Girona mini-diary no. 3

Day two of the Origins of News in Early Cinema, held in the fine city of Girona. And once again we have just a brief summary of each of the papers given.

Charles Musser, Cinema, Newspaper and the US Presidential Election of 1896. – Musser scored big with the locals by wearing a Barcelona scarf. Authoritative keynote address on use of multimedia by Republicans and the press in 1896, contrasted with 1892 election.

The true-crime films of Antonio Leal, 1906-1909: From newspaper reportage to film reenactments in Brazil’s “Bela Época”. Rielle Navitski – the distinctive Brazilian genre of dramatisations of true crimes.

How actual was an actualité in early cinema? Time as agency in presenting moving images of news of fair ground and variety theatre. Ansje van Beusekom – How could early newsfilms be news if they were shown months afterwards?

How to tell a catastrophic event. The earthquake of Messina (Italy) in 1908. Luigi Virgolin – the newsfilms of the Messina earthquake.

Fernando Rus, pioner del fotoperiodisme barceloní i operador d’actualitats cinematogràfiques. Lluïsa Suárez – a little-known local filmmaker, tantalising traces of whose activity can be found in illustrated journals.

El nacimiento de las actualidades en el cine italiano: estudios sobre la guerra ítalo-turca (1911-1912) Sila Berruti i Luca Mazzei – impressive paper on innovations in technology in the Italian-Turkish war, fought in Lybia no less. Many film innovations we think of as coming from World War I were here. Particularly surprising to learn about ‘cinema-postcards’ made of soldiers’ families (how and where these were shpwn was unclear, however).

Luke McKernan. Links in the chain: early newsreels and newspapers – I spoke in broad brush terms about newsreels, connecting them to digital news of today. Newsreels were given surprisingly little mention during the seminar, most preferring earlier news event films.

I missed the next few papers while I went for a parade through the city, but here’s what they were, for the record:

El panorama de la batalla de Waterloo, Barcelona 1888 i la producció i recepció dels panorames de batalles. Neus Moyano

La llanterna i les seves variants com a antecedents dels diferents gèneres cinematogràfics. Jordi Artigas

La fascinació lúdica i participativa: entre Segundo de Chomón i el primer videojoc. Manuel Garin

Antonio Ramos i els orígens del cinema a la Xina. David Martínez-Robles i Teresa Iribarren

Los reportajes de festividades locales en la región de Murcia a comienzos del siglo XX: el caso de la restauración de “La Cruz de Mayo” (Caravaca de la Cruz, 1924). Ángel Morán

L’actualitat tecnocientífica en el cinema dels orígens: els films d’Edison i
l’electromagnetisme. Manuel Moreno

And then things were rounded off with a visit to Girona´s Museu del Cinema. More on that, and thoughts on the seminar and early newsfilms overall, will be composed for you on my return to home and home technology.

Girona mini-diary no. 2

Hmm, this smartphone idea isn´t working too well… No matter, the hotel PC can come to the rescue. So here are some quick notes on today´s proceedings at the Origins of News in Early Cinema seminar in Girona. I´ll list each speaker, and summarise what they said.

Rafael F. Tranche (Universidad Complutense de Madrid) Atracciones, actualidad y noticiarios: la información como espectáculo – keynote address on newsreels in general, noting how they were a means to bring together pre-existing genres into one flexible format.

The Public Wanted News: Programming the Biograph, 1896-1908. Paul Spehr – handsomely illustrated talk on the Biograph’s news operations and how what they did is best understood by knowing about the newspaper practice they worked alongside.

L’actualitat al catàleg Pathé (1897-1908). Daniel Pitarch – current affairs films in their catalogues, with the confusion of categories (where to put news?) brightly illustrated with coloured graphs.

La imatge tòpica d’Espanya als films de Pathé i Gaumont. M. Magdalena Brotons i Capó – clichéd images of Spain in early films. So many Carmens.

Creating an event out of nothing happening. An exploration of the category event through tourist imagery of the Zuiderzee region (The Netherlands), 1874-1914. Sarah Dellmann – the challenge of making a non-event an attraction.

Before the speech, then the image: the comment of the nonfiction film in Italy. Luca Mazzei – lots of interesting evidence from Italian books and journals on the evidence for how non-fiction films were received by audiences.

Stephen Bottomore Filming and ‘Faking’ a News Event – The
Coronation of Edward VII (1902) – Keynote paper on Charles Urban and Georges Méliès´celebrated ´preconstruction´of King Edward VII´s coronation, produced before the event took place.

Actualidad reconstruida y reconstrucción de la actualidad. El caso de “Asesinato y entierro de Canalejas”. Begoña Soto y Encarni Rus – I didn´t quite pick up on the story of this piece of 1912 archival film that now only existed in a contested 1957 version, but it occasioned much debate among the Spanish.

Actualitats reconstruïdes: del museu del cera als fake. El cas de l’erupció volcànica del Mont Pelée (Georges Méliès, 1902) com a punt de confluència. Marta Sureda – Georges Méliès again, recreating the volcanic eruption at Martinique, influenced by wax museums, dioramas and journal illustrations.

What’s in a name? The Russo-Japanese/Japanese-Russian War. Dafna Ruppin – a good paper on Dutch responses to the Russo-Japanese War film – or should be that Japanese-Russo? Interesting thoughts about the power of words over images.

El cinema d’animació dels primers temps i la reconstrucció de l’actualitat: el cas de l’enfonsament del Lusitània. Núria Nadal – Winsor McCay´s animation film about the sinking of the Lusitania in World War One still has the power to shock.

Presentation of the book-DVD Segundo de Chomón 1903-1912. The
fantasy film and the book Segundo de Chomón. El cinema de la fascinació by Esteve Riambau, Filmoteca de Catalunya, and Joan M. Minguet, writer. – The excellent DVD has already been covered by the Bioscope; a review of the book will follow soon

OK, that´s enough for today. So much talk of fakes in actuality films when such reconstructions were really doing no more than a line-drawn illustration in a newspaper might do as opposed to a photograph. The second and final day´s report will follow tomorrow.

Girona mini-diary no. 1

Such is the international jet-setting life that the silent film blogger must now come to expect that I find myself overseas once more, this time in Girona, Spain. I’m here for a two-day seminar, The Construction of News in Early Cinema. The seminar is being organised by the Museu del Cinema (right), the University of Girona, and the Spanish Ministry of Science & Innovation Project. It is one in a series on the origins and history of cinema that have run here for a few years now. It’s an honour to be invited, and it’s an interesting line-up of speakers and themes. I’m without my laptop, but I have come armed with smartphone and a WordPress app. So can I add to the blog from here? Well, yes I can, only the keyboard is not conducive to lengthy ramblings, so I am going to post some mini-diary entries, as an experiment.

So I’m here, it’s a fine city, it´s been a fine evening, and I´ve just come from supper with fellow speakers Charles Musser and Stephen Bottomore, plus a genial collection of Spanish film professors. More on the morrow.

