The show goes on

Among all the hurdles that the valiant British Silent Film Festival has had to face over the past thirteen years as it has fought to keep going, one that its organisers cannot have imagined would ever be a problem is volcanoes. Quite a few millennia have passed since Leicester was last troubled by volanic eruptions, but perhaps it was appropriate that The Lost World was screened at the festival to remind us of climactic conditions when dinosaurs last ruled the earth.

So yes, the cloud of volanic ash currently spreading itself over Europe and taking us all back to a pre-aeroplane age of clear skies, parochial occupations and holidays at home affected the British Silent Film Festival too. Phil Carli, who flew over from America to play piano ended up stranded in Dublin, and a group of Norwegians intending to present a specially prepared programme of polar films remained firmly in Norway, while the films themselves were uploaded then downloaded to the festival overnight in a process that took several hours. So somehow the show went on, and many congratulations to those who fought to ensure that it did. The theme of the festival was exploration, science and nature, and it took a spirit of adventure and some science to overcome what nature decided to throw at us.

British Silent Film Festival audience settling down to witness With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia

I was only there for the one day, and the event continues until tomorrow, so this isn’t a festival report. I will just note the two main presentations on the Friday, for the record (and if anyone wants to add their impressions of the rest of the festival to the comments, please do). First was the work-in-progress show devised and presented by Neil Brand and myself, a partial recreation of With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia. This was the title of a multimedia show presented by the American journalist Lowell Thomas over 1919-1920 (described in detail in an earlier post) which brought ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to popular attention.

Thomas’ original show was a mixture of music, photographic slides (many of them coloured) and film clips. We used our edited version of an original script held by Marist College Archives in the USA, original images taken by Thomas’ photographer Harry Chase from the collections of Marist and the Imperial War Museum, and a few clips from Chase’s films – showing Arab forces, T.E. Lawrence himself with Emir Feisal and Lowell Thomas, an scenes of motorised transport in the Arab army camp – also from the IWM. Neil read out Thomas’ original words in an easy-going American accent intended to emulate Thomas’ own delivery, while I introduced and manned the laptop, as the whole show was delivered by that magic lantern de nos jours, PowerPoint.

Did it work? I hope so. It was a 40-minute extract from what was originally a two-hour show, and it was presented in a rough-and-ready low-res manner because it was done in a huge hurry and on a budget of nil – thanks to the kind co-operation of Marist and the IWM. There seem to be two lessons to be drawn here. One is the importance of Thomas’ show in building up the Lawrence legend. All the Lawrence biographies acknowledge the importance of With Allenby in Palestine and Larence in Arabia in creating popular enthusiasm for Lawrence and the Arab revolt. But the chance to experience this key work has never been there before, as its component parts lay scattered. A full-scale restoration of the show would seem to be a more than worthwhile exercise, though some sort of balance in the presentation needs to be struck between the show as it actually was and the need for contextualisation, since much of what Thomas told was factually dubious or least over-romanticised.

The second lesson of the show is to realise the importance of the multimedia show at that time. There were numerous other examples of shows which combined live presenter with film, still images and music, in a form that we might now describe as televisual. The Victorian tradition of the lecturer with his magic lantern carried on long into the silent era, with films simply being added to the mix. Adventurers, propagandists and entertainers could combine multimedia with their own personal charisma to create complex entertainments whose importance as popular entertainments is not always fully recognised. Film archives restore films, other archives collect photographs or documents, but ‘restoration’ seldom entails bringing all these elements together. At the festival we saw the films of Roald Amundsen (covered below), which were originally part of a lecture show that combined these with photographs and Amundsen himself as presenter. Herbert Ponting, Scott’s photographer, did likewise, and Ernest Shackleton was inspired by Lowell Thomas’ example to lecture himself to the films and photographs taken of his 1914-16 Antarctic expedition taken by Frank Hurley. Thomas and Harry Chase went on to produce ‘travelogues’ of India and Afghanistan. The Shackleton expedition film South (1919) was shown during the festival, but were Shackleton’s lecture script ever to turn up there would be a strong imperative for a new kind of restoration, once which combined film, images and someone able to project Shackleton’s commanding personality as presenter, proud of his achievements yet night after night forced to lecture to audiences before images of his expedition’s failure – all so he might recover the expedition’s costs.

An extract from A Dash to the North Pole (1909), a Charles Urban production showing footage taken 1903-04 by Anthony Fiala of the Ziegler North Pole expedition, re-released in 1909 to capitalise on the polar fever of 1909 when Robery Peary supposedly reached the North Pole and Shackleton came within 112 miles of the South Pole

All of which leads us to the other main event of the day, The Race to the Pole – a programme of Arctic and Antarctic film from the so-called heroic age of polar exploration, which was to have been presented by Jan-Anders Diesen from University of Lillehammer in Norway, but thanks to the Eyjafjallajoekull eruption (remember that name) was presented by Festival organiser Bryony Dixon instead. Happily Bryony knows quite a bit about polar film, having overseen the restoration of Herbert Ponting’s The Great White South (1924), due to be premiered at this year’s London Film Festival, and it was a relaxed, assured and informative presentation in trying circumstances.

The Bioscope has been contemplating a series of posts on polar exploration films for some while now, and I won’t go into detail about the films now, but we did see sequences from Anthony Fiala’s expedition to the Arctic of 1903-04 (illustrated above), the Wellman polar expedition of 1906 (sadly without seeing the balloon with which Wellman hoped – and failed – to make it to the North Pole), a sneak preview of the BFI’s restoration of the Scott/Ponting film with quite astonishing colour tinting and toning likely to cause a sensation when it gets unveiled in full in November, and film of Shackleton’s funeral on South Georgia from the expedition film Southwards on the Quest (1922), an expedition sadly curtailed by its leader’s death by heart attack on the journey out.

But the highlight was the sixteen minutes of film taken of Roald Amundsen’s successful Norwegian expedition to the South Pole – the man who won the race. Few know that Amundsen took a cinematograph with him. It was operated by Kristian Prestrud, and the films show Amundsen’s ship the Fram, life on board and at the Framheim base camp, whales and penguins, and some singularly evocative shots of dog teams leading their sledges and drivers away into the distance. As said, the films were presented to audiences (in Britain and Norway) in the form of a lecture show, intercut with photographs and Amundsen’s own commentary. It would have been the next best thing to being there – and considerably warmer.

The show goes on today and tomorrow, and hopefully next year and many years after that. Congratulations to all on keeping things going despite acts of God and man, finding a space not only for British silents but increasingly for other silents from around the world, and with a commendable emphasis on imaginative presentation and unearthing less obvious material. Long may it continue.