King Edward VII meeting the aviators Orville and Wilbur Wright at Pau in France, Tyler’s Topical Slides series 11 (March 1909), from the LUCERNA database
A while ago we told you about the LUCERNA database, a directory of information on the magic lantern and home to digitised copies of lantern slides held in public and private collections. The site – a joint project by Universität Trier, Screen Archive South East, the Magic Lantern Society, UK; and Indiana University, but chiefly a labour of love by media historian Richard Crangle – demonstrates the range and depth of the magic lantern, not only in terms of subjects covered (fictional and non-fictional) but in the period of time it covers. The magic lantern continued well into the twentieth century (one of the leading British film trade papers was known as the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly up to 1919) and arguably has never gone away, going through such incarnations as the slide carousel for family photos of a couple of generations ago through to the PowerPoint presentations of today.
New slides continue to be added to the site, and recently a set was added which is of huge interest to this enthusiast for historical news media, because it provides evidence of something I had felt certain had to have existed somewhere but had never seen, a sort of missing link between news photography and newsreels – the topical lantern slide.
Tyler’s Topical Slides, series 5, showing the visit of Basuto Chiefs to London in February 1909, where they were challenging the decision of the British government to include their land Lesotho within the Union of South Africa
The collection is Tyler’s Topical Slides, a set of lantern slides reporting on current events put out by Walter Tyler, a renowed lantern manufacturer whose business subsequently (after his death in 1909) diversified into motion picture equipment and film distribution as the Tyler Film Company. There are some 370 slides, arranged in 40 sets that date 1909-10. Each set is numbered, the highest number being series no. 87, from which it can be extraopolated that the slides were issued weekly. The number of slides ranges from 1 to 20 per set, but that is a reflection of what survives. Each slides has a photograph, supplied by the Topical Press Agency, a well-known photograph agency of the period (no connection with the Topical Film Company, which produced the Topical Budget newsreel). Each has a one-line caption describing the story. They would have been shown in sequence, long enough for an audience to take in the news item before the next slide would follow. They are exactly like newsreels – before there were newsreels.
The first newsreel in Britain, Pathé’s Animated Gazette, was first issued in June 1910. Newsreels had existed earlier in France, and of course films of news events were as old as film itself, but a newsreel as a collection of topical news stories gathered on a single reel was something new. What has been understood until now is that the inspiration for newsreels was photo-illustrated newspapers (such as The Daily Mirror and The Daily Sketch) which were interested in the visual impact of stories (other newspapers, such as The Times, did not carry photographs until some years later). What was not known, at least by me, was that there was another, direct precursor, the news or topical slide.
Tyler’s Topical Slides appear to have been issued from January 1909 – so a year and a half before the first newsreel was shown in Britain. They ran until at least September 1910, when the growing popularity of newsreels probably rendered them unviable commercially. We don’t know for certain, but it seems highly like that the slides were shown in cinemas, as well as variety theatres and town halls putting on mixed public entertainments (including films). In subject matter, style and adress, the topical slides are effectively identical to the first newsreels, which would open with a title and simple description of the action, followed by 30 seconds or so of film (withour further intertitles cut into the film), followed then by the next news story.
Tyler’s Topical Slides, series 11, showing Lieutenant Shackleton’s ship The Nimrod (Shackleton’s party arrived in New Zealand following their failed attempt to reach the South Pole on 23 March 1909 – this is therefore a photograph of the Nimrod before it sailed south)
The subject matter is the same as well – the popular news stories of the day, with an emphasis on personalities, especially royalty, sport, tradition and diverting incidents of the day, light-heartedly expressed with little overt political comment. In audience impact the slides would have worked in the same way as newsreels, because newsreels depended on the audience’s prior knowledge of the news story. They would have read about these topical subjects in their daily newspapers – now the weekly topical slides, or the weekly newsreel (newsreels started out weekly in the UK before becoming bi-weekly), showed them the pictures to supplement what they already knew, what had become common knowledge. The pictures completed the picture.
Winston Churchill (when President of the Board of Trade) as featured in Tyler’s Topical Slides, series 9 (February 1909)
How widely were such news or topical slides shown? Did any other company produce them apart from Tyler? It would be important to know, because either we are looking at a one-off freakish anticipation of the newsreel, or it is evidence of a significant news medium not hitherto written about in news media histories (to the best of my knowledge). The importance could lie not just in the ‘missing link’, but because it would be supporting evidence for the thesis that with the rise of the different news media at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries came a vital element of what makes up the news – consumer choice. The news does not exist in any one medium. It lies in the mind of each and everyone one of us who goes out looking for news, and finds it relayed through a variety of media, from which we pick and choose what we understand the news to be. It’s a part of what it is to be modern. Tyler’s Topical Slides show that the choice on offer in 1909-10 was that much greater than previously thought.
Tyler’s Topical Slides can be found on the LUCERNA database, simply by typing in “tyler” into the search box, then by ticking the box marked “show” next to the text that reads “88 sets with title containing ‘tyler’”. Being in series order they are in chronological order, and it would not take too much research to identify dates for many of the events depicted, and from that to extrapolate on what day of the week the series was released (assuming it was always the same day of the week) and what gap there was being an event occuring and Tyler being able to include this on the slides that it distributed.
How did such a business work when news subjects go so rapidly out of date? How extensive would the distribution have to have been to make it economical? How did distribution work, and how widespread was it? So many questions worth researching.
If anyone knows of any other examples of topical lantern slides which were released in series form, please do get in touch. There’s more to be found out – there has to be.
Harold Abrahams winning the 100 metres, frame still from Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924
A month from now the London Olympic Games will begin. For two weeks hundreds of cameras will be trained on the athletes, images of whom will be beamed out to billions. The host broadcaster, the BBC, will provide over 2,500 hours of live coverage. Olympic Games footage will be receivable on TV sets, PCs, smart TVs, smart phones, on large screens in public spaces, and in 3D. The Olympic Games exists for our screens.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates the ubiquity, power and global shared experience that the motion picture has grown to represent from its simple beginnings in 1896 than that concentrated period, every four years, when it covers the Olympic Games, a phenomenon which likewise traces its (modern) roots to 1896. Four years ago the Bioscope produced a survey of the roots of Olympic moving image production, from the earliest years to 1928. We are reproducing that post, with revisions and new information, including recently discovered films, as our way of marking the forthcoming Games.
The modern Olympic Games and motion pictures share a common heritage, beyond that shared birthdate of 1896 (motion pictures existed before 1896, of course, but 1896 was when they first made their real impact upon the world). The two phenomena grew up together, in sophistication, intention and global reach. To view the films of the early Olympic Games is to witness the growth of the medium in how it captured action and form, from analysis, to (relatively) passive witness, to a medium that shaped athletic events to its own design. We see a transition from a formality bred of militaristic roots to entertainment, art and a focus on the individual. The survey that follows summarises the history of the Olympic Games on film throughout the silent era, that is, to 1928.
No one filmed the first Olympic Games of the modern era. The Games, which were held in Athens 6-15 April and attracted 241 athletes from fourteen nations, enjoyed some notice around the world, probably appealing as much to classicists as to athletes, but the motion picture industry was in its infancy and not as yet geared up to reporting on world news. Motion pictures had not yet reached Greece, America would only awake to motion pictures on a screen on 23 April, with the debut of the Edison Vitascope, and the Lumière brothers – really the only possible candidates – did not think to send one of their operators to Athens. Occasionally on television you will see film purporting to show the Games of 1896. Such scenes are false – in most cases, you are being shown images from 1906.
The 1900 Games were something of a disaster after the modest triumph of Athens. Organised to run alongside the great Paris Exhibition of 1900, the Games were barely recognised as such, being so chaotically organised and poorly promoted that many of the athletes who did take part in the events (which stretched from May-October 1900) were unaware that they had taken part in the Olympics. It is no surprise, therefore, than no standard films were made of Paris Games (several films of the Paris exhibition survive, but none show the athletic contests).
However, fleeting cinematographic records do exist. The Institut Marey, the scientific institute led by Etienne-Jules Marey, who had developed the art and science of chronophotography (sequence photography undertaken for the purposes of analysing motion), decided to record some of the visiting American athletes, to compare their methods with those of French athletes. Alvin Kraenzlein (winner of gold medals for long jump, 60 metres race, 110 metre hurdles and 200 metre hurdles), Richard Sheldon (illustrated, gold medal winner in the shot put), and the legendary Ray Ewry (exponent of the now discontinued events of standing high jump, long jump and triple jump) were among those recorded. The ‘films’ are a few frames long, lasting less than a second each, yet they were enough to demonstrate the superiority of the dynamic attack of the American technique over the correct military bearing of the equivalent French athletes. These fleeting images survive today – there are examples in the National Media Museum – and illustrations from them can be found in the official report on the Games.
St Louis, 1904
Paris was a disaster for the nascent Olympic movement, but St Louis was worse. Again, they went for the convenience of being part of a general Exposition, and again the Olympic events were mismanaged from start to finish, with little sense of a Games with a distinct identity, and the distant location putting off many athletes not hailing from America. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, were any films taken on the Games – certainly I’ve found no evidence from catalogues of the period of any such film being taken.
The 1906 unoffical Games were held at the same stadium in Athens as 1906. The above photograph (with close-up) shows a motion picture cameraman (possibly operating a Bioscope camera) filming the high jump. Image courtesy of http://www.sportsantiques.com
The intercalary Games of 1906 did not occur during an official Olympiad (i.e. the four-yearly period that marks when the Olympic Games are held), but this intermediary contest, designed partly as a sop to the Greeks who were disappointed that the Games were not being held permanently in Athens, was a relative success and did much to get the idea of the Olympics back on track. It also attracted the film companies. Gaumont and Pathé from France, the Warwick Trading Company from Britain, and Burton Holmes of America all made short films of the Games (we are long way yet from feature-length documentaries). Three one-reel films survive. Gaumont’s coverage held by the BFI concentrates on the opening ceremonies and gymnastic displays; recently discovered Pathé footage uncovered as part the Corrick Collection in Australia includes the opening and closing ceremonies, tug o’ war, hurdling, cycling, gymnastics), and medals ceremonies; the brief unidentified footage, also held by the BFI, shows the standing high jump.