Early cinema, early news

http://www.museudelcinema.org

A while ago we announced the call for papers for a two-day seminar to be held in Girona, Spain, entitled The Construction of News in Early Cinema. The event is being co-organised by the Museu del Cinema, the University of Girona, and the Spanish Ministry of Science & Innovation Project, and is one of a series of seminars that have been held on the origins and history of cinema (La construcción de la realidad en el cine de los orígenes). It will be held at the Auditori Narcís de Carreras in Girona, 31 March-1 April 2011. The organisers have produced this overview of the seminar’s rationale:

The film industry emerged at a key moment in the development of the written and graphic press and it would not be too long before it was playing a role in creating the imaginary of current affairs through images. Although these news images did not begin to be gathered together into a specific programme until the year 1908 thanks to Pathé Frères, in the very beginnings of cinema there were already images of current events, royal visits, official openings, sports events or exceptional situations that were to bind the image to its present context and bring it into the territory of what could be deemed as newsworthy. We are interested in images that captured reality, such as the reconstructions of events that are to become news. The seminar will focus on trying to define the relationship between cinema and news, to see how it began to build the news imaginary that presaged many of the questions of the future news images both in the subsequent newsreels and in those that came along with the birth of television. We are also interested in observing film as an area of intermediality, bringing together a variety of forms from other areas such as photography, painting and popular theatrical shows, in which the idea of news began to be presaged. The time period of the study is to be from 1895 up to 1914, since we believe that the newsreels underwent a different development with the outbreak of World War I. The proposal of the seminar is to establish a methodology of research and reflection in the context of news and, eventually, to find out how and if we can talk about a kind of birth of the documentary image.

The event is going be rather more of a conference than a seminar, and there is a strong line-up of speakers in the programme which has now been published, alongside registration details. Here’s the programme:

Thursday, March 31

9:00 – 9:30 Reception

9:30 – 9:45 Introduction and welcome

9:45 – 10:30 Conference: Rafael F. Tranche (Universidad Complutense de Madrid): Atracciones, actualidad y noticiarios: la información como espectáculo

10:30 – 10:45 Debate

10:45 – 11:00 Pause

11:00 – 12:20 Lectures: Archives I

  • The public wanted new. Programming the Biograph, 1896-1901. Paul Spehr
  • L’actualitat al catàleg Pathé Frères (1896-1914): Terminologia, lèxic i estudi quantitatiu. Daniel Pitarch
  • La imatge tòpica d’Espanya als films de Pathé i Gaumont. M. Magdalena Brotons i Capó
  • Creating an event out of nothing happening: the making of the “Death villages” of the zuiderzee region (The Netherlands) and the negotiation of its imagery (1880-1914). Sarah Dellmann

12:20 – 12:30 Pause

12:30 – 14:00 Lectures and debate: Archives II

  • The Vincenzo Neri Medical collection (1908-1928) a visual repertory between cinema, photography, typography. Simone Venturini
  • Antes del discurso, luego la imagen: el comentario de la película de no ficción en Italia en la época del cine mudo. Luca Mazzei

14.00 – 15:00 Lunch

15:00 – 15:45 Conference: Stephen Bottomore: Filming and ‘Faking’ a News Event – The Coronation of Edward VII (1902)

15:45 – 16:00 Debate

16:00 – 16:40 Lectures: Reconstructions

  • Actualidad reconstruida y reconstrucción de la actualidad. El caso de “Asesinato y entierro de Canalejas”. Begoña Soto y Encarni Rus
  • Actualitats reconstruïdes: del museu del cera als fake. El cas de l’erupció volcànica del Mont Pelée (Georges Méliès, 1902) com a punt de confluència. Marta Sureda

16:40 – 17:00 Pause

17:00 – 19:30 Lectures and debate: Newspapers and information

  • The true-crime films of Antonio Leal, 1906-1909: From newspaper reportage to film re-enactments in Brazil’s “Bela Época”. Rielle Navitski
  • How actual was an actualité in early cinema? Time as agency in presenting moving images of news of fairground and variety theatre. Ansje van Veusekom
  • How to tell a catastrophic event. The earthquake of Messina (Italy) in 1908. Luigi Virgolin
  • La mirada cinematogràfica dels primers fotoperiodistes. Lluïsa Suárez
  • The birth of Italy’s newsreel: study of the Italo Turkish War (1911-1912). Sila Berruti i Luca Mazzei

20.30 Presentation of the book-DVD “Segundo de Chomón. The fantasy film”. Next, cinema session, with live piano music, with films from the Filmoteca de Catalunya. Place of the session: Cinema Truffaut

Friday, April 1

9:30 – 10:15 Conference: Charles Musser: Cinema, Newspapers and the US Presidential Election of 1896

10.15-10:30 Debate

10:30 – 11:00 pause

11:00 – 13:30 Lectures and debate: War and politics

  • What’s in a name? The Russo-Japanese/Japanese-Russian War. Dafna Ruppin
  • El cinema d’animació dels primers temps i la reconstrucció de l’actualitat: el cas de l’enfonsament del Lusitània. Núria Nadal i Jaume Duran
  • El último espectáculo de la confederación: la recepción cinematográfica de la Guerra Civil Americana, 1896-1914. Kirby Pringle
  • Les actualitats Edison de la Guerra de Cuba: entre el Wild West show i el western. Ramon Girona

13:30 – 15:30 Lunch

15:30 – 16:15 Conference: Luke McKernan: Links in the chain: early newsreels and newspapers

16:15 – 16:30 Debate

16.30 – 16:45 Pause

16:45 – 18:30 Lectures and debate: Precinema and early cinema

  • El panorama de Waterloo de Charles Verlat i l’escena artística Barcelonesa a la dècada dels 90 del segle XIX. Neus Moyano
  • La llanterna i les seves variants com a antecedents dels diferents gèneres cinematogràfics. Jordi Artigas
  • La fascinació lúdica i participativa: entre Segundo de Chomón i el primer videojoc. Manuel Garin
  • Antonio Ramos i els orígens del cinema a la Xina. David Martínez-Robles i Teresa Iribarren
  • Los reportajes de festividades locales en la región de Murcia a comienzos delsiglo XX: el caso de la restauración de “La Cruz de Mayo” (Caravaca de laCruz, 1924). Ángel Morán
  • L’actualitat tecnocientífica en el cinema dels orígens: els films d’Edison i l’electromagnetisme. Manuel Moreno

18:30 – 18:35 Closing

19:30 Guided tour of the permanent exhibition at the Museu del Cinema (approx. 75’)

Well, it’s certainly going to be an honour to be speaking at such an event, and in such company. I’m delighted to see that there are scholars actively engaged in studying early newsfilm – this certainly wasn’t always the case in times past – and across such rich and pertinent topics.

The Museu del Cinema site has further details on the seminar, including registration details and other such information. The seminar will be multi-lingual, with simultaneous translation into Catalan, Spanish and English.

