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“The War to End All Wars”

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 139th installment in the series.

August 14 - 19, 1914: “The War to End All Wars”

“We have not sought this reckoning, we have done our utmost to avoid it; but now that it has been forced upon us it is imperative that it should be a thorough reckoning,” the British futurist writer H.G. Wells wrote in an article titled “The War That Will End War,” published in The Daily News on August 14, 1914. Commonly cited as “the war to end all wars” or a similar variant, the phrase was quickly adopted as a slogan to explain British and later American participation in the war, as set forth by Wells in his essay:

This is already the vastest war in history. It is a war not of nations, but of mankind. It is a war to exorcise a world-madness and end an age… For this is now a war for peace. It aims straight at disarmament. It aims at a settlement that shall stop this sort of thing for ever. Every soldier who fights against Germany now is a crusader against war. This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war—it is the last war!

In fact, pundits welcomed the war for a whole variety of reasons, coincidentally reflecting their own agendas. Some predicted it would lead to a “rebirth” of society in a “purified” form, which could mean anything from the end of class distinctions, to a return of chivalrous ideals, to the purging of “foreign” racial elements. Others, like Wells, hoped it would result in the overthrow of tyranny and triumph of democracy. Colonial subjects believed the war might force white Europeans to grant them more rights, or even independence.

But for many ordinary young men who volunteered to fight in the early days of the conflict, it simply seemed to offer an opportunity for adventure and (ironically) freedom. Jack O’Brien, a Canadian volunteer, recalled telling his friend, “I can't get it out of my head. There is going to be the devil of a scrap over there—and say, boy! I've got to get into it!” The German novelist Carl Zuckmayer later recalled that for young middle class men volunteering meant

Liberation from middle-class narrowness and fussiness… from the doubts about choosing a profession and from all the things that we perceived—consciously or unconsciously—as the saturation, closeness, and rigidity of our world… It had become serious… and at the same time a huge exhilarating adventure... We shouted out “freedom” while we were jumping into the strait-jacket of the Prussian uniform. It sounds absurd. But we had become men with a single blow.

In Britain, 299,000 men enlisted in August (the scene in Whitehall, above), followed by another 463,000 in September, while 350,000 Frenchmen volunteered in the first week of August alone, and comparable numbers flooded recruiting centers in Germany. Everything around them seemed to confirm they were making the right decision. Across Europe, young men enlisted and went off to war in a festive atmosphere, amid cheering throngs who smothered them with candy, flowers, alcohol, cigarettes and—in a memorable departure from propriety for some young women—kisses.

French and British troops in Belgium and British troops in France received similarly delirious welcomes. Hugh Gibson, the secretary at the American embassy in Brussels, described the arrival of French scouts in Brussels:

The people in the crowd had bought out the near-by shops of cigars and cigarettes and chocolate and small flasks of brandy, and as each man rode by he was loaded up with as much as he could carry… All the cafes around the Porte Louise sent out waiters and waitresses with trays of beer to meet the troops… Each man would snatch a glass of beer, swallow it as he rode along, and hand it back to others… The French and British troops can have anything they want in this country.

Philip Gibbs, a British war correspondent, recalled: “In every market square where the regiments halted for a rest there was free wine for any thirsty throat, and soldier boys from Scotland or England had their brown hands kissed by girls who were eager for hero worship and had fallen in love with these clean-shaven lads and their smiling grey eyes.”

Hidden Fears

But these public scenes didn’t tell the whole truth, as many people kept their fears private— especially women who, finding themselves suddenly alone, still tried their best to put on a brave face. Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat who was living in Berlin, wrote in mid-August:

… a lady has just been in to see me who came straight from parting from her only son, a boy of 21. She described how heartrending were his excitement and delight at going off with the rest, and how she could hardly hide her grief when beaming with pride he showed her the little metal disc with his name on it, which every soldier wears for identification in case of being killed… In fact this seemingly unfeeling heroism often puzzles me. There is hardly any thought of life and love and relations in the young men going away, but a sort of reckless joy in the certainty of the near death awaiting them… One can do nothing as a woman but remain passive and look on, although on a perfect rack of torment.

Everywhere, the public displays of enthusiasm coexisted with anxiety about the future. Many people hoped the war would be “over by Christmas,” but Lord Kitchener, the hero of Sudan who was hastily appointed Secretary of State for War on August 6, shocked the British public with his prediction that the war would last at least three years and require millions of men. Equally sobering were the first contacts with refugees. On August 14, Piete Kuhr, a 12-year-old girl living in eastern Germany, wrote: “You suddenly get the feeling that the enemy is quite near. People are becoming uneasy. Fresh refugees have arrived from East Prussia… One woman with noisy children kept crying out, ‘Where can we go? Where can we go?’ She said, ‘A girl like you can have no idea what it’s like, can you?’ and tears ran down her chubby red cheeks.”