Dorando Pietri finishing the 1908 Marathon (still photograph)
The Games started to come of age in London in 1908. Although they were again held in tandem with an exhibition, in this case the Franco-British Exhibition, for which the famous White City and associated stadium were built, this time the Games were welcomed by the organisers. The result was a popular success and a qualified triumph for sport – the qualification being necessary because the Games were marred by some bitter rivalry between America and Britain, geo-political tensions being played out on the athletics track not for the last time.
The Games were filmed by Pathé, in what seems to have been a semi-exclusive deal. The Charles Urban Trading Company filmed events outside the stadium, including the Marathon, but within the stadium it was Pathé alone, an indication of arrangements to come. Around ten minutes survive, a selection of which can be found on the British Pathe site, while the same footage is also held by the BFI. Basic coverage is given to the pole vault, high jump, tug o’ war, discus, water polo and women’s archery, though no names are given for athletes. But what distinguishes the 1908 coverage is the Marathon. Around half of the extant film of the Games is devoted to the race, concentrating on the Italian Dorando Pietri, who staggered over the line first, only to be disqualified because he had received help after he collapsed in the stadium within sight of the finishing line (something the film makes quite clear). For the first time on film we thrill at the sight of Olympic endeavour.
Montage of clips from the 1912 Stockholm Games, from the IOC’s YouTube channel
The Stockholm Games of 1912 were the most successful yet. Twenty-eight nations, 2,407 athletes (just forty-eight of them women), a triumph of organisation, and an event followed more eagerly around the world than ever before. Responsibility for filming the Games went to the A.B. Svensk –Amerikanska Film Kompaniet, which commissioned Pathé exclusively – apparently without controversy – to film a series of short newsfilms. All this footage survives in the archives of Sveriges Television. Now, at last, the athletes are named, and we get a sense of competition and achievement. In the first of two reels covering the Games held in the BFI National Archive, we see the inevitable gymnastic display, first by Scandinavian women’s team (for display purposes alone – women’s competitive Olympic gymnastics only began in 1928) followed by men’s team and individual gymnastics; the Swedish javelin thrower Eric Lemming, winner with the world’s first 60 metre throw; fencing, shot put, the 10,000 metres walk and the shot put, won by Harry Babcock of the USA. The second reel features men’s doubles tennis, the soccer tournament (Great Britain – not England – beating Denmark 4-2 in the final), Graeco-Roman wrestling, hammer throwing, the standing high jump, and the Marathon, run on an exhaustingly hot day that caused half the runners to retire. Filmed in engrossing detail, the drama of the Marathon is built up well, the tension in the sporting endeavour pushing forward the form of the film attempting to encapsulate it. The race was won by Kenneth McArthur of South Africa.
America’s Duke Kahanamoku, who later enjoyed a film career, winning the 100 metres freestyle at the 1920 Antwerp Games, from the IOC’s YouTube channel
The Sixth Olympiad was to have been held in Berlin in 1916. Those Games were, unsurprisingly, cancelled, though film exists of German athletes training for the Games. After the war, the Games were awarded to Belgium, which perhaps was not entirely ready for the compliment after all it had been through, and the 1920 Games were hastily and cheaply organised. Despite this, the growing world interest in athletic competition had continued to grow, and there were several notable athletes who made their mark on Olympic history, including the ‘Flying Finn’ Paavo Nurmi, America’s Charley Paddock winning the 100 metres, and France’s Suzanne Lenglen at the start of gaining worldwide fame as a tennis player. There is a tantalising suggestion in a New York Times article (28 Nov 1923) that an exclusive filming concession was organised for Antwerp, only to be overthrown before the Games because of protests from other film producers, but I have not been able to find confirmation of this nor discover which company was to have had the exclusive. But it is indication of growing American interest in the Games, and consequently increasing interest from the American media. Sadly, relatively few newsreels survive to show just some of the sporting events.
And then we come to 1924. The second Paris Games have become familiar to many through their recreation in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. There is a particular thrill in seeing the two British athletes whose fortunes are covered by the Oscar-winning film, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, turning up for real in such detail. This was the first Games to be covered in depth on film. The exclusive rights were granted to Rapid-Film of France. As reported for 1920, there was controversy over a single company being granted exclusive filming rights, with the Americans being particularly aggrieved, to the extent that their rugby team threatened to withdraw from its match with the French unless they were permitted to film it. The concession was granted (the USA amazingly won the match), but the episode highlighted the organising committee’s anxious search for additional revenue by selling exclusive rights, and the outrage this caused for those who believed the Games should not be anyone’s exclusive.
Though it could be conceived of as a single work, Rapid-Film’s Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924 was released in three parts in France (recreation of the Ancient Games, Summer, and the Winter Games held in Chamonix), and in the UK as a series of two-reelers dedicated to different sports. It was recently restored by the International Olympic Committee’s archives in its full length form, a daunting three-and-a-half hours long. There is too much about it that is drably routine, but individual events are never less than efficiently portrayed and occasionally marvellously so. Particularly thrilling is the football, where the Uruguyan gold medal winners demonstrate a level of tehnical accomplishment light years ahead of the sturdy endeavours of the European teams. The 100 metres, won by Abrahams, is a highlight, with choice details such as the athletes digging holes in the track for their heels. Slow motion is used artfully (particularly for the 3,000 metres steeplechase). The Marathon is a tour de force, a real drama in itself, with such carefully observed details as the anxious look of officials at the drinks stations (and how delightful in itself that the French served wine as well as water).
Star athletes on show include Nurmi, his great Finnish rival Ville Ritola, the Americans Jackson Scholz (sprinter) and Helen Wills (tennis player), but disappointingly all we see of the future Tarzan Johnny Weismuller is his submerged figure in long shot as he raced to fame as a swimmer. Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924 (produced by Jean de Rovera) is no film masterpiece, but as a sporting record, it captures greatness.
Amsterdam + St Moritz, 1928
The flying Finns Paavo Nurmi and Ville Ritola in the 5,000 metres (won by Ritola). The clip shows the 1928 film’s distinctive use of onscreen titles. From the IOC’s YouTube channel.
The last Olympic Games of the silent film era were held in Amsterdam (summer) and St Moritz (winter) in 1928. The Games were by now thoroughly established as an event of worldwide significance. The idea of a film dedicated to the Games had also been established, though the problems that beset the 1928 film of the summer Games, Olympische Spelen, were such that it was barely seen, and it remains little known. The history is complicated, but essentially in 1927 the Dutch Olympic Committee approached a federation of Dutch film businesses to manage the filming of the Games. Negotiations fell down over financial considerations – and because the Dutch commitee was, at the same time, negotiating with foreign film companies. A German company, Olympia-Film Ag, was originally awarded the contract, but heated objections were raised, OFA withdrew for financial reasons, and the committee ended up doing a deal with the Italian company Istituto Luce. For the first time a director was chosen with an ‘arthouse’ pedigree (Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia of 1936 was neither the first Olympic film nor the first with a notable director, as some histories would have us believe). The director was the German Wilhem Prager, who had enjoyed notable success with the 1925 kulturfilme sports documentary Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (Ways to Strength and Beauty), in which Riefenstahl takes a fleeting acting role.
Prager’s film (preserved in the EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands) is no more than efficient, though it does have some innovations such as having the names of athletes in some distance races appear as captions alongside them as they run. The film shows us Nurmi and Ritola once more; Boughera El Ouafi, the Algerian-born (but running for France) winner of the Marathon; the ebullient Lord Burghley (played by Nigel Havers in Chariots of Fire) winning the 200 metre hurdles; and Japan’s triple jumper Mikio Oda, the first Asian athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. But alas, owing to the considerable mishandling of the whole affair by the local Olympic Committee, Dutch exhibitors boycotted the official film, and hardly anyone saw it.
Advertisement for Das Weisse Stadion
There was also a feature-length film made of the 1928 Winter Olympics at St Mortiz, Das Weisse Stadion. Directed by Dr Arnold Fanck (the man who discovered Leni Riefenstahl as a film actress) and Othmar Gurtner, it was made by the same Olympia-Film as was scheduled to film the summer Games (the commercial failure of the film led OFA to break its contract to film in Amsterdam), and edited by the great Walter Ruttmann. Until recently it was considered a lost film, but happily a print was just recently discovered and will be screened this August at the Bonner Sommerkino silent film festival in Bonn, Germany. Reports indicate that it is a beautifully shot film whose rediscovery greatly enriches our Olympic film heritage.
Charley Paddock tells us why sporting celebrities often flop when it comes to films, from Photoplay, August 1928
Finally, to complete the history, note must be made of those Olympic athletes of the silent era who went on to appear in fiction films once their fame had been established through sporting endeavour. Johnny Weissmuller, star of the 1924 and 1928 Games, of course went on to eternal fame as Tarzan. The American sprinting hero of 1920 and 1924, Charley Paddock, starred in Nine and Three-Fifths Seconds (1925), The Campus Flirt (1926), The College Hero (1927), High School Hero (1927), and (guess what) The Olympic Hero (1928). The Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku was in five American Olympic teams between 1912 and 1932, but could also be seen swimming and acting in Adventure (1925), Lord Jim (1925), Old Ironsides (1926), Woman Wise (1928) and The Rescue (1929). Buster Crabbe, like Weissmuller a swimming champion in 1928, went on to become Flash Gordon, while Herman Brix (shot put silver in 1928) went on to become Tarzan and as Bruce Bennett starred in many films, including Treasure of the Sierre Madre. Jim Thorpe, for some the greatest Olympic athlete of them all, who won the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912 only to have his medals stripped from him when it was discovered he had earned money playing minor league baseball, played bit parts in numerous Westerns in the 1930s and was portrayed by Burt Lancaster in Jim Thorpe -All-American (1951).
The best general book on the Olympic Games, by several miles, is David Wallechinsky and Janine Loukey’s regularly updated and republished The Complete Book of the Olympics, a sport-by-sport historical survey which also includes (if you look hard) information on the film careers of some Olympic athletes.
The easiest place to see some of the films is via the International Olympic Committee. Under the Olympic Games section of its official site there is a mini-history of each Games from 1896 (excluding 1906), and in each of these sub-sections at the bottom of the page there is a Photo Gallery which also contains some video clips. Most of the same clips can be found on the IOC’s YouTube channel. Regrettably there is some truly foul background music.