Cricket on camera

Highlights from the Topical Budget newsreel of England beating Australia in the Fifth Test at Lords in 1926, thereby winning back the Ashes

Here in England the skies are grey, and when it’s not raining it’s sleeting and a cold wind blows. And yet there is a spring in our steps and sunshine in our hearts. We have beaten the Australians. For anyone outside the few countries that take cricket seriously, the news that England has won the Ashes – the name given to the periodic series of Test matches played between England and Australia – cannot mean anything much. But here in England it is glorious news, all the more so because the victory was in Australia (where four years ago Australia won 5-0), because it is so rare (the last time we won there was 25 years ago), and because it was done with such ruthless professionalism, which are not words always associated with English cricket. Damn it all, we played like Australians.

So how can the Bioscope – whose scribe is somewhat partial to the game – commemorate this great event? Well, how else but with a survey of cricket and silent film? There’s a rich history there, and some fine films to discover online, if you know where to look.


Cricket is not a game that lends itself easily to the motion picture camera, particularly for the era of silent film. Games can last up to five days, the action takes places at a distance in the middle of a large field, there are long stretches where nothing dynamic happens. For cameramen shooting with expensive film stock, and with limited lenses, cricket in the early years of film presented a huge challenge. It is no surprise to find that the earliest cricket films focus on individuals and illustrations of play specially set up for the cameras. In the 1910s and especially the 1920s greater efforts were made to capture periods of play, with remarkable success given the circumstances.

Arguably the first British film was a cricket film, since a test film made by pioneers Birt Acres and Robert Paul in February/March 1895 showed their colleague Henry Short dressed in cricket whites outside Acres’ London home (the film, of which a few frames survive, is variously known as Incident at Clovelly Cottage or Cricketer Jumping Over Garden Gate). However, the first true cricket films were made in 1897, and there is something particularly hallowed about those films from the 1890s which capture the end of the great Victorian sporting era. The first films were a set made by Australian photographer Henry Walter Barnett in December 1897 at the time of the England v Australia Test match in Sydney. Using a Lumière Cinématographe, Barnett filmed scenes of the England and Australia teams coming off the field of play and the English player (albeit Indian) Prince Ranjitsinhji shown practising in the nets. It shows the great stylist of his age going through a series of typically aggressive strokes, filmed from a position to the batsman’s right and of course far closer to the batsman than could have been possible were Barnett filming actual play. When the film was exhibited in Britain it was accompanied by sound effects of ball hitting bat, and when the film is shown today (it is the only one of the set to survive) the sound effect is faithfully reproduced.

W.G. Grace practising at Hastings in 1901, from BFI National Archive

The great figure of Victorian cricket was W.G. Grace, and he was a popular subject for filmmakers who looked to capture his celebrity as much as his play. Three films survive: and three films survive. Dr Grace’s Jubilee Procession, filmed by the Prestwich Manufacturing Company on 18 July 1898 on the occasion of the Gentlemen v Players match celebrating Grace’s 50th birthday at Lords shows a parade of cricketing legends passing by the camera: Grace himself, Arthur Shrewsbury, Andrew Stoddart, William Gunn, Arthur Lilley, Samuel Woods, Robert Abel, Edward Wynard, F.S. Jackson, J.T. Hearne, Gregor MacGregor, John A. Dixon, William Storer, William Lockwood, A.C. MacLaren, William Brockwell, Charles Townsend, Schofield Haigh, Alec Hearne, John Mason, Wilfred Rhodes, Charles Kortright and John Tunnicliffe – it’s practically the entire Victorian age of cricket captured in one fifty-foot film (the film can be found on the British Movietone site, albeit printed the wrong way round, though you need register beforehand). Film also exists of Grace in June 1899 walking past the camera, accompanied by Ranjitsinhji, at Trent Bridge on the occasion of the first Test v Australia. There is just the one film of Grace in action, filmed by Williamson in 1901, again in the company of Ranjitsinhji (clearly a popular subject for filmmakers) practising batting in the nets at Hastings in September 1901.

Other films exist of this period of the Australian team in England walking past the 70mm camera of the Biograph company, somewhere in England in 1899 (those on display are Joe Darling, Victor Trumper, Ernie Jones, Hugh Trumble, James Kelly, Frank Iredale and Frank Laver), and second Biograph film, Ranjitsinhji and C.B. Fry at the Wickets, made in 1901, which shows the two greats batting on the field of play in a sequence which clearly had to be set up, as the camera is postioned close to the action. But we must shed a tear for the films of this period whose descriptions we have but which are now considered lost. Just imagine, oh cricket lovers, what would be if we could see this set of Biograph films from the legendary 1902 Test match between England and Australia, as described in a theatre programme:

England versus Australia at the Oval:

(a) Return to the Pavilion after close of Australia’s 2nd innings
(b) Australians going to field for England’s 2nd innings
(c) Jessop batting
(d) Hirst plays Trumble
(e) Rhodes drives Trumble

Now there’s a holy grail for the cricket film archivist.

Joe Darling (batsman) and James Kelly (wicketkeeper) from 1905 film of the Australian team. Note the regulation fearsome moustaches. From www.movietone.com

It is at this point in cricket film history, however, that the available archive starts to lessen. As films started to get a little longer, ironically it became more of a challenge to film cricket, because short portrait shots were no longer enough, while films of five minutes or more struggled to capture anything of the game, or – presumably – to find an audience keen to seen such films. Combined with the usual losses to history of films from this period anyway, and there are sadly few film records of cricket 1900-1910. The most substantial is to be found in a renowned 1931 early sound film called That’s Cricket!, made by Australasian films, which has a section showing the 1905 Australians, showing Joe Darling, Sydney Gregory, Frank Laver, Warwick Armstrong, Tibby Cotter, James Kelly, Albert Hopkins, Clem Hill, Alfred Noble, Reginald Duff, Charlie McLeod and others, posing for the cameras and at practice. The 1905 film (some seven minutes of it) can also be found on the British Movietone site (again, you need to register first with the site to use it, but it is free). A much shorter version is also on the British Pathé newsreel site. Who originally produced I have not been able to find out.

Mitchell & Kenyon’s Arthur Mold Bowling to A.N. Hornby (1901)

However, in the 1900s there were attempts to provide local coverage of cricket matches; that is, films which would appeal to the audience of a particular town or county instead of aiming for a national audience. The Yorkshire filmmaker Jasper Redfern made a number of such films (he probably made the film of W.G. Grace at Trent Bridge but otherwise none of his cricket films are known to survive). Mitchell & Kenyon, now well-known for their actuality records of Edwardian life chiefly in northern England, regularly filmed cricket matches, though as with their football films the emphasis was on the crowds and the occasion as much as the play. An exception is the intriguing film illustrated above, showing Lancashire bowler A.H. Mold attempting to demonstrate that his controversial bowling action was legitimate (it looks OK to me), a very early example of a film being set up as evidence in a dispute. The batsman is A.N. Hornby.

