In January 1919, in a dry riverbed north of Los Angeles, a cast of thousands gathered to re-create a contemporary horror. Based on a book published a year before by a teenage survivor of the Armenian massacres, Auction of Souls, alternatively known as Ravished Armenia, was one of the earliest Hollywood spectaculars, a new genre that married special effects and extravagant expense to overwhelm its audience. This one would be all the more immediate, all the more powerful, because it incorporated another new genre, the newsreel, popularized in the Great War that had ended only two months before. This film was, as they say, “based on a true story.” The Armenian massacres, begun in 1915, were still going on.
The dry sand bed of the San Fernando River near Newhall, California, turned out to be the “ideal” location, one trade paper said, to film “the ferocious Turks and Kurds” driving “the ragged army of Armenians with their bundles, and some of them dragging small children, over the stony roads and byways of the desert.” Thousands of Armenians participated in the filming, including survivors who had reached the United States.
For some of these extras, the filming, which included depictions of mob rapes, mass drownings, people forced to dig their own graves, and a sweeping panorama of women being crucified, proved too much. “Several women whose relatives had perished under the sword of the Turk,” the chronicler continued, “were overcome by the mimic spectacles of torture and infamy.”
The producer, he went on to note, “furnished a picnic luncheon.” Read More