Information on the Olympic Games generally is all over the place, of course, but for the researcher particular attention should be drawn to the LA84 Foundation site, an astonishingly rich resource originally create to commemorate the 1984 Los Angeles Games but now providing free access to a vast range of digitised historical documents on all of the modern Games (including, for examples, the official reports).
And finally, to bring things up-to-date, a film that we’ve already featured on the Bioscope but which it seems appropriate to publish again here. It’s called Boy, it was sponsored by British Airways as part of its Great Britons initiative for the 2012 Olympic Games, and it is a modern silent film, of some poignancy.
(And yes I’ll be there. Athletics, handball, football and table tennis, since you ask)
My grateful thanks to Guido Convents, Carleton Hendricks, Robert Jacquier and Adrian Wood for help in writing this post.
The Warwick Trading Company’s Joseph Rosenthal, with his Bioscope camera, at the time of the Anglo-Boer War
The latest addition to the Bioscope Library is a dissertation whose publication online is the most considerable, and perhaps the most significant, work yet from one of most important – though overlooked – writers on early cinema. Dr Stephen Bottomore’s dissertation Filming, faking and propaganda: The origins of the war film, 1897-1902 (2007) has been published online as a PDF by the University of Utrecht. Here is the abstract, describing its theme and intent:
In this thesis I present the first detailed treatment of war and early cinema, describing the representation of conflicts in film from the Greco-Turkish War of 1897 through the Spanish-American War, Boer War, and others up to about 1902. I show that in attempting to cover these events, early filmmakers faced a difficult task, for warfare at the end of the nineteenth century was changing, relying more on defence and concealment and less on highly visible offensives; there was also increasing regulation and censorship of reporting. With the new tactics making battle less visible, and with increasing official controls, how could wars be represented on film? Surprisingly, in just half a decade, filmmakers found ways to cope, by developing new ‘genres’ of films such as acted fakes, and new exhibition strategies, and in these ways managed to present wars to the public of the time fairly effectively.
This is a prodigious work. It runs to 565 pages, reaching to almost 300,000 words, suggesting that the University of Utrecht is fairly relaxed when it comes to word limits. Histories of the rise and fall of major civilizations have been written using fewer words, and Bottomore’s subject is not simply filming war, but restricts itself to only the very first films of war, and then only up to 1902, not daring to contemplate tackling the later Russo-Japanese War, Balkan Wars or the First World War. Instead what might have been a mere footnote in other histories expands into a major study of the impact of a new medium at a time when warfare itself was changing. It is a triumphant assertion of the footnote as the stuff of empirical history.
Indeed there are an amazing 1,804 footnotes, many of them not simply bibliographic citations but instead an overflowing of ideas with indications of avenues of great interest down which others might profitably travel. The sheer breadth of the references is awe-inspiring. Bottomore is an internationalist, whose work as a researcher and filmmaker has taken him to many countries, each of whose archives and libraries he has scoured and scoured again, putting to shame all of us who might think that a few trips to the British Library or the Library of Congress count as exhaustive research.
So, does the theme match the endeavour? Bottomore is interested in getting to the truth of how and why the first films of war were produced, and through this to demonstrate the richness of the early cinema period as a subject for study. At the time when motion pictures arrived and started to find their way in the world, the age of empires was coming to an end, with a host of conflicts that each in their way pointed to the great conflagration that was to be the First World War. Bottomore covers the Greco-Turkish War (1897), the Battle of Omdurman (1898), the Spanish American War (1898), the Philippine War (1899-1902), the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), and the Boxer Rebellion (1900). None of these was documented on film in the way that we might now expect. The technology was too limited – short film length, limited lenses, immobile cameras etc. – military censorship limited what could be filmed, audience expectations and sensitivies provided further constraints, as did the plain economic considerations of production in lands often far from the homes of film production in Europe and America.
Bottomore usefully defines the different types of early war film, showing how filmmakers adopted different strategies for documenting conflict – strategies which to a large extent exist still, even if moving image technologies have moved on vastly since 1897-1902. He identifies two main types of films: actuality and staged, then subdivides them as follows (paraphrased from pp. xxvi-xxvii):
A. Actuality war film: a film of real people and events, shot at an actual war-related location, i.e. a non-fiction recording of reality (not with actors, nor filmed in substitute locations nor a studio).
1) Conflict-zone actuality: a film shot in the conflict zone showing military activity.
2) Arranged actuality: a film shot in the conflict zone with genuine troops, but in which the action has been ‘set-up’ to be filmed.
3) War-related actuality: a film which, while not shot in the conflict zone at the time of war, is somehow related to the war and shows military activity.
B. Staged war film: a film about the conflict, shot with actors or scale-models away from the war zone.
1) Fake war film: a staged film which re-enacts an incident or event from the current conflict, and was not made at the real location nor with the real participants.
2) Staged allegorical war film: this type, rather than reproducing specific military incidents, portrays wider allegorical or emblematic themes.
3) Dramatised film about the conflict: a film made during or soon after the conflict which is more elaborate than a mere re-enacted battlefield incident.
There are qualifications and sub-classifications that Bottomore adds to this taxonomy, but the essential categories are useful enough. The early cinema approached the documenting of conflict in different ways, variously determined by technology, taste, opportunity, prior example (including ‘pre-cinema’ image technology such as the magic lantern), economics and censorship. One does not simply film war – one makes a significant choice in how the war should be filmed, and how such films should be shown. Audience understanding of what it was being shown – in particular the issue of so-called ‘fake’ films which recreated war scenes away from the battlefield in a form that would appeal to audience expectations of what should look like – therefore becomes crucial to understanding what these first war films were.
The difference between war imagined and war in reality is key to the argument. Motion pictures arrived at a point when war itself was changing. The era of hand-to-hand combat and romantic cavalry charges was over. Long-range artillery meant that opposing armies were positioned further apart and often the one side could not even see the other. Battlefields expanded, and the long-range rifle and the sniper took over from the close fighting which was many people’s picture of how war was fought. Camouflage and the use of smokeless powder further conpsired to make war less visible. Bottomore quotes Fredric Villers, war correspondent and the first person to attempt to document a war as film actuality (for the Greco-Turkish War in 1897), who was further disillusioned by the change in war’s display:
… there was no blare of bugals [sic] or roll of drums; no display of flags or of martial music of any sort… It was most uncanny to me after my previous experiences of war in which massed bands cheered the flagging spirits of the attackers and bugals rang out their orders through the day. All had changed in this modern warfare: it seemed to me a very cold-blooded, uninspiring way of fighting, and I was mightily depressed for many weeks till I had grown accustomed to the change.
On top of all this, increased regulation and censorship controlling the movement of reporters from a military which distrusted the media and sought to control the flow of information (including visual) about its activities, added further limits what could be filmed.
Georges Méliès’ Combat Naval en Grèce (1897), a dramatised incident from the Greco-Turkish War
A war where there was little to see was quite a challenge for motion pictures, still more when there was such audience thirst to see something exciting. Small wonder that producers turned to dramatisation (Villiers found that his limited records of the Greco-Turkish conflict lost out in audience favour to the dramatisations of the same war produced by Georges Méliès), collaboration with the military (filmmakers such as W.K-L. Dickson and Joseph Rosenthal staged ‘actualities’ with the co-operation of British forces during the Anglo-Boer War), and downright fakery (Edward Amet’s use of models to depict naval battles from the Spanish-American War).
In these initial strategies and their outcomes we can see themes that have remained constant throughout the filming of war. What do we ever see of war? It is omnipresent on our television screens, but the stuff of war itself we seldom see. We see its build up, and some of its effects, but not the heart of war. No matter how much it may try, the camera cannot replace the gun. Instead we have talking heads, embedded reporters, incidents created for the purposes of propaganda, incidents reported but not shown, scenes selected, withheld or distorted. We may thrill at footage where a reporter seems to be in the thick of fighting, but they are caught at just one point, whereas the truth of war – if such a thing lies somewhere – lies at many points, reflecting multiple perspectives. As D.W. Griffith said of the impossibility of filming the First World War:
It is too colossal to be dramatic. No one can describe it. You might as well try to describe the ocean or the milky way. A very great writer could describe Waterloo. But who could describe the advance of Haig? No one saw it. No one saw a thousandth part of it.
Instead we often require drama to explain the actuality. Selectivity and creativity (and personable actors) bring across to audiences the lessons of war, transmuting its huge complexities into something that we can understand, something that entertains us. From which have we learned most about the wars of today – the television news, or Three Kings, Battle for Haditha and The Hurt Locker? It all depends on what you are looking for. Film can never be an open window on war’s reality. Instead it is a narrow and distorting mirror, and it is the job for us as the audience to understand that distortion.
But has film changed war? Bottomore references Paul Virilo’s argument, in War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, that the evolution of war over the twentieth century has been bound up with a change in human perception, itself profoundly linked to developments in photographic and cinematic technique. How war is seen impacts on what war is. This then begs the question what exactly war is. Are we still looking for hand-to-hand combat and those romantic cavalry charges? Is that really war? Or does the real fighting take place across desks, terminals, screens, and offices? The propaganda war is as powerful as the war itself, as we all know now. And that, ultimately, is what film has shown us. The real fighting has gone on elsewhere, and from 1897 all the way to 2012, the cinematic image has probably had no influence on that at all.
W.K-L. Dickson (centre) with Biograph camera and crew in South Africa in 1900 during the Anglo-Boer War, from Filming, Faking and Propaganda
Stephen Bottomore is a prodigious collector of information on early film from primary sources, but he is interested in ideas as well. He has read the theoriticans, and understands their work well enough to position early cinema within a broader world of ideas, while regularly expressing his disappointment at conclusions drawn by thinkers who have insufficiently examined the primary evidence. And it is the primary evidence to which he will always return: the quotation, the newspaper reference, the contemporary illustration, the catalogue – anything and everything that points not so much to the actuality of war as to the actuality of the films themselves. These films were made once; now we must understand them. That’s the simple message.
Will Filming, faking and propaganda contribute to ideas on how we understand war and how we understand the moving image? Bottomore’s ultimate goal is to champion early cinema in all its rich variousness, and this limitation, together with the work’s immense length, may restrict its influence. But its impeccable research and its appreciation of socio-political contexts will pay off in the long term. This is a work on which it will become essential to rely from now on. One hopes, of course, that it will make it into hard-copy format eventually, though it will have to be greatly reduced if that happens. In this form, at least, Bottomore’s work is uncontrained by the harsh demands of an editor.