The film record is not that much better for the 1910s, partly because the intervention of the First World War meant a lot less top class cricket and consequently far fewer cricket films. The newsreels were still finding their feet as a form, and they did not really take up the challenge of filming cricket at this period. A number of films from the teens exist at the BFI National Archive, while some interesting examples are held British Pathé, available to view on their site (do note that Pathé’s dating of these films is very approximate):

Sometimes films can be found which are no longer films. I’ve previously posted on film strips to be found in a cricket instructional book, A.C. MacLaren’s The Perfect Batsman: J.B. Hobbs in Action. Though published in 1925, the films of Hobbs it uses were made in 1914 by Cherry Kearton Ltd. It’s not the same film as appears on the British Pathé site, noted above. I’ve re-animated the clips, albeit crudely, and have placed two sequences on YouTube, adding a small something to the meagre archive of cricket films in the 1910s.

Re-animated plates 2, 8 and 10 from The Perfect Batsman: J.B. Hobbs in Action, showing Hobbs in 1914

Plates 3, 6 and 9 from The Perfect Batsman

It is when we get to the 1920s that the cricket film record starts to become very rich indeed. The British newsreels started to cover the game avidly, sometimes county games but especially Test matches. The films were not long – generally two or three minutes at most, and thus had huge challenges trying to document a day or more’s sport in such a tiny space. And yet they did, with a good amount of skill, luck and sleight of hand.

The Topical Budget newsreel film at the top of this post from 1926, when England regained the Ashes from Australia after fourteen years (and humiliation five years earlier in 1921), is a good example. It shows the procession of Australian wickets at the Oval ground on the final day’s play, neatly cutting between action on the pitch and the scoreboard. Sometimes the camera encompasses both the bowler and the batsman in the single shot, so that we know we are witnessing a complete action. More often, however, we see the bowler, then there is a cut to the batsman playing the shot. Most of the time the ball the batsman plays is not the bowl that we saw bowled to him in the previous shot. The art of editing to make us believe what the filmmaker wants us to believe extends beyond the fiction film. With up to ten wickets scheduled to fall in an innings that lasts several hours, it was an impossible for a cameraman with a few hundred feet of film at his disposal to capture every one. The film shows on a number of occasions a ball bowled, then a batsman walking away disconsonantly, without showing us how he got out. Remarkably on a couple of occasions we do see the actual fall of a wicket – a triumph for the quick-witted cameraman.

The newsreels dramatise cricket as much as they document it. The films are composed as battles; the assault by the one side with the ball, the response by the other wielding the bat. The Oval Test film expresses in its construction the pressure exerted by the England team’s bowling and the crumbling of the Australian resistance, cultminating in the joyous invasion of the crowd (no such scenes allowed these days) at the film’s climax. It is a triumphal film about a sporting triumph.

There are hundreds of British newsreels of cricket available to view online, on the British Pathé and ITN Source sites. For Pathé, click on the Advanced Search option, type ‘cricket’ into the Description box, then select 1920s from the Decades option lower down the screen. There are some 200 films available. For ITN Source, click on Advanced Search, type ‘cricket’ into the search box, tick the box marked New Classics, then select 1920s as the decade – there are 58 results. For anyone who knows their cricket history (and it was a golden period for cricket – Hobbs, Sutcliffe, Rhodes, Gregory, Grimmett, Woodfull, Woolley, Hendren, Bardsley, hammond, then in 1930 the arrival of the phenomenon that was Don Bradman), there are such riches to be found.

A blatant recreation of Hobbs hitting the runs by which he achieved his 126th century, from The Life of Jack Hobbs, from http://www.britishpathe.com

And it’s not all newsreels. There are training films, interviews (silent ones), and longer films. British Pathé has one of the most notable longer cricket films of the period, The Life of Jack Hobbs (1925), a biographical documentary of England’s greatest batsman of the period (or arguably any other period). The film shows Hobbs relaxing at home, demonstrating shots, playing in games, and securing his famous 126th century, thereby beating a record set by W.G. Grace. The film is available in four reels – one, two and three plus offcuts. It doggedly follows Hobbs round the country while he kept on not quite scoring the 100 runs the nation was willing him to score, before he did so at Taunton. The film captures the moment, but also gets Hobbs to recreate the shot in close-up with the camera hanging right over him mid-pitch.

This illustrates the degree to which cricketers were willing to co-operate with the cameras to show themselves to their best advantage. Hobbs had signed an exclusive deal with United International Corporation, producers of the film, and in his autobiography he has some interesting things to say about working with film companies as the price of fame.

The largest collection of cricket films from the silent era is that held by the BFI National Archive, which holds the Topical Budget newsreel, something of a cricket specialist, plus amateur films, documentaries, local topicals, animation films and advertisements. The BFI also holds one or two fiction films with a cricket film. The 1925 feature film A Daughter of Love features a cricketing hero (played by John Stuart) whose marriage at the end of the film sees the happy couple process between two lines of cricketers with their bats raised to form a row of arches. Just a few of the BFI’s cricket films are available online, alas, a couple of them included here.

The other major source of cricket films from this period is Australia, of course. There are twenty-five silent era cricket films given on the catalogue of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, and clips from a number of these can be seen on the excellent australian screen site. Here are some examples:

Just last month the NFSA unveiled a new digital master of the earliest known surviving film of test cricket action in Australia, filmed in December 1910 by Pathé’s Animated Gazette at the Sydney Cricket Ground when they were playing South Africa. Tantalisingly brief, it does at least show good camera positioning at an angle to the pitch to impart the right amount of dynamism.

South Africa v Australia, 9 December 1910. The film is described in loving detail on the NFSA blog

For a number of years I used to programme cricket films at the National Film Theatre in London. Others more expert than I would present the films on the stage, talking through the films and identifying every player, while noted cricketers from not quite such bygone ages sat in the audience and everyone sighed nostalgically for an era when giants seemed to walk the pitches of England, when times were nobler, the game was better played, and everyone shown in monochrome was so much greater than those wretched souls who toiled so desperately for England in the real world. I’ve never cared so much for a nostalgia which always places the past above the present, and believe firmly that the present generation of players would very probably humble the greats of yesteryear were they ever able somehow to have the two compete on the pitch.

But very fleeting nature of the early cricket film records enhances the greatness somehow. The sturdiness of a Hobbs off-drive, the beguiling spin of Clarrie Grimmett, the stylish nonchalance of Ranjitsinhji, the imperious confidence of W.G. Grace – so little of them survives on film, yet what is there, played over and over again, encapsulates the legend. We see just enough to have the tale told. Film is a romantic medium, and actuality film can sometimes be the most romantic of all.

The siege of Sidney Street

Home Secretary Winston Churchill (in top hat) watching the Siege of Sidney Street, part of the Pathé’s Animated Gazette’s coverage, ‘Battle of London’, from British Pathé. Bioscope regulars will be delighted to note the stray dog in the bottom left-hand corner

On the night of 16 December 1910 a group of Latvian revolutionaries attempted to rob a jeweller’s shop at 119 Houdsditch in the City of London. Their aim was to obtain funds to support revolutionary activity in Russia (and to support themselves), but their efforts to break in were overheard and nine policemen were called to the scene. The Latvians were armed; the policemen were not, and in the ensuing confrontation three of the police were shot dead and two injured.

