford-built) vehicle. This is followed by several cards worth of “purple prose” about the heroics of the men and medics of wartime, and then we see soldiers with canes being disembarked from a train and climbing into another ambulance to be shuttled to a hospital. At the hospital, the footage emphasizes occupational therapy, a relatively new idea in which recuperating men are encouraged to perform tasks to restore their muscle strength and coordination, as well as in some cases re-training skills they might be able to put to use in paid work after discharge. We see them receiving physical therapy from nurses and doing gymnastics. We also see the production of artificial limbs. A soldier with a missing leg comes in to receive his and gives a little jump for joy on the way out the door.
As I indicated, however, much of the emphasis is showing wounded soldiers performing work-related tasks. A group of them at a woodshop table labor at drilling, sawing, and filing. We can see that the repetitive motion is similar to the gymnastics, but here the men are also working on projects that presumably give them a sense of purpose. We also see basket weaving skills put to use in weaving seats for rocking chairs. Although the men are working hard, they frequently smile and seem to joke with each other. Art therapy shows several wounded men, including one in a wheelchair, working on paintings. In another image, men are re-trained to write. I noticed that several were working with their left hands (usually discouraged at the time), although none was actually missing a right arm. Men are also shown learning typing, telegraphy, radio, auto repair, and other vocational skills. Most of the tasks involve sitting, though some are fairly strenuous and we get the sense that the injuries of these soldiers must be relatively minor (one has a cane and another crutches, but these may be temporary aids).
The next sequence shows us some of the entertainments available at the hospital, including a boxing match and a musical band. A fire drill demonstrates the concern for the safety of the men at the hospital, and then the purple prose reappears with a metaphor about new flowers and the growth of men during their convalescence. This is reinforced with a brief image of soldiers working in a greenhouse and time-lapse photography showing a flowering plant coming to life in fast-motion.
Having supported America’s entry into the First World War, Ford shows a sense of responsibility toward the men returning from that war. Although the United States’ involvement had been comparably brief (large scale active combat only from August to November, 1918), the brutal nature of trench warfare meant that a large number of men were returning with serious injuries – the most the nation had to deal with since the Civil War, over fifty years earlier. Nearly ten percent of those who saw active duty were classified as “wounded” and neither the government nor society were prepared for what was needed to assist them in rejoining civilian life. In an earlier time, men with missing legs or arms or other serious injuries would have had little hope of supporting themselves professionally, industrialization and modern medicine did offer more hope for a future for disabled war veterans. This movie documents the efforts of military doctors to quickly respond to the situation, and does so with a degree of respect and sympathy, even if at times the intimacy of seeing someone fitted with their new artificial leg, for example, seems somewhat intrusive. It’s an interesting document of early therapies that continue to be used and refined today.
Run Time: 11 Min
You can watch it for free: here.