The Enigma of War

This widespread anxiety was heightened by a general sense of helpless ignorance; indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of the Great War was how little most people, civilians and soldiers alike, actually knew about what was going on. This was the inevitable (and probably intended) result of wartime censorship, instituted by emergency decrees and legislation like Britain’s Defense of the Realm Act, which left an information vacuum to be filled by rumor and official propaganda.

Soldiers were often stunningly misinformed. On August 9, Hugh Gibson, the secretary at the American embassy in Brussels, heard about German prisoners of war who “did not know what they were attacking and thought they were in France.” Around the same time Gladys Lloyd, an Englishwoman traveling in Belgium, had a friendly encounter with German Uhlans (cavalry) who occupied the village she was staying in: “Many honestly believe, and have probably been told so by their officers, that Belgium wantonly declared war on Germany.”

On the other side many people believed that the United States was joining the war on one side or the other. Gibson, the secretary at the U.S. embassy in Brussels, recalled: “They were pathetic in their confidence that the United States was coming to save them… Nearly every group we talked to asked hopefully when our troops were coming…” Irvin Cobb, a writer for the Saturday Evening Post, was asked by a Belgian innkeeper: “Messieurs… do you think it can be true, as my neighbors tell me, that the United States President has ordered the Germans to get out of our country?” A few days later, Cobb met a German private who asked him if the U.S. was going to join the war on Germany’s side.

Even people supposed to be “in the know” were anything but. On August 9, the French General Joseph Gallieni, sitting in a Paris café in civilian attire, overhead a newspaper editor at a neighboring table assuring his friend that he, Gallieni, had just entered Colmar, 230 miles to the east of Paris, at the head of a victorious French army. Amused, Gallieni whispered to his friend, “That is how history is written.”

Foreigners were sometimes better informed than natives, if they had access to outside information. On August 23 Eric Fisher Wood, the U.S. military attaché in Paris, wrote:

Here in Paris, extraordinary as it may seem, we have had no real news of the progress of the war. The Official Communiques carry to a fine point the art of saying nothing of any importance. The newspapers are so strictly censored that they are permitted to publish little except these communiques or editorials based upon them. Letters and papers from America really give us the first accounts of events which are happening at our very gates.

Americans Caught In the War Zone

Wood’s colleagues at the U.S. embassy had their work cut out for them. Among the Great War’s more marginal victims were thousands of Americans who’d been enjoying a lovely summer on the continent only to find themselves suddenly caught in a war zone. They were a cross section of American society, from wealthy tourists to middle class college students, bohemian artists, professional musicians, and everyone in between, but they all had one thing in common: they wanted out—now.

This was a challenge, as railroads were taken over by each nation’s military, berths on ships leaving Europe quickly sold out, and the international banking system froze up, making checks drawn on American banks useless. The latter was an especially trying circumstance for American millionaires who now found themselves literally penniless and adrift in a foreign country. Meanwhile anyone with the misfortune to be caught in Germany had an extra layer of logistics to deal with, since the only way out was through the neutral Netherlands, Switzerland, or Scandinavian countries.

Charles Inman Barnard described meeting some American tourists recently arrived in Paris from Germany via Zurich, including one

family… lucky enough to catch the last train conveying [German] troops westward. They traveled for two days without food or water, one of the ladies fainting from exhaustion, and after the train reached its destination they had to walk several miles across the frontier, where they were taken on board a French troop train. They lost all their baggage. Eight other Americans reported a similar experience. They had a tramp of ten miles into France, and one of their number, a lady partly paralyzed, had to be carried. They could procure no food until they reached France.

The U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, Henry van Dyke, recalled:

I never had any idea, before the war broke out, how many of our countrymen and countrywomen there are roaming about Europe every summer, and with what a cheerful trust in Providence and utter dis­regard of needful papers and precautions some of them roam! There were old men so feeble that one’s first thought on seeing them was: “How did you get away from your nurse?”… There were col­lege boys who had worked their way over and couldn't find a chance to work it back. There were art-students and music-students whose resources had given out. There was a very rich woman, plastered with diamonds, who demanded the free use of my garage for the storage of her auto­mobile. When I explained that, to my pro­found regret, it was impossible… she flounced out of the room in high dudgeon.