Bottomore’s published books include I Want to See This Annie Mattygraph: Cartoon History of the Coming of the Movies (1995), an innovative study of early film through the cartoons of the period; and The Titanic and Silent Cinema (2000), a work much cited this year and increasingly admired (by Titanic-ists). His most influential work has been in articles, however, including ‘Shots in the Dark: The Real Origins of Film Editing’ (1988), ‘Out of This World: Theory, Fact and Film History’ (1994), ‘The Collection of Rubbish.’Animatographs, Archives and Arguments: London, 1896-97’ and most notably ‘The Panicking Audience?: Early Cinema and the ‘Train Effect’ (1999), on how people reacted to the first films. A collection of Bottomore’s best pieces would be most welcome, if some enterprising publisher were to take it on. It would certainly help cement the non-fiction film not just in early cinema studies but among the wider audience of historians working on this period who need a better understanding of just what film means to those times.
Bottomore was one of the founders of Domitor, the international body for the study of early cinema, and has been a frequent editor of Film History. Unlike most film writers he has a strong background in filmmaking (North South Productions, producers of many documentaries on environmental and development issues). He has been everywhere, his passion for the subject undimmed. Now we have his magnum opus. Do download it, and read it.
Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee procession, 22 June 1897, probably filmed by Prestwich at Parliament Square. The Queen’s carriage comes at the end of the sequence (look out for the crowds waving as the carriage approaches).
The tumult and the shouting have died, the captains and the kings have departed. The pomp, populism and absurdity of the diamond jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II have ended, and the critical eye of history can now take over.
The paraphrase of Rudyard Kiping’s ‘Recessional‘ in that opening sentence is appropriate, because Kipling wrote his famous lines about the uncertainties that lay behind the triumphalism of empire following the diamond jubilee procession of Queen Victoria, an event much discussed of late for its obvious parallels with 2012’s celebrations. The parallels are not just in the ceremonies to mark sixty years of a monarch’s reign, but in the calculated pageantry designed to overawe and to enthral the eye. In 2012 we had a rain-soaked flotilla, a pop concert and a religious service, with much controversy over the tone adopted by some of the television coverage. In 1897 there was a procession through London, witnessed by vast crowds, and recorded by a new industry eager to prove itself by documenting the greatest event in its short history – motion pictures.
The theme of the 1897 diamond jubilee was Empire. It was conceived of (by Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain) as a celebration of Empire, designed to impress upon the British people the nature of its colonial achievement, with the queen processing through London as the central piee of imperial showmanship. £300,000 (£30M in today’s money) was spent on decorating London, vast stands were put up along the route and an estimated three million visitors swelled London’s population for the day itself, 22 June 1897.
The procession was chiefly composed of 50,000 troops escorting assorted dignitaries, colonial premiers, and the British royal family, in carriages and landaus, culminating in the aged Queen Victoria herself. It started at Buckingham Palace, went up Constitution Hill, along Piccadilly, down St James Street, along Pall Mall, past the National Gallery, down The Strand and Fleet Street to Ludgate Circus, then to St Paul’s where official ceremonies were held outside the cathedral because the queen was too frail to climb the steps, into the City, across London Bridge, along The Borough, back across the river over Westminster Bridge, past Parliament Square and Horseguards Parade, then down The Mall and back to Buckingham Palace once more. The six mile journey was to take three hours.
Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee was a media event. It was documented by newspapers, photographers, cartoonists, painters, diarists and cinematographers along every inch of the procession. All along the way there were motion picture cameras. It is not certain how many firms or camera operators were there, but it seems likely that there were up to forty operators present representing up to twenty firms – mostly British, but at least two French and one Swiss concern also being represented.
The diamond jubilee procession with known motion picture camera positions marked. Other film companies were represented but their positions are not known or not certain.
The map above is taken from The Times of 21 June 1897, to which I have added colour markers to show where the cameras were positioned that we know about. The principal films were taken by Robert Paul (who had two operators, including himself) based outside St Paul’s and one at Westminster Bridge, Gaumont (led by its British representative John Le Couteur) with operators at Hyde Park and on the steps of St Paul’s itself, Joly-Normandin (‘Professor Jolly’) in St James’ Street, Biograph based at Horse Guards Parade, Velograph at Charing Cross, Prestwich at Parliament Square, Chard at four or five locations, and R.J. Appleton and Lumière (working with Fuerst Bros.) located in the Borough capturing the procession passing through South London.
Other firms known to have been there but whose location is unclear (or may not have produced successful films) were (according to the film historian John Barnes) W.& D. Downey, Haydon & Urry, the London Stereoscopic Company, the Ludgate Kinematograph Film Company, Northern Photographic Works (Birt Acres) J.W. Rowe, Dr J.H. Smith (from Switzerland), W. Watson and Wrench – though in some cases these firms may have merely advertised films that were taken by others.
The series of views taken by British Cinematographe, representing the French form of Joly-Normandin (which exhibited in the UK at ‘Professor Jolly’). The camera was positioned at the corner of Piccadilly and St James’ Street. The film shows an Indian contingent, Horse Guards, assorted carriages (the Queen is not seen in the surviving film), a gun carriage, a mounted band and Indian dignitary Sir Pratab Singh.
A number of these films survive. Each film was a single short record of around a minute’s duration, recording just one part of the procession from one angle, but each operator took several scenes from the one position, enabling each film company to then advertise a series of views that documented the highlights of the procession to the hundreds of thousands of people who missed it (or who wanted to see it all again) and were able to do so in variety theatres and halls up and down the country, as the motion picture camera made the pageantry of the moment reproducible, exportable and permanent. As theatre jounral The Era reported:
Those loyal subjects of her Majesty who did not witness the glorious pageant of the Queen’s progress through the streets of London to the thanksgiving service at St Paul’s on June 22nd, should not miss the opportunity of seeing the wonderful series of pictures at the Empire, giving a complete representation of the Jubilee procession. We owe much to the recent development of scientific photography; and by the invention of the cinématographe a means has been discovered for the preservation of what is to all intents and purposes living representations of memorable events. Our descendants will be able to learn how the completion of the sixtieth year of Queen Victoria’s reign was celebrated in the capital of the country.
Below are the surviving films from 22 June 1897, as held by the BFI National Archive (with links to the videos where these are available on YouTube courtesy of the Royal Channel):
I’ve had a lot to do with these films, ever since I put together a show that marked the centenary of the 1897 diamond jubilee procession back in June 1997. The show, helpfully entitled Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, recreates the event by having a narrator (yours truly) take the audience around the route taken by the procession, showing the surviving films in their correct sequences and filling out the story with eye-witness accounts from people such as Mark Twain, Molly Hughes, G.W. Steevens, Kier Hardy, Edward Burne-Jones and Victoria herself, read by two actors.
The show has been put on several times since then, and it will have its final outing on 21 June 2012 at the Bedford Park Festival, Chiswick, on 21 June 2012, with actors Neil Brand and Liz Fost. For anyone interested, I’ve made the script of the show – with frame stills from the films featured – available in PDF format on my personal website. Combine this with the YouTube videos above, and you can recreate your very own Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and see all the pomp of yesterday now one with Nineveh and Tyre …
Dziga Vertov is one of the most revered names in Soviet filmmaking. The ways in which he married radical politics to radical film form in films such as the screen magazine Kino-Pravda, Man with a Movie Camera, A Sixth of the World and Three Songs of Lenin, and in his theoretical understanding of film, especially his concept of the ‘kino-eye’ (“I am an eye. I am a mechanical eye”) argued for film as the vital medium at the time that a new form of society was emerging. Vertov demanded that film showed the truth. In technique this meant both trusting and curiously distrusting the camera’s propensity for capturing reality, as he employed exuberant montage (especially in Kino-Pravda) to reveal supposed greater truths by stirring the passions and stimulating the ideas of the observer.
Vertov’s first films were not so radical. His film career began as a writer and occasional director for the newsreel Kinonedelja (Cinema Weekly), produced by the Moscow Film Committee of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment. This newsreel ran for forty-three issues between May 1918 and June 1919, documenting daily life in Russia in the months following the revolution of October 1917. Remarkably fourteen issues from the series survive, discovered in Sweden and now held by the Austrian Film Museum which has digitised and made twelve of the fourteen available online.
Kinonedelja has nothing like the exuberant and confrontational experiments in film reportage Vertov develped for Kino-Pravda over 1922-25. It is, instead, fascinatingly mundane. It is newsreel footage much like newsreels were being produced elsewhere around the world, basic in construction, reporting on matters of passing, local interest, in form more passive than manipulative. Kinonedelja certainly has its propagandist edge, and is loaded with the excitement of social and political change, and some propagandist language (“Soviet border guards congratulate their German comrades for liberating themselves from the bonds of monarchical slavery”). But it mixes this rather charmingly with the everyday, either reports on the ordinary (buildings being constructed, several reports on snow, a children’s festival) or by revealing the ordinary carrying on in the background. The human eye will always see more of what is going on than the camera eye, for all Vertov’s theorising.
The twelve newsreels (the other two are promised soon) come with Russian intertitles, but there are short descriptions provided in English. A typical example is Kinonedelja No. 3, issued 15 June 1918, length eight minutes:
1. The Peoples’ Commissar for Food Rationing, Comrade Cjurupa. / The Peoples’ Commissar for Rationing in the Southern territories, Comrade Šljapnikov. / Head of the Army Rationing Committee, Zusmanovič.
2. Intelligensia working on farms behind the Butyrsk construction site. / Planting cabbage. / Townspeople plant potatoes in a large field.
3. Lunch for the unemployed in exchange for labor. / A meal costs one ruble and ten kopecks.
4. I.G. Cereteli arrives in Moscow in the capacity of the delegate from the Caucasus.
5. In Vladivostok. Commander of the counter-revolutionary forces in Siberia, Admiral Kolčak.
6. In Moscow. June 8. Wounded Russian prisoners of war return from German captivity. / Disembarkation. / Loading the wounded into ambulances. / Wooden shoes for our prisoners in Germany. / Armbands on tunics and greatcoats testify to the repression suffered by Russian officers of the 10th division in the Hannover region. / Head commander of the Soviet Army in the Northern Caucasus, Comrade Avtonomov.