The public was horrified by what swiftly became known as the Houndsditch Murders, which followed on from the ‘Tottenham Outrage’ of the previous year when two Latvians had shot dead a constable and a child following an interrupted robbery. One of the Houndsditch gang, George Gardstein, had died of his injuries, having been shot accidentally by a confederate, but a huge manhunt built up to track down all of the gang, a number of whom were arrested before two (neither of whom it is now thought were present at the Houndsditch burglary) were tracked down to 100 Sidney Street, Stepney in London’s East End.

Sidney Street, from the Andrew Pictures coverage. No. 100 is on the far right-hand side of the street, below the number 3 of the ITN Source ID number

The Siege of Sidney Street (or the Battle of Stepney) that was to follow took place 100 years ago on 3 January 1911. It has gained lasting fame for unprecedented scenes that brought armed police and troops onto the streets of London to conduct a siege with desperate revolutionaries, all of which took place before the startled (and undoubtedly thrilled) eyes of the public and the press. Among those recording the events as they happened were five film companies, and it is their story that forms the reason for this centenary post.

The besieged Latvians were Fritz Svaars and William Sokoloff, known as Joseph. They had taken refuge at 100 Sidney Street only for their position to be given away by an informer late in the evening of New Year’s Day. Detectives were sent under cover of darkness to watch over the building while they tried to determine the two men’s movements by contact with a lodger and the informant. Keen not to have the men slip out their grasp, but knowing they would be armed, the police felt they had to act. In the early hours of Tuesday 3 January, armed police were positioned in houses and shops surrounding the block in which contained 100 Sidney Street. By 3.00am there were 200 policemen in place. It was realised that storming the building by its staircase would be foolhardy as the two men would have the advantage by firing down on the police officers, so the adjacent buildings were cleared of other people and the police waited for daylight.

Soldier firing from a shop door, part of the Pathé coverage, from British Pathe

As dawn broke, people started to gather around the police cordon, trying to find out what was happening. The police threw stones at the second-floor window where they believed the two men were hiding. Nothing happened. Then someone threw a brick and smashed a window pane. From the floor below shots fired out and a policeman was hit. A hail of bullets followed as they tried to move the wounded man. The two men were well-armed (they were better munitioned than the police, certainly) and well-positioned. An order was sent to bring in troops from the Tower of London. Scots Guards were sent, on the authority of the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, who thought upon hearing the news that it would be not interesting if he were to go along and see things for himself.

By this time the press had got wind of the story, and reporters, photographers and newsreel cameramen were arriving on the scene. Five film companies were present: Pathé, Gaumont, Andrews Pictures, Co-operative and the Warwick Trading Company. Pathé (Pathé’s Animated Gazette), Gaumont (Gaumont Graphic) and Warwick (Warwick Bioscope Chronicle) had each recently established a newsreels and were companies with well-established newsfilm credentials. Co-operative specialised in Shakespeare productions, so it is something or a surprise to see them involved, while Andrews Pictures was a small-scale film renter and exhibitor. Presumably any firm who got wind of what was happening and had a camera operator at the ready made the most of the opportunity. Three of the five films taken that day survive: those of Pathé, Gaumont and Andrews.

Frame stills from the lost Sidney Street siege films made by Co-operative (left, showing the arrival of a fire engine) and Warwick (showing crowds in the area after the siege), from an article on the siege films in The Bioscope 5 January 1911, p. 9

The troops assumed positions around the building and began firing (it was by now around 11.00am). The barrage of fire from both sides was relentless and was to continue for around two hours. The crowds around the perimeter were now considerable, and policemen had a difficult time holding them back, as the newsreel films make clear. The films showed the heaving crowds, the troops getting into position, policemen armed with rifles, and gunfire coming from the buildings either side of Sidney Street.

Gaumont’s coverage shows police gunfire from the buildings opposite 100 Sidney Street, from ITN Source

The Home Secretary had not been able to get the better of his curiosity. He arrived by car at midday and positioned himself at the corner of Sidney Street and Lindley Street, peering round to see what was happening. It was an extraordinarily foolhardy action, one which would soon lead to much criticism (and regret on Churchill’s part) but at the time the idea went round that he was directing operations. Pathé’s cameraman gained a huge scoop by obtaining close shots of Churchill (though the story that film was taken of a bullet going through his top hat is quite false). It seems that no other newsreel filmed him – Gaumont certainly did not, as they were positioned on the other side of the street, while Andrews resorted to deceit, declaring that its footage of men looking down at the siege included a rear view shot of Churchill (Churchill did not take up any rooftop position).

Then 100 Sidney Street caught fire. The gunfire ceased momentarily as wisps and plumes of smoke started to pour out of the building, which is vividly shown in the film record. Flames could seen from the windows, then the shooting started up again – not just from the soldiers because, extraordinarily, the men inside were still returning fire. Joseph may have been shot dead at this time (the fire started around 1.00pm), while Fritz Svaars died in the flames when the roof caved in and part of the first floor collapsed. Soldiers fired further volleys, then ceased. No one had escaped from the building and it was clear no one could have survived such an inferno. Fire engines arrived and poured water on the charred remains. As firemen entered the building, part of a wall collapsed and one of them died of his injuries – the third and final death caused by the siege of Sidney Street.

Pathé’s Animated Gazette’s coverage, showing 100 Sidney Street on fire, from British Pathe

The bodies of Fritz Svaars and Joseph were discovered inside, the second only as late as 8.00pm, by which time the newsreel films had been processed, printed and were on show in some London cinemas, scooping much of the press. In the manner of newsreels at this time, the films let the pictures do the talking. Intertitles on the extant films are matter-of-fact and offer little in the way of explanation, though they do employ loaded terms such as ‘assassins’, ‘murderers’ ‘aliens’ and ‘outrage’. The sensational nature of the films was all that was needed. Detailed description and background speculation was for the newspapers; the newsreels had simply to show audiences what the event looked like, to present the moving pictures of what everyone was talking about. The audience themselves would supply the rest.

These were the Houndsditch Murderers, or at least their associates, and most of the public would not have been greatly interested in their affiliations and what drove them to such desperate actions. Their war was not with the British authorities per se, but rather with Tsarist Russia. They (and there were a dozen or so associated with Houndsditch and Sidney Street) were refugees in Britain, which they used as a base for fund-raising and plotting revolution back in Russia. They had strong ideological motivation, and would have been contemptuous of the British police and army as tools of the oppressors. For the popular press they were all anarchists, but most had Social Revolutionary or Marxist affiliations, and had fought in terrible encounters with Tsarist forces, some of them undergoing savage beatings and torture. They believed they would receive similar brutality from the British police should they be caught, which helps explain some of their actions (Fritz Svaars in particular feared that he would break under torture after beatings he had received in Riga a year before). They used robbery to raise funds to support themselves and associates at home, and in some cases for gun-running or the production of propagandist literature.