Now, not for the first or last time, the U.S. government set about the task of extricating its hapless citizens from a very complex and unpleasant situation overseas. Congress allocated $1.5 million in gold to provide credit (or grants) to stranded Americans and on August 6 the battleship U.S.S. Tennessee departed for from New York for Europe carrying this money, as well as $3 million in private bankers’ gold, and Assistant Secretary of War Henry Breckinridge to oversee the relief and evacuation efforts.

After the Tennessee arrived in Britain on August 16, the United States Relief Commission set up its headquarters London, where thousands of Americans from across the continent had already washed up. Meanwhile Breckinridge proceeded to tour U.S. embassies and consulates across the continent, stopping in the Hague, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Geneva, and Paris, with funds to help indigent Americans get as far as London, where the relief commission would take over.

Spy Scares

Ambient feelings of ignorance and insecurity helped fuel a wave of paranoia that swept Europe in the first weeks of the Great War, fixating on spies. Although both sides doubtless employed spies to keep tabs on enemy troops movements and public opinion, it’s also very likely that thousands of innocent people were accused—and in some cases executed without trial—for totally imagined offenses.

In Germany there were rumors of Russian agents driving cars full of French gold back to Russia, leading peasants to stop anyone in a car at gunpoint—and on occasion shoot first and ask questions later. In Berlin Princess Blücher lamented the “extraordinary spy-fever prevailing here as everywhere. People are being arrested all over the country, and the most harmless individuals are accused of being spies if they look the least different from their neighbours. Continual mistakes are being made, which often lead to fatal results for the victims.”

Belgium, treacherously invaded by a much larger neighbor, suffered some of the worst spy mania. According to Wilson McNair, Belgian boy scouts led the persecution:

One newspaper… had an article telling how a boy scout tracked a German spy and caught him while in the act of setting up a wireless installation on a housetop. From that hour every boy scout in Brussels became a spy-hunter… The thing became a plague within twenty-four hours… They followed the most innocent people and spread terror wherever they went… Spies were everywhere, and every man began to feel himself unsafe.

Suspicion soon crossed into the realm of the absurd, according to Paul Hamelius, who fled Liège before invading German forces, along with some other unfortunates: “A pathetic site was a group of three Chinese students from the University of Liège, youths of the Mandarin caste, with small hands and polite manners. They told us, in their harsh accent, and with the humble Oriental smile, how they, of all men, had been taken for German spies.”

Germans March Through Belgium

Hamelius and his new friends left Liège in the nick of time, as one fort after another fell under the methodical, merciless bombardment of the German Army’s huge 42-centimeter siege guns. Fort Pontisse, the first victim of the “Big Berthas,” fell on August 12; on August 13, it was the turn of Embourg and Chaudfontaine; and by August 14 all the forts east of Liège had fallen, with the surrender of Boncelles, Liers, and Fléron. Finally, on August 16, the last holdout, Fort Loncin, was completely destroyed when a lucky shot hit the magazine (below). A German officer related the heroic, last-ditch resistance of Belgian troops led by General Gerard Leman:

By this time our heaviest guns were in position, and a well-placed shell tore through the cracked and battered masonry and exploded in the main magazine.  With a thunderous crash the mighty walls of the fort fell.  Pieces of stone and concrete twenty-five cubic meters in size were hurled into the air… All the men in the fort were wounded, and most were unconscious.  A corporal with one arm shattered valiantly tried to drive us back by firing his rifle. Buried in the debris and pinned beneath a massive beam was General Leman… We thought him dead, but he recovered consciousness, and, looking around, said, “It is as it is.  The men fought valiantly,” and then, turning to us, added: “Put in your dispatches that I was unconscious.”

 

The fall of Liège cleared the way for the German First and Second Armies to advance into northern and central Belgium in force (top, German troops advance in Flanders) while the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Armies advanced through Luxembourg into the Ardennes Forest region of southeastern Belgium. On the other side, in the first half of August chief of the French general staff Joseph Joffre sent the Third Army under Pierre Ruffey and the Fourth Army under General Fernand de Langle de Cary to the eastern Belgian frontier to await the Germans, while the Fifth Army under General Charles Lanrezac advanced to a position near Mézières and Sedan.

Joffre’s Plan XVII anticipated an advance by the German right wing through the Ardennes—but as Lanrezac predicted several months before, the German right wing, consisting of the First and Second Armies, was actually advancing through central Belgium some 50 miles further north, suggesting a sweeping envelopment of the French armies from the rear, which was indeed the essence of the Schlieffen Plan (see map below).