7. In Petrograd. The Revolutionary Tribunal. Murder trial for O. Kokošin und A. Šingarev. / The accused, Kulikov and Basov.
8. The new Brjansk Station in Moscow. / The central platform for passengers.
9. A children’s festival held by the Peasant Soviet in the village of Mitišča. / Who is stronger?
Much of Kinonedelja is given over to promoting the revolution and to the ongoing civil war. There are calls to arms, scenes of medical care, refugees, prisoners of war, agit trains, funerals. Little of it demonstrates the more manipulative arts of cinema (and where the newsreel does so it is clumsy, as in a story showing a queue of men keen to join the Red forces moving with comical swiftness inside an enlisting station, being inspected within, and then moving just as rapidly out of the building). It is almost guileless. Vertov would go on to greater things – in terms of film art – but for a motion picture portrait of the Soviet Union coming into being and as it was reported to its people at the time we are most fortunate to have the plain and revealing Kinonedelja.
The video are presented silently, and the quality of the digitisations is high. It is the first time the Austria Film Museum has presented archive films online (which is a little startling to learn in this day and age) and one looks forward to more of similar high quality in presentation.
Database entry for Kinonedelja, issues 38, 39, 41 (1919), showing digitised synopses for the three editions of the newsreel
However, while it may have been been slow in putting up films online, the Museum has been exemplary in digitising and making available its extensive collection of primary documentation on Dziga Vertov. The site provides an overview of the collection and a database, which has content descriptions in their original language plus German and English (most are in English as yet, but translations are promised).
So, for example, you can find 368 digitised documents on Man with a Movie Camera, 159 on Three Songs of Lenin, 72 on A Sixth Part of the World and 23 on Kinonedelja itself, with around 1,900 documents all told. They includes newspaper articles, photographs, posters, advertisements, frame enlargements, notes, letters and montage lists. All is clearly catalogued, and each document usefully crossed-linked to the relevant film, encouraging further browsing. You can also search by language, type of document, name of journal etc. There is a book guide to the collection available, Dziga Vertov: The Vertov Collection at the Austrian Film Museum.
Although this film is held by British Pathé, it was originally issued by Pathé’s rival Gaumont. The first shots of the Titanic in Belfast are the only genuine extant footage of the ship. The film then continues with shots of survivors in New York, regrettably re-edited by British Pathé in 2012 to turn a ten-minute newsreel into two minutes
Those of you recently returned from Mars may be interested to know that we are celebrating the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic this month. Those of you who have spent your time on planet Earth these past few months will not have been able to get away from the books, films, television programmes, souvenirs, exhibitions, commemorative issues, tea towels and who knows what else that has been foisted upon us, and you are probably heartily sick of the subject. Nevertheless, it is an event of some cultural significance, and we feel it would be remiss if we did not try and saying something about the Titanic and silent film.
But even here the field is already crowded, with newsreels from the time being readily available online and many probably knowing by now that little film of the liner actually exists, and that much of what screened at at the time that purported to show the Titanic was in fact footage of its sister ship the Olympic. If you see footage that it is claimed shows the launch, passengers embarking, the Titanic at sea, scenes on deck, or indeed the ship sinking, pleased be assured that it is not the Titanic that you are watching.
So, just what was filmed of the Titanic, and what survives today? That will be the subject of our post.
Newsfilm and documentaries are always made with a purpose; that was as true in 1912 as it is today. There had to be real interest in the topic, such as its newsworthiness. And the hard fact is that the Titanic was not news until it sank. The Olympic, the Titanic and the Gigantic (which was postponed and subsequently became the Britannic) were three liners planned by the White Star Line to capture trans-Atlantic business from its great rival Cunard. Cunard had the fastest liners afloat (it took five days to cross from the UK to the USA), and rather than beat them for speed White Star Line went for size and luxury. Its super-liners would be a little slower than Cunard’s, but they would beat them hand down when it came to dimensions and luxury.
The first to be built and to be launched (28 October 1910) was the Olympic. It was the Olympic that grabbed most of the headlines, and attracted the film cameras. There were newsreels of its launch and of life on board ship, and a spectacular documentary was made by the Kineto company, entitled S.S. Olympic, which covered its construction from the laying of the keel to launch. When the time came for the Titanic to be launched, two years later, there wasn’t the same interest. What had been front page news for the first ship was relegated to the inside pages for its successor, and the film companies for the most part ignored it. So, for example, the Kineto film of the Olympic was made by producer Charles Urban, who had initially approached Harland & Wolff for permission to film the construction of both liners. The shipbuilders were happy with this, but Urban took what must have seemed the more practical action and film the construction of the Olympic alone, in black-and-white (a film which survives) and in colour using his Kinemacolor process (a film sadly lost). The Titanic he seems to have ignored.
Part of S.S. Olympic (1910), the Kineto documentary on the construction of the Titanic’s sister ship. The two ships were very similar, and the film gives a good idea of what the construction of the Titanic would have looked like
So what was filmed? The film historian Stephen Bottomore, in his essential book The Titanic and Silent Cinema, suggests that there were five films or film sequences made of the Titanic. One of these can be discounted, as it merely showed the liner’s anchor being transported, but let us examine the other four (plus a fifth possibility that Bottomore also discusses).
The first is a puzzle. When the Titanic sank, producers searched around desperately for any footage that related to the liner. Gaumont concentrated on the scenes in New York where the survivors were received. This newsreel, which demonstrated a desire for accuracy, was released as an issue of The Animated Weekly in the USA and as a Gaumont special in the UK. There were (and are) several versions of this reel, one of which shown in the USA (but not in the UK) had this intertitle for its first scene:
Laying the keel of the Titanic
Who filmed this? It is a mystery. The keel of the Titanic was first laid in Belfast on 31 March 1909. There is no other record of such a film being made that I can trace (or Bottomore), and the scene does not occur in any of the surviving versions of the film. Did Urban film part of the Titanic‘s construction after all (if he had sought rights to do so from Hardland & Wolff it is unlikely that any other company would have had permission)? But then why did he never release it (it is not mentioned in any of Urban’s catalogues)? And why did this part of the newsreel disappear when the most of rest survived? Was it film of the Olympic‘s keel being laid? (unlikely, given Gaumont’s efforts to show true footage) Or might it have been shot by Films Ltd, producers of the second film of the Titanic?
The second scene in the Animated Weekly newsreel showed the launch of the Titanic in Belfast on 31 May 1911. The film was not produced by Gaumont, but rather by Films Ltd, a Liverpool-based company with an office in Belfast. The footage does not survive, and Bottomore quotes the only account we have of it, a most unhelpful two-liner from the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly film trade journal:
Thousands who were unable to see the launch will avail themselves of this opportunity. Even those who saw the launch may in this film see some feature that they missed.
The fact that the launch was filmed by a minor film company and paid only meagre attention by the film press shows what comparatively little interest the Titanic had for the media at this point. The Animated Weekly film with these two sequences was first shown in New York on 21 April, just six days after the disaster, so if they were shipped from Belfast then would have had to have been sent out on 16 April, which seems an extraordinarily rapid turnaround. But for some strange reason the laying of the keel and the launch were not included in the British version of the reel issued by Gaumont at the start of May, and are now lost.
Instead Gaumont in the UK showed the only film of the Titanic to survive today. On 3 February 1912 a camera operator filmed the Titanic being moved into the Thompson dry dock, Belfast. The film was taken from the quayside looking up at the ship, showing the prow, and comprises seven shots from roughly the same camera position, one of them a panning shot along the length of the ship (there is a useful short analysis of the footage on Encyclopedia Titanica).
The first record we have of it being shown is when it featured in the Gaumont Graphic newsreel of 18 April 1912 (three days after the sinking), issue number 112, where it was falsely billed as ‘The Titanic Leaving Belfast Lough Bound for Southampton April 2 1912’. The news of the disaster had only just come through to the UK and Gaumont had moved swiftly to obtain the film, showing 100 feet in its next newsreel release. The full Gaumont Graphic no. 112 issue was:
1 – The British Dog Show at Earls Court
2 – Bob Sleighing
3 – Lord Mayor of Belfast Inspecting the Australian Cadets
4 – The Titanic Leaving Belfast Lough Bound for Southampton April 2 1912
5 – Paris Fashions
The Gaumont Graphic issue ledger for 18 April credits the film as “Prov Cine Local”, which must mean the operator was working for Provincial Cinematograph Theatres, a cinema chain with a strong presence in Ireland.
Gaumont issued a longer film in the UK at the start of May which was the Animated Weekly release from the USA except, except – most oddly – that there were no shots of the Titanic itself. It included footage of Captain Smith (on board the Olympic), ice floes, a flashing title with the distress code C.Q.D. (which preceded S.O.S. – both signals were employed by the Titanic), and scenes in New York with survivors and news reporters. At a later date the 2 February 1912 footage was added to this reel, and it is this version that is embedded at the top of this post.
Captain Smith from the Globe newsreel supposedly showing the Titanic (which he captained) but which actually shows the Olympic in New York in 1911 – the name Olympic has been painted out by the film company or an exhibitor but can be seen unobscured in this frame grab, top right
False claims for footage of the Titanic were made right from the start. Bottomore records a New York theatre as claiming to have colour footage of the Titanic‘s launch which it showed on 17 April. This was clearly the Kinemacolor film of the Olympic. Another company, the British-based Globe Film Company, issued a newsreel on the disaster which can be found in several archives (in different versions), which shamelessly used footage of the Olympic from 1911 throughout, going so far as to blot out the word Olympic where it appears on the ship and to remove the names of New York tugs seen beside the ship when the film claims to be showing us the Titanic at Southampton.
Advertisement for the Topical Budget newsreel film of the Titanic at Southampton, now lost, from The Bioscope 25 April 1912
The fourth and final film of the Titanic known to have been made was a newsreel of the ship at Southampton. Topical Budget, a British newsreel produced by the Topical Film Company, included the following two titles for its issue of 17 April 1912 (just two days after the sinking):
The Titanic at Southampton, prior to her maiden voyage, which has proved so disastrous.
The White Star Line. Anxious crowds awaiting news outside the London office.
