It’s the World Cup, and I’ve been rediscovering silent football. The high decibel sound of the vuvuzelas that the South African crowds blow so enthusiastically and monotonically (B flat, to be precise) make the matches sound as though they are taking place inside a particularly angry wasps’ nest. To keep my sanity I experimented with watching games with the sound turned off and the subtitles on. It’s a curious experience, witnessing sport in silence, without commentary or crowd sounds. The game loses its drive – in fact it ceases to be a game and simply becomes a window on one of those strange ritualistic things that humans do to occupy themselves, a Martian’s view of sport.
All of which idle thoughts are introduction to a post on the time when football films were made silent, and what accompanied them was live music, intertitles, and any comments from the audience in the cinema. So here’s a short-ish history of association football and silent film.
Football game filmed by in London by Alexandre Promio around September 1897. One of the teams may be Woolwich Arsenal. No. 699 in the Lumière catalogue.
Filming football is almost as old as filming itself. So far as is known, the first film to be made of the game was a now lost one-minute production by Robert Paul, taken in Newcastle in October 1896. A contemporary description simply says “A football match at Newcastle-on-Tyne”, and we don’t even know who was playing who. The earliest surviving football film was taken by Lumière camera operator Alexandre Promio in London in late 1897. Simply entitled Football, it shows two teams (one of whom could possibly be Woolwich Arsenal, forerunner of Arsenal) bunched around a goal on a practice pitch. The players may all be crowded around the ball because Promio wanted to get as many people in shot as possible, so one should be wary of the film as depicting genuine action. We do see this in the next surviving film, Arthur Cheetham‘s record of a Blackburn Rovers-West Bromwich Albion game. 50ft (under a minute) of an original 250ft survives, with action from both halves taken from a single camera position behind one of the goals, so one only sees tiny figures engaged in some mysterious far-off struggle.
The earliest football films show us little that we can savour as sporting entertainment. Marginally longer films started to be made from 1899, the year that the F.A. Cup Final was filmed for the first time, by the Warwick Trading Company. The film is now lost, but the catalogue description indicates a move from the emblematic, single-shot efforts of Paul and Lumière to a documentary account presenting highlights from the game, which was played at Crystal Palace:
The Sheffield United and officials entering the field; Mid-field play; Sheffield obtains a corner, showing goal play, scrimmage and goal kick; Derby County’s only goal, showing other goal, enthusiasm of the vast audience, goal keeper busy; Players leaving the field.
This was the archetype for football films for the next decade. It was probably shot by a single pitch-side cameraman, who had four key elements to capture: the teams coming onto the field; scenes of lively action; the enthusiasm of the crowd; and goals. It was well nigh impossible for a single cameraman to achieve the latter (Sheffield won 4-1, so he missed four), not only because he was based at ground level (longer shots from the stands would not have worked owing to the limitations of lenses and filmstock) and because there was only one of him, but because there was a limit to how much film he could hold. Cameras held 75 to 500 feet at this time, and even with changes of reel there was only so much they could shoot because they would be under strict instructions not to waste too much film. When a film was going to be only 100 to 200 feet long on release (the 1899 FA Cup Final film was 350 feet) then shooting thousands of feet of film in a vain attempt to capture everything was a pointless waste of expensive celluloid. Early football films are the way they are because of technical limitations and common-sense economics.
Newcastle United v Liverpool, filmed by Mitchell & Kenyon, 23 November 1901 at St James’ Park, from the BFI YouTube channel
Mitchell & Kenyon
Roughly between 1900-1910 football films were the preserve of specialist operators from the north of England. The major London companies such as Gaumont, Urban and Warwick regularly made films of the cup final, but an extensive business grew up for companies which filmed local games for local consumption. There was Jasper Redfern, based in Yorkshire, who filmed both football matches and cricket games, but the major player by far was Norden Films, best known as Mitchell & Kenyon.
Mitchell & Kenyon films were shown in town halls, music halls and fairground shows. They were often commissioned by touring showmen taking a projector from town to town, who attracted audiences by showing films of local events, including sports. Such a business was very localised, inevitably, but the dedication to football meant that many teams were documented who would never have been covered by London-based film companies. The Mitchell & Kenyon collection at the BFI National Archive includes fifty-five football films made between 1901-1907, including such encounters as Salford v Batley (1901), Sheffield United v Bury (1902), Everton v Liverpool (1902) and Bradford City v Gainsborough Trinity (1903) (all links are to BFI YouTube videos). The films generally last three minutes or so, and feature the teams coming on, crowd shots (it was important to show as many faces as possible so people would come to the film show with the hope of seeing themselves – the films were often shown the same evening) and action mostly filmed from a mid-pitch position by a single cameraman.