In an age before spy satellites, it was difficult to gather reliable intelligence about the enemy’s position, as analysts tried to piece together disparate, sometimes contradictory information from spies, scouts on horseback, and pilots who attempted to estimate troop concentrations and movements with the naked eye. Nonetheless, in the first half of August a stream of alarming reports seemed to confirm Lanrezac’s suspicions: on August 7 German cavalry reached the River Meuse at Huy, just ten miles east of the key fortress city of Namur, and seemed to be preparing to cross west of the river into central Belgium. But on August 10 Joffre, busy with First Army’s short-lived invasion of Alsace, dismissed Lanrezac’s warning. Then on August 12, as German Uhlans skirmished with Belgian forces at Halen, Joffre again refused to allow Lanrezac to move Fifth Army north to Namur—although he grudgingly agreed to move a single corps (out of five in Fifth Army) to Dinant, barely across the Belgian border. He repeated the refusal on August 14.

Meanwhile Lanrezac wasn’t the only one getting nervous. On August 11, Field Marshal Sir John French, the field commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), was briefed with intelligence revealing a large number of reserve divisions in the German front line – a surprising development, suggesting that the Germans were staking everything on a huge blow through Belgium. The following day Lord Kitchener, the new Secretary of War, predicted a German invasion west of the River Meuse and argued that the BEF should form further back, at Amiens, but was overruled by the French and British general staffs: The British divisions would concentrate near Maubeuge, close to the Belgian border, as originally planned.

French Advance Into Lorraine

Joffre, the architect of the Allied strategy, remained convinced that the main German thrust would come across the Franco-German frontier to the south, and acted accordingly. Following the embarrassing withdrawal of the First Army’s VII Corps from Mulhouse on August 10, on August 14 he ordered a new attack by the French First and Second Armies into the “lost province” of Lorraine, while the reinforced VII Corps, now acting as the independent Army of Alsace, mounted another attack into Alsace. In short, it was to be an all-out attack across the length of the frontier.

Once again, the French offensive seemed to begin easily, as the First and Second Armies attacked towards Sarrebourg and into the Vosges Mountains, as well as northeast towards Morhange, and forward elements of the German Sixth and Seventh Armies withdrew before them. However, German resistance stiffened in the evening of August 14, with machine guns and heavy artillery inflicting heavy casualties, and the following day Second Army’s advance slowed as French troops encountered massed rifle fire. The French brought up artillery support and continued advancing doggedly, suffering more casualties as the Germans used long-range artillery to blunt the French offensive.

Despite heavy opposition, on August 18 the First Army under Auguste Dubail occupied Sarrebourg in Lorraine, while the Second Army under Édouard de Castelnau was closing in on Morhange, about 20 miles to the northwest, and to the south the Army of Alsace under Paul Pau captured Mulhouse (for the second time) on August 19. However the tide was about to turn against the French. As they pursued Joffre’s ambitious goals a gap had opened between the French First and Second Armies, leaving the flank of the Second Army vulnerable. On August 16 the commander of the German Sixth and Seventh Armies, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, asked for permission to mount a counteroffensive, and (after several days of waffling by chief of the general staff Moltke) received tentative approval on August 18.

Of course this was a major departure from the strategy outlined in the Schlieffen Plan, which called for the German Sixth and Seventh Armies to mount a fighting withdrawal intended to lure French forces into Alsace-Lorraine, leaving the job of envelopment to the German right wing, swinging down through Belgium and northern France to attack the French forces from the rear. Instead Moltke now began to consider attempting a “double envelopment,” with the German left wing attacking at the same time as the right wing to speedily encircle French forces and achieve a decisive victory early on. As early as August 14, in fact, Moltke had begun shifting forces from the right wing to the left wing—a move that fatally weakened the all-important northern offensive, critics later alleged.

Joffre Begins to Move Fifth Army

While French forces seemed to be making progress in Alsace-Lorraine, the French high command was finally beginning to see signs of serious trouble to the north. On August 15 Lanrezac’s sole army corps at Dinant came under attack by German advance forces trying to cross the River Meuse, which the French managed to repel in heavy fighting, and news also arrived that the Germans were approaching the fortress city of Namur.

Thus, on the evening of August 15, Joffre ordered Lanrezac to send reinforcements from Fifth Army north towards Dinant—but he still refused to move the French Fourth Army under Langle de Cary further west at the same time, meaning Lanrezac’s Fifth Army was stuck guarding a larger area with the same number of troops.