All that is known about this film is an advertisement in The Bioscope for 25 April 1912. The newsreel’s own records for this period are lost, as is the film [Update– the film has been found – see comments]. The mystery is why the footage was not better exploited. If, as it seems, it was the only film of the Titanic at Southampton, then Topical had a scoop the whole world wanted to see. The Titanic had left Southampton on 10 April, and we do not know whether Topical showed the launch in one of its issues that week (British newseels were issued twice-weekly) and then showed it again for the issue on the 17th, or whether it had filmed the launch but not bothered to use the footage (full issue records for the newsreel do not survive from this period). Or might they have stooped to subterfuge and used the Provincial Cinematograph Theatres footage, and labelled as being shot in Southampton? There is no way of knowing.
William H. Harbeck, from Moving Picture News
There might have been other films of the Titanic made, but none were advertised in the film trade papers or cinema listings that historians have pored over. But what of film taken on board the Titanic? One of most intriguing discoveries from Stephen Bottomore’s research is that there were at least two cameramen on the liner when she sank. One was William Harbeck, an American producer of travelogues who had five cameras and 110,000 feet of film with him. He may have been seen filming on board when the Titanic had a near collision with the liner New York in Southampton harbour, as witnessed by passenger Lawrence Beesley, who wrote in his book The Loss of S.S. Titanic:
No one was more interested than a young American kinematograph photographer, who, with his wife, followed the whole scene with eager eyes, turning the handle of his camera with the most evident pleasure as he recorded the unexpected incident on his films. It was obviously quite a windfall for him to have been on board at such a time. But neither the film nor those who exposed it reached the other side, and the record of the accident from the Titanic’s deck has never been thrown on the screen.
Harbeck was American, but he wasn’t that young (he was 44), and the woman with him was not his wife, but otherwise this seems likely to have been him. Some have speculated that the cameraman was the 19-year-old American Daniel Marvin, son of Harry Marvin, president of the Biograph film company, who was returning from honeymoon in Europe with his American wife Mary. But they were first class passengers, whereas Bessley and Harbeck were second class (and hence on another deck); moreover, Bessley elsewhere refers to Harbeck’s ‘wife’ as being “evidently French”, as Henriette Yvois certainly was.
Another man potentially with a camera was Jean-Noël Malachard, a French newsreel cameraman with Pathé-Journal who was journeying to New York to join the company’s American branch. Both Harbeck and Malachard drowned, with any film that they may have taken going down with them, though as the sinking itself took place at night there was no way they could have even attempted to record the disaster itself.
So we have four films that were made of the Titanic, with maybe a fifth shot on board as the liner left Southampton:
c.31 March 1909 – laying of the keel at Belfast – producer known – length unknown – film lost
31 May 1911 – launch at Belfast – producer Films Ltd – length unknown – film lost
3 February 1912 – moving into dry dock at Belfast – producer Provincial Cinematograph Theatres – length 100ft – film extant
c.10 April 1912 – at Southampton, prior to depature – producer Topical Film Company – length c.60ft – film lost [Stop press: This film has been found! But does it show the Titanic? See comments]
10 April 1912 – footage possibly shot of near collision with US liner New York – producer William Harbeck – length unknown – film lost
What does the extant film of the Titanic signify? Of itself, it has little to say. It is not very interesting film of a big ship. It evokes no sense of loss, greatness, vaingloriousness, hubris or tragedy. We bring those feelings to the film, once we are told what it signifies. We invest our feelings in what we see on the screen. Yet there is that special frisson when we see the footage and realise that what is now history was once actuality. A connection is made that is part of the unique power of film, collapsing time while simultaneously making us aware of the yawning gap of time. The footage of the Titanic exposes the limitations of film as historical record, while at the same time showing how powerful even the plainest film can be if we bring powerful thoughts to bear upon it. There is also that special connection between actuality and drama, where each offsets the other. The actuality only makes us yearn to see the story told. The dramatic only makes us want to see anything that makes it clear that our dreams have some basis in reality.
The key source for studying the Titanic and contemporary film is the aforementioned The Titanic and Silent Cinema by Stephen Bottomore, to which this post is much indebted. Among the huge number of Titanic publications, I recommend Richard Howells’ The Myth of the Titanic for its insightful analysis of the disaster’s cultural significance, with some subtle readings of the films made about the tragedy. As he wisely points out, there are two Titanics out there: the real Titanic that lies beneath the ocean waves, and the Titanic of myth that sails on in literature, musicals, movies and memories.
I am giving a talk on the Titanic and film at the Cinema Museum on Sunday 15 April, where we will be tracing the story of the disaster through both newsreels and fiction films. Neil Brand will be at the piano. It will be interesting to see what the audience will make of an interweaving of the actual and the dramatic, as we tell the story once again, as the Titanic sinks beneath waves again, as we shiver at what it tells us of our fallibility and fragility all over again.
We return from our antipodean adventures with a number of developments in the silent film world to tell you about, the first of which is British Pathé’s new website. The company that now bears the name British Pathé has little connection with the original Pathé firm – the Pathé newsreel library in Britain was purchased by some venture capitalists a few years ago, but they have worked hard to raise the profile of the collection. This has included a high profile for Pathé clips on BBC television following a special footage deal, and the recent BBC4 television series on the history of the Pathé library.
British Pathé has also made energetic use of social media, blogging and tweeting with the best of them in a commendable effort to engage an online audience with archive film. This has now led to a re-designed website in which blog, Twitter feed and Facebook presence (6,634 people like them) are prominent on the front page alongside thematic selections of newsreel and cinemagazine footage. The British Pathé library amounts to some 3,500 hours (90,000 clips) ranging from the 1890s to the 1970s, and following a Lottery-funded grant in the early 2000s the whole collection was digitised and has been made freely available (in low resolution) to all ever since.
We have written about the non-fiction and (surprisingly enough) fiction films to be found on the Pathé site before now. What is new about ths site which is of particular interest to us is a timeline feature, which enables the researcher to select any time period, from one year to another by the use of a simple slider tool, making it easy to identify film from whichever part of the silent era interests us. The timeline tool doesn’t appear on the front page, but if you put in any search term, or simply click on ‘Search’ without having entered any term at all, you are taken to the search results page and the timeline appears. Use this to select the period 1890-1930, and you’ll find 16,875 relevant clips waiting for you. Alternatively, search for everything, then go to the Advanced Filters option on the right-hand side and select Videos with No Sound (there are 41,092 of them).
A warning or two is required when using the British Pathé site. The newsreel collection is reasonably well documented from 1918 onwards, but before then the collection is a mishmash of Pathé newsreels, bought-in footage, fiction films, unidentified material and all maner of oddities. A lot of it is not Pathé-produced (there are Lumière, Méliès, Hepworth, Eclair, Eclipse and other productions to be found). Many of these early items have only approximate dates and made-up titles, and often the catalogue records are more enthusiastic than historically informed. This can make Pathé an annoying site to browse, since they seem to know so little about such a significant corner of their collection, but it also provides the potential for some interesting discoveries for the knowledgeable researcher, because there is a lot there that is crying out for proper identification and appreciation.
Here are some of the unidentified fiction films that you might like to try and identify:
It can be difficult finding some of the undated films, since they won’t turn up by using timeline searches, but if you can find just the one fiction film and then search on its keywords, such as comedy or melodrama, then you’ll uncover more of these hidden fiction films.
For non-fiction and standard newsreels of the silent era, the British Pathé site is a joy. There is every personality, incident, location, fad, issue, fashion, talking point, invention and innovation you could wish for, from 1896-1930. With the timeline, categories and keywords, the British Pathé site has become all the more compulsively browsable, even if one could wish for a little less in the way of vague speculation among some of the catalogue records.
News in 2011, clockwise from top left: The White Shadow, The Artist, A Trip to the Moon in colour, Brides of Sulu
And so we come to the end of another year, and for the Bioscope it is time to look back on another year reporting on the world of early and silent film. Over the twelve months we have written some 180 posts posts, or well nigh 100,000 words, documenting a year that has been as eventful a one for silent films as we can remember, chiefly due to the timeless 150-year-old Georges Méliès and to the popular discovery of the modern silent film thanks to The Artist. So let’s look back on 2011.
Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès in Hugo
Georges Méliès has been the man of the year. Things kicked off in May with the premiere at Cannes of the coloured version of Le voyage dans la lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902), marvellously, indeed miraculously restored by Lobster Films. The film has been given five star publicity treatment, with an excellent promotional book, a new score by French band Air which has upset some but pleased us when we saw it at Pordenone, a documentary The Extraordinary Voyage, and the use of clips from the film in Hugo, released in November. For, yes, the other big event in Méliès’ 150th year was Martin Scorsese’s 3D version of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, in which Méliès is a leading character. Ben Kingsley bring the man convincingly to life, and the film thrillingly recreates the Méliès studio as it pleads for us all to understand our film history. The Bioscope thought the rest of the film was pretty dire, to be honest, though in this it seems to be in a minority. But just because a film pleads the cause of film doesn’t make it a good film …
For the Bioscope itself things have been eventful. In January we thought a bit about changing the site radically, then thought better of this. There was our move to New Bioscope Towers in May, the addition of a Bioscope Vimeo channel for videos we embed from that excellent site, and the recent introduction of our daily news service courtesy of Scoop It! We kicked off the year with a post on the centenary of the ever-topical Siege of Sidney Street, an important event in newsreel history, and ended it with another major news event now largely forgotten, the Delhi Durbar. Anarchists win out over imperialists is the verdict of history.
Asta Nielsen in Hamlet
We were blessed with a number of great DVD and Blu-Ray releases, with multi-DVD and boxed sets being very much in favour. Among those that caught the eye and emptied the wallet were Edition Filmmuseum’s Max Davidson Comedies, the same company’s collection of early film and magic lantern slide sets Screening the Poor and the National Film Preservation Foundation’s five disc set Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938. Individual release of the year was Edition Filmmuseum’s Hamlet (Germany 1920), with Asta Nielsen and a fine new music score (Flicker Alley’s Norwegian surprise Laila just loses out because theatre organ scores cause us deep pain).