Fascinating as these films are from a socio-historical point of view (crowd behaviour, grounds, dress, displays of advertising, male-dominated space etc.) it is very difficult to get a sense of the game. The limitations of the filming, with a paucity of shots giving little sense of continuous action, leaves one peering from the distance of both time and space, finding it hard to judge what is going on. The players have no shirt numbers, and it is difficult to sense the shape of the game. I’ve been reading Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics, and I had an idea of investigating these films for evidence of team formations, but it can’t be done. At this period the offside law stated that three defenders had to be between the leading attacker and the goal, and all teams more or less played in a 2-3-5 formation – that is, two in defence, and five in attack. Perhaps you can see this in the Mitchell & Kenyon films, but the shots are too few, and the action too indistinct, for anyone to derive any certain evidence. Camera shots from the stands which encompassed the complete action on the pitch would not be attempted until the 1920s. What one can sometimes see is the frantic pace and occasional roughness of play, the appalling state of the pitches, and incidental features which point to the influence of the cameras – notably players coming out onto the pitch single file, so that they could be picked out individually by fans watching the screen. (For more on the M&K football films, see Dave Russell’s essay in Vanessa Toulmin etc, The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon)
The newsreel era
The arrival of newsreels, around 1910, changed how football films were made and shown. The shift from peripatetic exhibition in halls and fairgrounds to cinemas led to a regularity of output which led to greater exposure for football films but also to concentration on films likely to attract the largest audiences. So league and minor cup games ceased to be filmed, and what became popular were major matches such as the later rounds of the F.A. Cup, the Cup Final itself, and some internationals. A number of films survive of Cup Finals from 1910-1914 at the BFI National Archive, including these (with links to the BFI catalogue):
1911 [Newcastle United v Bradford City]
Cup Final 1911 (Gaumont)
The F.A. Cup Final (Pathé)
The Greatest Football Game of 1911 (company not known)
The Cup Final – The Match Replayed at Manchester (Pathé)
1913 [Aston Villa v Sunderland]
The Cup Final (Barker)
1914 [Liverpool v Burnley]
Cup Tie Final: Liverpool v Burnley 1914 (Barker)
Newsreels were not restricted to Britain, of course, and as the game increasingly spread around the world, so newsreels started to pick up on games in the various countries where the sport had taken root. Information on these is scarce and scattered, with a handful of surviving examples held in archives around the world.
Unidentified 1927 German championship game, from ITN Source collection
Games between nations were infrequently filmed, presumably for logistical reasons. There were, in any case, few international matches at this time, and most of those were between the British home nations. The earliest such film appears to have been the England v Scotland match of 4 April 1904, filmed in Sheffield by Hepworth and Paul (Scotland won 2-1). The film doesn’t survive, but there are plenty of international games from the 1920s held in the BFI National Archive, British Pathe and ITN Source newsreel collections. Most of these are home internationals, but here are links to a few international games (as it were) which can be viewed online:
- France v Ireland (1921)
- A Berlin team v Corinthians (the first Anglo-German match since the war) (1925)
- Unidentified match beteen Moscow team and Paris team in Paris (1926)
- Unidentified match between American team and Vienna Jewish team (probably Hakoah Vienna) (1926)
- France v Ireland (1928)
Football outside of its borders did not really register with British audiences – certainly as far as the newsreels were concerned. If you wanted to see how the game was advancing internationally, you were better off looking to the Olympic Games.
Before the World Cup was instituted in 1930, the major international football contest was the Olympic Games. Football became a popular feature of Olympic films from 1912 onwards, and some of the surviving Olympic films from the silent period give us some of the best records of football from this period. As described in an earlier post, Pathé’s record of the 1912 Games in Stockholm devotes much attention to football, with Sweden v Holland and the all-conquering Great Britain team beating Denmark 4-2 in the final. In 1924, the Rapid-Film full-length documentary Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924 devotes an entire reel to the final between Uruguay and Switzerland, in which the South Americans demonstrate a dazzling level of technical skill readily apparent in the film record, even if the camera postioning limits our understanding of the game (a team of four or five was used, arranged at various points pitchside with just a couple of shots taken from the stands). The documentary film of the 1928 Games in Amsterdam does not include football (at least not in the version available on DVD), but Italian site Archivio Storico (produced by Istitutio Luce) includes severals newsreels from 1928, including Italy v France, Spain v Mexico, Portugal v Jugoslavia, and the Uruguay-Argentina final, won in a replay by Uruguay 2-1 after the first game ended 1-1 (to access these, tick the box marked ‘archivio cinematografico’ and enter the search term ‘calcio’).