Most were Jewish, and were part of the wave of refugees driven out of Russia by the pogroms of the late 1800s and the savage reprisals that followed the failed 1905 revolution. Britain had a reputation as a haven for such refugees, though most ended up in the sweatshops of the East End, desperately poor and roundly despised by the rest of society as ‘aliens’. British film contributed to this climate of hostility. Hepworth produced The Aliens’ Invasion (1905), in which English workmen were shown being thrown out of work because of Jewish immigrants accepting low wages; the Precision Film Company produced Anarchy in England (1909), which recreated the Tottenham Outrage; while Clarendon made The Invaders (1909) in which armed foreign spies occupy a British house disguised as Jewish tailors. However, most often films portrayed anarchists as figures of fun, as in Walturdaw’s The Anarchist and his Dog (1908) – he throws his bomb, but the dog retrieves it. The siege of Sidney Street itself was not dramatised at the time, but the basic details contribute to the climactic scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and a close recreation was attempted in Hammer’s The Siege of Sidney Street (1960).

The causes that drove the revolutionaries of 1911 have faded into history, even if terrorism on British shores inspired by overseas conflict and a different set of beliefs has not. But the films remain, and the press reports, and the photographs, and the many picture postcards that were produced, as tragedy was turned into commerce. The films not only show extraordinarily exciting things happening on the streets of London, but they show us an area of London never before visited by the motion picture camera. The wretched, run-down area of Stepney of 1911 would not have attracted cameras in the normal course of events, but humble Sidney Street, its environs and inhabitants gain some sort of fleeting immortality each time we run the films again, before disappearing back into history as the cameras once more turn to focus elsewhere.

Map of the Sidney Street area showing the besieged building (marked with red dot) and main camera positions of Andrews (A), Gaumont (G) and Pathé (P). Map from http://www.jewisheastend.com.

Three of the five newsreels made of the Sidney Street siege exist at the BFI National Archive, with further copies of these at British Pathé and ITN Source. Each runs for two to three minutes in length. Happily versions of all three can be found online:

  • The Battle of London (Pathé)
    Copies held by the BFI National Archive and British Pathé. There are two films on the British Pathé site – one is a dupe of the BFI film, the other is not Pathé’s film at all – it is Andrews’ (see below). The Pathé film, shot mostly from the north end of Sidney Street, shows police and troops taking positions (some shots look like they were staged afterwards), Churchill viewing the scene, the building catching fire (front and rear views), the fire brigade, and crowds in the streets afterwards. The intertitles read: “Battle of London. Houndsditch Assassins at bay, Besieged by soldiers and Armed Police” … “Troops firing at the murderers in Sydney [sic] Street” … “Mr. Winston Churchill, Home Secretary, watching the battle with the chiefs of Police and Detectives” … “The Besieged House catches Fire” … “Removing the bodies of the murdered and injured firemen”
  • The Great East End Anarchist Battle (Gaumont)
    Copies held by the BFI National Archive and ITN Source. The version on the ITN Source begins with the Gaumont film then at 2.43 turns into the Andrews film (see below). The film shows crowds and police to the south end of Sidney Street, police pushing back the crowds, views of either side of Sidney Street with smoke from gunfire, police holding back crowds with difficulty, view of the building on fire from rooftop of building opposite. The Gaumont intertitles on the ITN copy read: [No main title] … “The police pushing back the crowd at the commencement of the firing” … “The fire – and after”.
  • Houndsditch Murderers (Andrews Pictures)
    Copies held by the BFI National Archive, British Pathé and ITN Source. The BFI has two versions, one with English and one with German titles, Anarchistenschlat in London. The version online at ITN follows immediately after the Gaumont film; the version online at British Pathé is listed separately (though not as an Andrews film). The film shows views of Sidney Street from the south end with gunfire and police holding back crowds, rooftop view of the building on fire, further gunfire and police holding back crowds, rear view of men on rooftop (intertitles falsely state that Churchill is one of them), rooftop view of building catching fire and arrival of firemen who aim hoses at the building, a number of firemen scale a ladder. [Note: the ITN version is complete and in the correct order; the British Pathe copy is jumbled and incomplete] The intertitles on the ITN copy read: “Houndsditch Murderers. The Great Aliens Outrage at Mile End Shewing the Actual Scenes” … “Police and Soldiers Firing From Alleyways and Windows” … “Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill Directing Operations” [the German version in the BFI does not have this title] … “The Besieged House In Flames” … “Back View and Detectives Firing On Besieged Building” … “Arrival of Fire Brigades From All Parts of London And Entering House”

The BFI reportedly also has a Pathé’s Animated Gazette newsreel item on the December 1910 funeral of the policemen whose deaths led to the Sidney Street siege, Funeral in London of the Policemen Murdered by Burglars in Houndsditch (1910). (It is not listed on the current catalogue but is given in its 1965 Silent News Films catalogue, cat. no. N.323) [Update: The film exists – see comments]


For further information on the Sidney Street siege, there is one essential source. Donald Rumbelow’s The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street (1973, revised 1988) is the classic account, outstanding in the dramatic detail and in its understanding of both police procedure and the revolutionaries’ motivations.

The Metropolitan Police Service has a short history of the siege from its point of view on its website. For an anarchist viewpoint, try www.siegememory.net, an interactive documentary on the siege currently in development (do check out the video trailer which claims that the mysterious ‘Peter the Painter’ – one of the ‘anarchist’ gang – is an ancestor of David Beckham).

The Museum of London Docklands currently has a small exhibition showing artefacts from the siege, examples of which can be view here. The exhibition runs until April 2011. The Independent has another image gallery, using exhibition artefacts and pictures from Donald Rumbelow’s collection.

Looking back on 2010

Lillian Gish knows just what it’s like in north Kent, from Way Down East

The snows of winter are piling up in fantastic drifts about the portals of Bioscope Towers. Icy blasts find their way through every crack and cranny. Outside, civilization grinds to a glacial halt, and the end of the year now beckons. In the relative warmth of the Bioscope scriptorium, I’ve been thinking it would be a good idea to look back on what happened in the world of silent film over 2010. So here’s a recap of highlights from the past twelve months, as reported on the Bioscope (and in a few other places) – silent memories to warm us all.

There were three really big stories in 2010. For many of us, the most welcome news story of this or any other year was the honorary Oscar that went to Kevin Brownlow for a lifetime dedicated to the cause of silent films. The restored Metropolis had its premiere in a wintry Berlin in February. It has now been screened acround the world and issued on DVD and Blu-Ray. And there was the sensational discovery by Paul E. Gierucki of A Thief Catcher, a previously unknown appearance by Chaplin in a 1914 Keystone film, which was premiered at Slapsticon in June.