2011 was the year when the modern silent film hit the headlines, the The Artist enchanting all-comers at Cannes and now being touted for the Academy Award best picture. We have lost count of the number of articles written recently about a revival of interest in silent films, and their superiority in so many respects to the films of today. Jaded eyes are looking back to a (supposedly) gentler age, it seems. We’ve not seen it yet, so judgement is reserved for the time being. Here, we’ve long championed the modern silent, though our March post on Mr Bean was one of the least-read that we’ve penned in some while.
In the blogging world, sadly we said goodbye to Christopher Snowden’s The Silent Movie Blog in February – a reminder that we bloggers are mostly doing this for love, but time and its many demands do sometimes call us away to do other things. However, we said hello to John Bengston’s very welcome Silent Locations, on the real locations behind the great silent comedies. Interesting new websites inclued Roland-François Lack’s visually stunning and intellectually intriguing The Cine-Tourist, and the Turconi Project, a collection of digitised frames for early silents collected by the Swiss priest Joseph Joye.
The Bioscope always has a keen eye for new online research resources, and this was a year when portals that bring together several databases started to dominate the landscape. The single institution is no longer in a position to pronounce itself to be the repository of all knowledge; in the digital age we are seeing supra-institutional models emerging. Those we commented on included the Canadiana Discovery Portal, the UK research services Connected Histories and JISC Media Hub, UK film’s archives’ Search Your Film Archives, and the directory of world archives ArchiveGrid. We made a special feature of the European Film Gateway, from whose launch event we blogged live and (hopefully) in lively fashion.
Images of Tacita Dean’s artwork ‘Film’ at Tate Modern
We also speculated here and there on the future of film archives in this digital age, particularly when we attended the Screening the Future event in Hilversum in March, and then the UK Screen Heritage Strategy, whose various outputs were announced in September. We mused upon media and history when we attended the Iamhist conference in Copenhagen (it’s been a jet-setting year), philosophizing on the role of historians in making history in another bout of live blogging (something we hope to pursue further in 2012). 2011 was the year when everyone wrote their obituaries for celluloid. The Bioscope sat on the fence when considering the issue in November, on the occasion of Tacita Dean’s installation ‘Film’ at Tate Modern – but its face was looking out towards digital.
It was a year when digitised film journals made a huge leap forward, from occasional sighting to major player in the online film research world, with the official launch of the Media History Digital Library. Its outputs led to Bioscope reports on film industry year books, seven years of Film Daily (1922-1929) and the MHDL itself. “This is the new research library” we said, and we think we’re right. Another important new online resource was the Swiss journal Kinema, for the period 1913-1919.
It has also been a year in which 3D encroached itself upon the silent film world. The aforementioned Hugo somewhat alarmingly gives us not only Méliès films in 3D, but those of the Lumière brothers, and film of First World War soldiers (colourised to boot). The clock-face sequence from Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (also featured in Hugo) was converted to 3D and colourised, much to some people’s disgust; while news in November that Chaplin’s films were to be converted into 3D for a documentary alarmed and intrigued in equal measure.
The Soldier’s Courtship
Film discovery of the year? The one that grabbed all the headlines – though many of them were misleading ones – was The White Shadow (1923), three reels of which turned up in New Zealand. Normally an incomplete British silent directed by Graham Cutts wouldn’t set too many pulses running, but it was assistant director Alfred Hitchcock who attracted all the attention. Too many journalists and bloggers put the story ahead of the history, though one does understand why. But for us the year’s top discovery was Robert Paul’s The Soldier’s Courtship (1896), the first British fiction film made for projection, which was uncovered in Rome and unveiled in Pordenone. It may be just a minute long, but it is a perky delight, with a great history behind its production and restoration.
Another discovery was not of a lost film but rather a buried one. Philippine archivists found that an obscure mid-1930s American B-feature, Brides of Sulu, was in all probability made out of one, if not two, otherwise lost Philippines silents, Princess Tarhata and The Moro Pirate. No Philippine silent fiction film was known have survived before now, which makes this a particularly happy discovery, shown at Manila’s International Silent film Festival in August. The Bioscope post and its comments unravel the mystery.
Among the year’s film restorations, those that caught the eye were those that were most keenly promoted using online media. They included The First Born (UK 1928), Ernst Lubistch’s Das Weib des Pharao (Germany 1922) and the Pola Negri star vehicle Mania (Germany 1918).
And we said goodbye to some people. The main person we lost from the silent era itself was Barbara Kent, star of Flesh and the Devil and Lonesome, who made it to 103. Others whose parting we noted were the scholar Miriam Hansen; social critic and author of the novel FlickerTheodore Roszak; the founder of Project Gutenberg, Michael Hart; and the essayist and cinéasteGilbert Adair.
As always, we continue to range widely in our themes and interests, seeing silent cinema not just for its own sake but as a means to look out upon the world in general. “A view of life or survey of life” is how the dictionary defines the word ‘bioscope’ in its original use. We aim to continue doing so in 2012.
The 1911 Delhi Durbar, showing the royal pavilion. From Wikimedia Commons
To the north of Delhi lies a deserted and desolate patch of open ground, surrounded by slums and a dual carriageway. Trees and scrub are broken up here and there by empty pedestals. Some statues stand there, though most have lost the inscriptions that told passers-by who the once great figures they represented were. One statue is still cared for, that of King George V, standing forlornly over a space where he once witnessed the pinnacle of his greatness, if greatness was what it was.
The space is Coronation Park, location in 1877, 1902/3 and 1911 of the three Durbars held to mark the establishiment of the Empress or Emperor of India. Though there are moves to restore the park, its desolate state now seems a rather appropriate comment on the vaingloriousness of the British Raj, and on human ambition generally. But while the Durbars are now chiefly of interest to imperial historians, romantics and collectors, the 1911 Durbar in particular is of importance to film history. It was one of the most important newsfilm subjects of its time, serving as a testing ground for the newsreels which had only recently be established. One film in particular of the Durbar, whose main ceremony took place 12 December 1911, one hundred years ago, became the most celebrated and influential film of its age. So let us spend a little time recounting the history.
A durbar was a Mughal word (taken from the Persian) meaning a reception, a court, or body of officials at such a court. The term was appropriated by the British Raj and used to describe the formal ceremonies held in 1877 to acknowledge the proclamation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India. Delhi was selected as the location, being the old Mughal capital, and the Viceroy Lord Lytton devised a celebration that set the pattern for the Durbars that followed. A temporary city of tents was constructed, and an ampitheatre wherein the main ceremonies were staged. In a richly colourful display, British rule in India, and the privileged but inferior position of the Indian princes (on whose presence particular emphasis was placed) within the ruling hierarchy was illustrated through procession, pageantry and obeisance. Queen Victoria did not attend.
When the second Delhi Durbar was held in 1902-3 (at the same location), to recognise Edward VII as the new Emperor of India, once again the King-Emperor did not go to India and was represented by the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. The ceremonies attracted several film companies, and some pioneering Indian filmmakers. The significant difference when it came to the Delhi Durbar of 1911 was that this time the King-Emperor himself attended. It was King George V’s own idea to go to India. George believed profoundly in the solemnity and responsibility of his position, and he wished to see his annointment as Emperor of India properly sanctified, as well as expressing a wish to do what he could to calm seditious tendencies (which had been insufficiently placated by the India Act of 1909 which established the Indian councils) by his presence.
His idea was not greatly welcomed by the British parliament, which feared the great expense that would fall upon the government of India. The eventual cost would be £560,000, plus a further £207,000 covering the management and manoeuvres for 80,000 troops (multiply those figures by 100 to get a rough idea of what those cost would be today). The King had suggested that he should be crowned Emperor on Indian soil, an idea vetoed by the Archbishop of Canterbury (noting that a ceremony of Christian consecration would be offensive to Muslim and Hindu sensibilities), and instead a new crown was made, the existing crowns not being allowed to leave British soil, at a cost to the people of India of £60,000. Preparations took over a year, and were organised by Sir John Hewett, the Lieutenant-Governor of the United Provinces.
The ceremonies were to take place in the same location outside Delhi as in 1877 and 1902/3, and a giant ‘city’ of 40,000 tents was erected, which was eventually to house some 300,000 inhabitants. On 11 November 1911 King George V and Queen Mary left on the P&O ship Medina for the three-week voyage to Bombay, arriving on 2 December.
Charles Urban (centre) with his camera team at Delhi
Awaiting them in Bombay were the film cameramen. Five British film companies had successfully applied to the organising committee for permission to film the ceremonies: Barker Motion Photography, Gaumont, Pathé, Warwick Trading Company and the Charles Urban Trading Company. Each sent at least two operators; Charles Urban had a team of seven or eight, of whom probably four were cameramen (Joseph De Frenes, Hiram Horton, Alfred Gosden, Albuin Mariner). Urban’s intentions were to make two films – one newsfilm in black-and-white, but the other on a far greater scale was to be in colour. There were various announcements by Indian film companies that they would be filming the Durbar, though only the Bengali film pioneer Hiralal Sen definitely did so (his films, sadly are lost).
The day of the Coronation Durbar itself was 12 December. Up to 100,000 people filled the ampitheatre during the morning before the formal ceremonies began. At the head of the procession came veterans of past wars, including over a hundred survivors of the 1857 Mutiny, both Indian and British. Next came the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge (temporarily divested of his official power during the King-Emperor’s visit) and Lady Hardinge in an open carriage. An escort and the sound of fanfares preceded the entry of the royal carriage, with its canopy of crimson and gold, the King-Emperor and Queen-Empress dressed in their purple imperial robes, each wearing crowns. They processed down the central road, then round in a semi-circle past the central Royal Pavilion, to the Shamiana (a pavilion at the far end of the arena in front of the guests’ enclosure), where the Viceroy led them to their thrones. Here the Indian princes were to do homage to their Emperor, and after the King had given a short address, the maharajahs and princes of India came one by one (in strict order of precedence) to express their loyalty to the crown. One of the maharajahs, the Gaekwar of Baroda, caused a diplomatic incident when he declined to bow properly and then walk backwards after paying homage, instead turning his back on the King and Queen. Accident or deliberate act of defiance? Whichever, frame stills from the film record would later be used by the newspapers as evidence of the slight, for those who might not otherwise believe that such an act could even have been contemplated.