Tottenham Hotspur’s Jimmy Dimmock scores the only goal against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Stamford Bridge in the 1921 F.A. Cup Final, filmed by the Topical Budget newsreel as Cup Final 1921 Greatest Event in Football History
Football in the 1920s
In the 1920s changes began to be made to how football was filmed, though the constraints of filmstock remained. Newsreel cameramen worked to tight rules over the amount of film they were allowed to expend on any subject. Generally they worked to a 2:1 ratio i.e. the cost-conscious editor allowed them to shoot say 100 feet in making what what would be released in the newsreel as a 50-foot item. For sports events, with their high degree of unpredictablity, the ratio might rise to 4 or 5:1, but it still meant that the operator had to concentrate on likely areas of activity (particularly the goalmouth), and obtaining film of goals was often a question of luck.
Things improved for the F.A. Cup Final, where the newsreel started to employ large camera teams, and the sharing of the load meant that camera operators could concentrate on the period when the ball was nearest to them. The Topical Budget newsreel employed nine cameramen to film the 1921 final, producing a 500-foot film (approx. six minutes), but more than the number of cameras there was the variety of angle and the understanding that a narrative needed to be created. As well as cameramen being arranged behind each goal and on either side of the pitch, there were cameras in the stands giving overviews – effectively master shots – which when intercut with the closer shots of action gave a far more visually and narratively satisfying account. The Bioscope noted this innovation in its report on Topical’s film of the 1922 final when it commented that the “essential features of the whole match” had been “very cleverly put together to form a continuous ‘story'”.
However, as I point out in my book on Topical Budget, sacrifices were made to achieve narrative. The 1921 final – Tottenham Hotspur beat Wolverhamption Wanderers 1-0 – was characterised by heavy rain in the first half, sunshine in the second. Close analysis of the film reveals that several sequences from the second half have been included in what is ostensbily the first. It is untruthful as far as a documentary record is concerned, but it tells a better story.
Despite the improvements in filming, one still cannot gain much of an idea about the use of tactics. The offside law was changed in 1925 to requiring just two defenders to be between the furthest attacker and the goal, which led to greater freedom for forwards but then a consequent change in formations as centre-halves dropped back into defence, eventually leading to the famous W-M shape introduced by Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman. It may be possible for some sharp-eyed analyst to work their way through the football films contained on the British Pathe site (there are around 250 available) and detect patterns, but to the average eye incoherence reigns. All one can say is that the game looks marginally less violent than it was in the 1900s, that the pitches were still terrible, and that goalmouth scrambles were commonplace.
Cup Finals were hugely important to the newsreels, but they also covered league games and the various rounds of the F.A. Cup, with games from around the country covered in different editions of the same issue according to local following. Such shorts reports were usually taken by a single cameraman, and were therefore necessarily rudimentary in form.
Pathé’s film of the 1922 Cup Final obscured by flags waved by the rights-holders Topical Budget, from www.britishpathe.com.
The rights to film the F.A. Cup final (and other major sporting events) were hotly contested by the newsreels. Topical Budget paid £1,000 for the exclusive rights to film the famous 1923 Cup Final, the first held at Wembley Stadium. However exclusive rights were no guarantee of exclusive coverage, as newsreel rivals sought to snatch illicit footage by smuggling cameras into the ground, such as the mini-sized, clockwork-driven Debrie Sept, which could be hidden in coat pockets. The practice was known as ‘pirating’. Pathé cameraman Jack Cotter famously disguised himself as a West Ham fan to get into the 1923 final, with his camera hidden within a fan’s giant ‘hammer’. The ruse was then gleefully revealed by Pathé in its film of the game, though the aerial shots it took of the stadium were delierately spoiled by Topical which took the trouble to have its name written in large letters across the roof of Wembley Stadium.