It was an important year for digitised documents in our field. David Pierce’s innovative Media History Digital Library project promises to digitise many key journals, having made a good start with some issues of Photoplay. The Bioscope marked this firstly by a post rounding up silent film journals online and then by creating a new section which documents all silent film journals now available in this way. A large number of film and equipment catalogues were made available on the Cinémathèque française’s Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma. Among the books which became newly-available for free online we had Kristin Thompson’s Exporting Entertainment, and the invaluable Kinematograph Year Book for 1914.

Among the year’s restorations, particularly notable were Bolivia’s only surviving silent drama, Wara Wara, in September, while in October the UK’s major silent restoration was The Great White Silence, documenting the doomed Scott Antarctic expedition.

We said goodbye to a number of silent film enthusiasts and performers. Particularly mourned in Britain was Dave Berry, the great historian of Welsh cinema and a friend to many. Those who also left us included Dorothy Janis (who starred in The Pagan opposite Ramon Novarro); film restorer and silent film technology expert Karl Malkames; the uncategorisable F. Gwynplaine Macintyre; and film archivist Sam Kula. One whose passing the Bioscope neglected to note was child star Baby Marie Osborne, who made her film debut aged three, saw her starring career end at the age of eight, then had a further ninety-one years to look back on it all.

Arctic conditions in Rochester uncannily replicated in Georges Méliès’ A la Conquête du Pôle (1912)

On the DVD and Blu-Ray front, Flicker Alley followed up its 2008 5-disc DVD set of Georges Méliès with a sixth disc, Georges Méliès Encore, which added 26 titles not on the main set (plus two by Segundo de Chomón in the Méliès style). It then gave us the 4-DVD set Chaplin at Keystone. Criterion excelled itself by issuing a three-film set of Von Sternberg films: Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928) and The Docks of New York (1928). Other notable releases (aside from Metropolis, already mentioned) were Flicker Alley’s Chicago (1927) and An Italian Straw Hat (1927), Kino’s Talmadge sisters set (Constance and Norma), the Norwegian Film Institute’s Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition (1910-1912) and Il Cinema Ritrovato’s Cento anni fa: Attrici comiche e suffragette 1910-1914 / Comic Actresses and Suffragettes 1910-1914, while the Bioscope’s pick of the growing number of Blu-Ray releases is F.W. Murnau’s City Girl (1930), released by Eureka. But possibly the disc release of the year was the BFI’s Secrets of Nature, revealing the hypnotic marvels of natural history filmmaking in the 1920s and 30s – a bold and eye-opening release.

New websites turned up in 2010 that have enriched our understanding of the field. The Danish Film Institute at long last published its Carl Th. Dreyer site, which turned out to be well worth the wait. Pianist and film historian Neil Brand published archival materials relating to silent film music on his site The Originals; the Pordenone silent film festival produced a database of films shown in past festivals; the daughters of Naldi gave us the fine Nita Naldi, Silent Vamp site; while Kevin Brownlow’s Photoplay Productions finally took the plunge and published its first ever website.

The crew for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle, ready for anything the elements can throw at them

Among film discoveries, in March we learned of the discovery of Australia’s earliest surviving film, the Lumière film Patineur Grotesque (possibly October 1896); in June we heard about a major collection of American silents discovered in New Zealand; and digital copies of ten American silents held in the Russian film archive were donated to the Library of Congress in October. That same month the Pordenone silent film festival unveiled the tantalising surviving frgament of F.W. Murnau’s Marizza, Genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna (1921-22). There was also time for films not yet discovered, as the BFI issued its Most Wanted list of lost films, most of them silents, while it also launched an appeal to ‘save the Hitchcock 9” (i.e. his nine surviving silents).

The online silent video hit of the year was quite unexpected: Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland (1903) went viral after the release of the Tim Burton film of Lewis Carroll’s story. It has had nearly a million views since February and generated a fascinating discussion on this site. Notable online video publications included UCLA’s Silent Animation site; three Mexican feature films: Tepeyac (1917), El tren fantasma (1927) and El puño de hierro (1927); and the eye-opening Colonial Films, with dramas made in Africa, contentious documentaries and precious news footage.

2010 was undoubtedly the year of Eadweard Muybridge. There was a major exhibition of the photographer’s work at Tate Britain and another at Kingston Museum (both still running), publications including a new biography by Marta Braun, while Kingston produced a website dedicated to him. He also featured in the British Library’s Points of View photography exhibition. There was also controversy about the authorship of some of Muybridge’s earliest photographs, and a somewhat disappointing BBC documentary. In 2010 there was no avoiding Eadweard Muybridge. Now will the proposed feature film of his life get made?

Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance trapped in the Medway ice, from South (1919)

It was an interesting year for novel musical accompaniment to silents: we had silent film with guitars at the New York Guitar Festival; and with accordions at Vienna’s Akkordeon festival. But musical event of the year had to be Neil Brand’s symphonic score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), given its UK premiere in November.

Noteworthy festivals (beyond the hardy annuals of Pordenone, Bologna, Cinecon etc) included the huge programme of early ‘short’ films at the International Short Film Festival at Oberhausen in April/May; and an equally epic survey of Suffragette films in Berlin in September; while the British Silent Film Festival soldierly on bravely despite the unexpected intervention of an Icelandic volcano.

On the conference side of things, major events were the Domitor conference, Beyond the Screen: Institutions, Networks and Publics of Early Cinema, held in Toronto in June; the Sixth International Women and Film History Conference, held in Bologna also in June; and Charlie in the Heartland: An International Charlie Chaplin Conference, held in Zanesville, Ohio in October.

It wasn’t a great year for silent films on British TV (when is it ever?), but the eccentric Paul Merton’s Weird and Wonderful World of Early Cinema at least generated a lot of debate, while in the US sound pioneer Eugene Lauste was the subject of PBS’s History Detectives. Paul Merton was also involved in an unfortunate spat with the Slapstick festival in Bristol in January over who did or did not invite Merton to headline the festival.

The art of the silent film carried on into today with the feature film Louis (about Louis Armstrong’s childhood), and the silent documentary feature How I Filmed the War. Of the various online modern silent shorts featured over the year, the Bioscope’s favourite was Aardman Animation’s microscopic stop-frame animation film Dot.

Charlie Chaplin contemplates the sad collapse of Southeastern railways, after just a few flakes of snow, from The Gold Rush

What else happened? Oscar Micheaux made it onto a stamp. We marked the centenary of the British newsreel in June. In October Louise Brooks’ journals were opened by George Eastman House, after twenty-five years under lock and key. Lobster Films discovered that it is possible to view some Georges Méliès films in 3D.

And, finally, there have been a few favourite Bioscope posts (i.e. favourites of mine) that I’ll give you the opportunity to visit again: a survey of lost films; an exhaustively researched three-part post on Alfred Dreyfus and film; the history of the first Japanese dramatic film told through a postcard; and Derek Mahon’s poetic tribute to Robert Flaherty.

It’s been quite a year, but what I haven’t covered here is books, largely because the Bioscope has been a bit neglectful when it comes to noting new publications. So that can be the subject of another post, timed for when you’ll be looking for just the right thing on which to spend those Christmas book tokens. Just as soon as we can clear the snow from our front doors.