The prince identified on the Gaumont newsfilm of the Delhi Durbaras being the Gaekwar of Baroda, turning his back to King George and Queen Mary. Whether it is the Gaekwar is uncertain (see discussion below)
The Emperor and Empress rose from their thrones and walked to the central Royal Pavilion. Fanfares sounded. The official proclamation of the King’s coronation in June was made, in English and Urdu, and there were various announcements concerning beneficial funds and concessions made to the people of India. The royal couple returned to the Shamiana, while a salute was fired and cheers were taken up by the thirty thousand troops, then the sixty or more thousand guests, then those many thousands more outside the arena. At the Shamiana, the Emperor gave two last announcements concerning political changes, which had been kept in the greatest secrecy for months. These were that the capital of India was to move to Delhi, and that the partition of Bengal (an unpopular decision from the Curzon era) was to be cancelled. Both announcements, but particularly former, were received in almost stunned silence, before being greeted by general cheering. The Durbar was declared formally closed, the royal couple returned to their carriage, and departed.
The mood at the time, at least among the British, was one of complete awe as the majesty and colour of the spectacle, which seemed to be the very apex of the imperial dream. Journalist Philips Gibbs summed up its (British) impact:
Sound and colour combined to form a panorama of beauty and grandeur such as one might suppose could have its being only in a dream. Uniforms, robes, turbans of every shade and tone produced an effect which, though infinitely varied in its contrasts, was blended into one flawless harmony by the orderliness of the entire scheme. There seemed a mystic bond that welded the tremendous music of the bands, the clear notes of the bugles, and the tramp-tramp-tramp of marching hosts, into one vast paean of triumphant praise to the King-Emperor, and that found its more material counterpart in the riot of colour displayed so lavishly on every side.
The film companies hurried back to Britain. Only Urban’s camera team filming in the Kinemacolor process stayed behind (his black-and-white films were returned to Britain, however). He was seeing things beyond the news, and felt that so precious were the films that his team has captured that there was danger of their being stolen or damaged by his rivals. He later recalled:
We had the choicest of all possible positions; the officials afforded us the best of protection. They had heard rumors that rival film companies were bent on damaging or destroying our pictures and inasmuch as the King expected to see these pictures in London, it was up to the Army to see that we got them safely there. Each night we used to develop the negatives exposed during the day, and bury them in cases dug in the sand in my tent with a piece of linoleum and a rug on top – my bed on top of them, a pistol under my pillow and armed guards patrolling our camp.
The other film companies had also brought with them film processing equipment, so that they could show their films locally as well as dispatch prints back to Britain. Prints were sped back to Britain by ship and train. According to Stephen Bottomore, pre-eminent historian of the films of the 1902/3 and 1911 Durbars, all of the companies got their films onto screens in London on the same day, Saturday, 30 December 1911, including Kineto (Urban’s company filming in black-and-white), most if not all showing their results in the first show of the morning at 11:00. The films were news records, between five and fifteen minutes in length.
King George and Queen Mary viewing Barker Motion Photography’s black-and-white films of the Durbar at Calcutta House, 6 January 1912, from the Illustrated London News. Lord Hardinge noted in his diary: “In the evening we had a dinner of 50 and a cinematograph afterwards giving scenes from the Durbar and the Calcutta visit. They were not good but the King and Queen seemed to enjoy seeing them”
The films were a great, if brief, commercial success. Viewed as news, they were the toast of the town in January, and a dead duck by February, as Bottomore notes. News has to be fast, then it has to die, and a strategy of speed in order to capture the passing interest of the crowd was the only one the newsreel companies understood. Prints were sent out around the world, though perhaps not surprisingly few territories view the ceremonies with quite the same enthusiasm as did the British. But wherever you were, and whatever your sympathies, by February the Delhi Durbar was history. Its pomp was past.
On 2 February 1912 at the Scala Theatre in London Charles Urban revealed his strategy. He did not see the Delhi Durbar as news; he saw it as living theatre. His plan was to recreate the experience and the emotion of the Delhi Durbar as far as might be possible on a London stage. It was not that people were tired of the Durbar; they had not seen it as it had been seen, and as it could now be presented. Urban organised his Kinemacolor footage into a two and a half hour programme (16,000 feet), a previously unheard of length for a film show, and with introductions and intervals it in fact stretched to three hours in full. It had the overall title With Our King and Queen Through India. Its centrepiece was entitled the Coronation Durbar at Delhi, but the programme as a whole covered the whole tour. The Scala stage was turned into a mock-up of the Taj Mahal, with special lighting effects. Music was composed and scored for forty-eight pieces, a chorus of twenty-four, a twenty-piece fife and drum corps, and three bagpipes. Music that had been played at the actual event was used whereever possible, including fanfares. This was virtual reality – pictures, sound, colour, pomp and circumstance, and all for a better and cheaper seat than if you had been one of those who had sailed off to India. The show at the Scala was going to be better than the real thing.
The Taj Mahal backdrop used for the screenings of With Our King and Queen through India at the Scala Theatre, from the National Media Museum collection
Things turned out as Urban had dreamed. With Our King and Queen in India became a huge hit, commercially and socially. It became the show that every discriminating person in London had to go and see, then repeated that success acros the UK, and then worldwide (it did particularly well in America). Society came to the Scala to see a medium that it would never have deigned to cast an eye on before. Duke and duchesses, lords and ladies, royalty themselves (King George and Queen Mary visited the Scala to see the film on 11 May 1912), all came to see the Durbar recreated on the screen. Children were taken to a show whose worthiness greatly commended it to parents who had previously been suspicious of moving pictures. Among such visitors were the young John Grierson (aged 11), Ivor Montagu (7) and Paul Rotha (4), future lions of the British documentary movement.
With our King and Queen in India was not a conventional film. Quite aside from its length, and the fact that it was in colour, it was more of a theatrical event than a film per se. Its different components recording incidents from the whole royal tour could be selected or ordered according to the length of available programme, so that no one screening might be the same as the next. The use of a lecturer throughout, the special music, stage and lighting effects, the whole sensory impact created something that was rather more than a mere picture show (to use a phrase said by one of Urban’s acquaintances at the time).
Four colour images from the 1912 Kinemacolor catalogue showing scenes from With Our King and Queen through India. It was not possible to reproduce Kinemacolor in print, so the images were conventionally coloured for print and do not accurately represent how the film actually looked. Clockwise from top left – the arrival of the royal couple in Bombay, state entry into Delhi, the royal review, and the Durbar ceremony itself
The film made a fortune. Urban calculated that through a combination of the Scala programme and five touring road shows in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the film grossed more than £150,000 (though this figure may be for all Kinemacolor exhibited in UK); over the two years that Kinemacolor had its residency at the Scala, gross receipts (from a theatre that seated just 920) were £64,000. That’s six and a half million pounds in today’s money, from one small theatre alone.
And what of the film now? Just as Coronation Park, venue for vaingloriousness has become a deserted wasteland, so the Kinemacolor film that so entranced a world that still believed in the pageantry of empire is lost, with only reviews, catalogue records and memoirs to give us a second-hand sense of what experiencing it must have been like. Well, not entirely lost. Just as a statue or two, a commermorative obelisk and a plaque stand in the park as reminders of once was, so something of the Kinemacolor film survives, having been discovered in the Russian state film archive in 2000. It doesn’t show the main ceremonies; the single reel shows a parade of British troops and an artillery display that took place two days later. It is marvellous that it survives, and was undoubtedly grand to experience at the time, but it is a sideshow. The greater part is lost.
Frame still showing the Kinemacolor effect from the surviving reel of With Our King and Queen through India. The colour synthesis has been recreated electronically, because true Kinemaclor can only be see by projecting the films (via a rotating red/green filter). From the Russian State Archives
But fate has been kinder when it comes to the black-and-white films that were made. Those of Barker, Gaumont, Pathé, Warwick survive and can be found online in various places. They show us the spectacle, the deep sense felt of the power of the visual to express power, and the absurdity of it all. The best to watch is probably that by Gaumont, which is available on the Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire site (despite some nitrate damage at the start). It includes a title that reads “How the Gaekwar of Baroda paid homage to King George”, but Stephen Bottomore has queried whether the prince shown is in fact the Gaekwar. Intriguingly the evidence of the films show that there was more than one Indian prince who turned his back on the royal couple (two turn their backs, both dressed in white, but one with a dark turban, the other white). Was this mass disdain, or was the whole incident manufactured by the press?
If you are interested to pursue the history of the 1911 Delhi Durbar and its films, there are several online sources available:
My Charles Urban website has a whole section on the Delhi Durbar, including a reproduction of the extensive description of With Our King and Queen through India taken from the 1912 Kinemacolor catalogue
Finally, there are plans to redevelop Coronation Park, with gardening, more trees, a cricket area, an interpretation centre, and a general tidying up, though they have missed their original deadline which was the Durbar centenary. The Wall Street Journalhas the story.
Coronation Park today, from The Wall Street Journal blog
Bioscopists in the UK will certainly not want to be anywhere other than in front of their television sets on Thursday 18 August at 9pm, when episode one of the fourt-part series The Story of British Pathé is broadcast on BBC4.
This is to be a series not so much on the history of a newsreel, but rather of a collection (there never was a newsreel called British Pathé, but there is an archive of that name which includes the newsreels Pathé Gazette, Pathé News, and much else besides). The four episodes will cover the birth of the news, the voice of Pathé, Pathé’s cinemagazines, and the travelogues and docuentaries in the collection. Dates have not been given for the second, third and fourth programmes, but let’s assume that they will be broadcast on succeeding Thursdays.
All of the archive footage to be featured in the programmes can be found on the British Pathé site itself, one of the great treasure troves of archive film to be found online (both silent and sound), already trumpeted by the Bioscope on more than one occasion. It going to be very interesting to see what the programme makers make of a collection which has so often supplied essential content for television but has never been (to my knowledge) the subject of a programme itself (the celebrated Granada Television series All of Yesterdays used mostly Pathé footage but wasn’t about Pathé). It won’t be a regular history, I suspect, but I’m hopeful of seeing new insights from a production team that was largely new to this sort of material. And you may get a glimpse of two of your scribe, unless everything they shot ended up on the cutting room floor (not an impossibility, given my usual tongue-tied performance whenever anyone has the nerve to point a camera at me).
As usual, the programmes will be available for a week afterwards on iPlayer, for people in the UK only. Do let us have your thoughts about the programmes.