News photographer Bernard Grant writes about the knockabout japes of the newsreels at the 1922 Cup Final, held at Stamford Bridge between Huddersfield Town and Preston North End (Huddersfield won 1-0), in his book To the Four Corners (1933):
I saw the battle from the top floor of a high building overlooking the ground, from where I had hoped to obtain some photographs with a long-focus camera, but as I was sharing the position with the well-known film man, Frank Bassill, on this occasion a ‘pirate’ [for Pathé], I was handicapped by the efforts of the defenders [Topical Budget].
They used heliographs to deflect the sun’s rays into our lenses and let up a huge sausage balloon in front of our window, where they did their best to anchor it. This was only partly successful, however, for the clumsy thing swung about in the wind and left us clear at times. Also one of Bassill’s assistants managed to hide behind some chimney pots and work above it.
At the sound of the referee’s whistle starting the match there came a terrific noise of hammering and crashing at a point away to our left, and we saw the corrugated-iron roof of a building alongside the ground fly off in all directions.
A moment later there appeared, rising through the aperture, two heads which I recognised through my glasses as those of Tommy Scales and Leslie Wyand, pioneers in the production of movie news reels.
Steadily they rose higher and higher, turning their handles as they came, as the telescopic tower ladder upon which they stood was wound up by friends in the room below.
This happening brought into action the defenders’ large mobile ‘stand by’ force, members of which, armed with double-poled banners and flags, dashed off to meet the attack…
And so it went on. There was much money at stake, hence the battles. The money wasn’t made by the Final films themselves, which were loss leaders, but by the longer-term bookings that could be gained on the back of them for the newsreel that looked stronger than the competition. Ironically, in view of the battle Grant reports, Topical’s official account of the 1922 Final is a lost film, but Pathé’s pirated film can be viewed at www.britishpathe.com, though the poverty of the footage, with most of the action in long shot or filmed through the heads of the crowd, shows all the disadvantages of having to be the pirates. In 1924 the newsreels acted together for once and protested jointly to the Football Association at the cost of the rights to film the final and submitted a joint bid of £400. It was turned down. Consequently no film exists of the F.A. Cup Final of 1924.
There were a number of fiction films about football in the silent era. A wonderful early effort (650 feet) is the Hepworth Manufacturing Company’s bracing Harry the Footballer (1911), in which our hero (Hay Plumb) is kidnapped just before the big game only to be rescued by his girl-friend (Gladys Sylvani) just in time to score the goal that winds the game. Maurice Elvey’s The Cup Final Mystery (1914), a lost film, had much the same plot, now spread over 2,600 feet. Also lost, and with the same plot, same length, and in the same year is A Footballer’s Honour, made by Lewin Fitzhamon for Britannia Films. There were also several comic films made in France, Italy and Germany in which someone’s obsession with football leads to chaotic results. Pathé’s Football en Famille (1910), in which a family destroys its house through its enthusiasm for the game, is a particularly manic example.
By the 1920s, a handful soccer-themed feature films were made. Britain produced The Winning Goal (1920, now lost) and The Ball of Fortune (1926), the latter starring the legendary Billy Meredith of Manchester City and Wales (a trailer survives); Germany produced Die elf Teufel (The Eleven Devils) (1927) and König der Mittelstürmer (King of the Centre Forwards) (1927), both now available on DVD from Edition Filmmuseum.
Footballers in Training – Newcastle United, undated 1920s film showing Newcastle players in training, available to view at www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=82773.
Other kinds of football films
Not all silent era football films were records of matches. There were training films, promotional films, even silent ‘interview’ films which showed star players relaxing. There was women’s football (very popular in the early 1920s and meriting a separate post one day), street football, public schools’ football, charity football games, and newsreel stories on star players and teams just for their own sake. Silent films didn’t manage the art of filming football too well, but they covered the game extensively because it brought in the crowds. It shows how the cinema was understood as a home for entertainments beyond the stories than the film industries produced. It was the popular theatre.
Footage of the first World Cup, held in Uruguay in 1930, with clips of the stadium, participating teams, and the final which Uruguay won 4-2 against Argentina. The titles are an obvious later addition, as are the unfortunate lapses into colourisation (though this does at least let you identify Uruguay, in the light blue shirts.
The first World Cup was filmed in Uruguay in 1930. Film exists of the tournament, which was shot silent, but my knowledge of Uruguayan film is not what it might be, and besides this post has gone on long enough. You can find the clips on YouTube, or see the short clips on the FIFA site. I’m returning to the World Cup 2010. Having sound does help, as does not knowing how it’s all going to turn out (remember, everyone who saw a film in the cinema already knew the result), and I’m even getting used to the vuvuzelas. Bring on Slovenia…