Joffre wanted the Fourth Army to stay where it was for his planned invasion of the Ardennes, set to begin August 21. Towards that end he also split the French Third Army, creating a new Army of Lorraine to guard the right flank while the remainder of the Third Army attacked northeast towards Luxembourg.

By August 19, the stage was set for two major clashes—one in Lorraine and another in the Ardennes region of southeast Belgium. Joffre’s Plan XVII was about to meet reality.

Belgians Withdraw to Antwerp

Belgium’s King Albert was already staring some unpleasant facts in the face. After the fall of Liège, the vastly outnumbered Belgian Army had no hope of holding off the advancing Germans by itself. Disappointed by the failure of the French and British to send sizeable forces to Belgium’s aid, and alarmed by the approach of Von Kluck’s First Army to the River Gete just 20 miles east of Brussels, on Tuesday, August 18, Albert ordered the government and Belgian Army to withdraw from the defenseless capital and head north to the fortified city of Antwerp, now dubbed the “National Redoubt.” Here they would be able to hold out for at least a few more months, and hopefully receive Allied reinforcements via Britain’s Royal Navy.

A Stunning Serbian Victory

While everyone expected Austria-Hungary to crush Serbia quickly at the beginning of the war, against all odds the Serbs delivered a humiliating defeat to Hapsburg forces in August 1914, foreshadowing a whole series of military disasters in store for the Dual Monarchy.

At the beginning of the war the Serbian commander, Marshal Putnik, mobilized his three small armies in central Serbia, leaving the capital Belgrade undefended, in order to gain time and space to organize his forces and assess Austrian intentions. At first Hapsburg advance forces under Bosnia’s military governor Oskar Potiorek struggled to establish bridgeheads across the river Sava, which marked the northwestern border of Serbia, but by August 12 they had crossed the river and occupied the town of Šabac on the south shore. This cleared the way for the Austro-Hungarian Second, Fifth, and Sixth Armies to invade Serbia in force.

The main battle began on August 15, when Austro-Hungarian forces met Serbian forces on the slopes of Cer Mountain, about 15 miles southwest of Šabac. After heavy losses on both sides, the Hapsburg forces began to fall back on August 16, and the following day the Serbs mounted an unsuccessful attack on Austro-Hungarian forces in Šabac. The Austrians in turn attempted to push the Serbs back on August 18, but this also failed as the Serbs brought up artillery and cavalry reinforcements. A series of skirmishes through the night culminated in a major victory on August 19, as the morale of the Hapsburg forces collapsed and they began to retreat in total disorder. By August 24, they had withdrawn from Serbia completely.

Meanwhile, the Austro-Hungarian chief of the general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, was alarmed by the rapid advance of Russian forces invading the empire’s northeastern province of Galicia (see map, below); he was also facing urgent requests from the German chief of the general staff, Moltke, to transfer more troops to the Russian front in order to take pressure off the German Eighth Army, guarding East Prussia against the advancing Russian First and Second Armies. Thus Conrad reluctantly put his plan to “punish” Serbia on hold and began transferring the Second Army from the Balkan front to Galicia.

Russians Invade East Prussia

Like the Austrians, the Germans were surprised by the speed with which the Russians were able to take the offensive: instead of six weeks, as expected, the first Russian forces crossed the border into East Prussia just two weeks after the beginning of mobilization. The Russians had rushed their forces into action before mobilization was complete, thus fulfilling their promise to France to attack within 15 days of mobilization, in the hopes of forcing the Germans to withdraw forces from the Western Front.

Two Russian armies, the First Army under Paul Rennenkampf and the Second Army under Alexander Samsonov, were supposed to converge on the German Eighth Army under Maximilian von Prittwitz, guarding the old Prussian capital of Königsberg as well as the bridges across the River Vistula. However Russian communications and logistics were extremely poor, and the armies were separated by East Prussia’s patchwork of lakes, which presented an additional obstacle to a coordinated attack; it probably didn’t help that Rennenkampf and Samsonov apparently despised each other.

On August 17, Rennenkampf’s First Army was held up briefly by a minor German victory at the Battle of Stallupönen, but this border skirmish had little effect beyond inflating the ego of the German corps commander, Hermann von François, who flagrantly disobeyed Prittwitz’s order to retreat (this would be a recurring theme wherever François was involved). The First Army continued to advance, and two days later the Samsonov’s Second Army crossed the German border to the south. The arms of the Russian pincer were closing, and the German Eighth Army was surrounded – or so it seemed.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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