And one more snowy silent – Abel Gance’s Napoléon recreates the current scene outside Rochester castle, from http://annhardingstreasures.blogspot.com

Footage on demand

http://www.criticalpast.com

There are many archive footage websites which are offering their wares to the commercial footage researcher, but whose holdings are going to be of interest to the academic enthusiast. We’ve previously covered such resources as British Pathe and British Movietone, and will return to other such sites in due course. One that has come to my attention that is just a little bit different is CriticalPast. It’s certainly worth some investigation.

CriticalPast is designed to make films and still images easily available to professionals and non-professionals alike. It currently holds over 57,000 videos and 7 million still images, all royalty-free, much of it content from US government agencies, plus such familiar collections as the Ford and Universal Newsreels collections. While many footage allow visitors to view preview clips, CriticalPast lets users download footage or images immediately (upon payment, of course, and after assenting to a licence agreement), with different image resolution and prices according to usage. The cheapest rate is $3.97 (for iPhone, iPad, PowerPoint etc); the commercial rate for say an HD MPEG2 1080-25p depends on file size e.g. a 5 minute video of at 1.3GB would cost $145.

What makes CriticalPast stand out, apart from the user-friendly ordering, is the quality of the searching experience and the sheer quantity and quality of what is on offer. It is almost all non-fiction film material, ranging from 1891 (genuinely so – it’s an early Edison test) to 1996 (a few rogue fiction films have slipped in, like Chaplin’s The Bond, D.W. Griffith’s The New York Hat and clips from The Birth of a Nation). The largest amount of material comes from the 1940s. As well as the simple front-page search there is an advance search option which allows to to search by specific dates, date range, colour, silent or sound, edited or unedited, language, and location. There is a very helpful timeline dividing clips up by decade, then year and thereafter by location. Once you have searched for any subject there is the option to refine your search further by decade/year, location and format. The cataloguing information is generally good, with concise, informative description and US Government Archive ID numbers. For any item you choose you can tweet about it, send to Facebook, Stumble Upon etc., email the information to a friend – and, yes, you can even view it. The images are all frame stills from the videos (British Pathe is another footage library which has created a subsidiary image archive by capturing frames as regular intervals as part of the video digitising process).

Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance in The Bond (1918), available in its 1942 Canadian reissue form under the title Some Bonds I Have Known

If we concentrate on the silent film era (which is our wont) there are some 7,200 clips available. You can find Edison films from the 1890s, then news-based material from around the world (it certainly isn’t just restricted to the USA, and interestingly there are quite a few British Gaumont Graphic newsreels), with strong World War I material (there isn’t that much in the archive before 1915), travel, exploration and industrial films, and much surprisingly material for the curious browser. I have found oil exploration in Persia in 1908, British food aid being received by Russian villagers in 1917, US black troops on horseback and bicycle in 1918, Hungarian newsreels of its brief Soviet republic of 1919, footage of Ernest Shackleton’s final Antarctic expedition in 1922, and the production of nitrate film stock in Rochester, NY in 1929.

It’s a fascinating site, compulsively browsable, and really useful whether you are looking to use clips yourself or not. Go explore.

A perfect light

Robert Flaherty filming Nanook of the North

The relief to be out of the sun,
To have come north once more
To my islands of dark ore
Where winter is so long
Only a little light
Gets through, and that perfect.

I think this is my favourite film poem. It’s not immediately obvious that it is about film; for that you need its title and subtitle: “Epitaph for Robert Flaherty (after reading The Innocent Eye, by Arthur Calder-Marshall, in Montreal, Canada)”. It was written by the Irish poet Derek Mahon and first published in 1968 in his collection Night-Crossing (the long subtitle appeared later). It is the last two lines that are so acute: “Only a little light/Gets through, and that perfect”. Is there a better, more poetically concise summation of photographic art?

Though the poem is called an epitaph, it gives the impression of being the thoughts of Robert Flaherty, while at the same time Derek Mahon himself. The location is similarly ambiguous. Mahon references Canada in the subtitle, and with the mention of the north, “dark ore” and the long winter it seems he is thinking of the Arctic wastes where Flaherty first filmed in 1913 (on the Belcher Islands of Hudson Bay). Although Flaherty had gone out the as a prospector (for iron ore) he became fascinated by the Inuit people and was encouraged to operate a motion picture camera by the railroad entrepreneur William Mackenzie who had sponsored the prospecting work. He was dissatisfied with the results (and lost much of what he had filmed in a fire) and returned in 1920 to northern Quebec to film what became Nanook of the North (1922), a study of the lives of the Inuit and the founding statement of the art of documentary.

But Mahon the Irishman and Flaherty the Irish-American are just as much thinking of Aran, the island location of Flaherty’s 1934 documentary, Man of Aran (a sound film, but one that was shot silent). The Aran Islands, in Galway Bay, contain no dark ore, but Mahon is thinking of that deep vein of timeless culture (or an idea of that culture) that has drawn so many artists, Flaherty among them. His film notoriously documents a romantic idea of Aran, with the islanders being encouraged to recreate cultural practics (such as the shark hunt) which they had not followed for decades. For Flaherty, literal truth is less important than elemental truth.

Man of Aran, from moma.org

So, is the island of the poem in Hudson Bay or Galway Bay? The volume in which ‘Epitaph for Robert Flaherty’ appears, Night-Crossing contains a second poem, ‘Recalling Aran’), while the two poems are book-ended by ‘Canadian Pacific’ and ‘April on Toronto Island’, showing how the poet has purposefully mixed up thoughts of home and abroad. But the poem is an epitaph, and consequently about death (“out of the sun”), the island therefore being not so much an actual place as an idea of death as Ultima Thule – “death as the terminal island … with the island as ultimate art” as Edna Longley describes it), the place at the edge of the world (to give the title of another film made about remote lives).

The dilemma for the ethnographic filmmaker has always been that the camera they take with them – the symbol of modern civilization – helps bring about the destruction of that which it seeks to record (“Each man kills the thing he loves”, as another Irishman put it). Flaherty’s solution was to record the dream rather than the actuality – the idea of a pure, remote culture, rather than the compromised reality. He filmed with a poet’s eye. Derek Mahon responds with a poet’s appreciation of the filmmaker’s quest, equating the escape from the remorseless advance of the modern with the capture, out of the dark, of that elusive, perfect light.

Trailer for A Boatload of Wild Irishmen

Robert Flaherty is the subject of a new feature-length documentary, A Boatload of Wild Irishmen, directed by Mac Dara O’Curraidhin and written by Brian Winston. I ‘ve not seen it yet and don’t know if it will get shown beyond the festival circuit, but the trailer certainly whets the appetite, both to see the films again (Louisiana Story – such a beautiful film) and to learn more about a filmmaker whose vision is still so inspirational for anyone seeking out the dark ore of why it is we want to film the world at all.

Arthur Calder-Marshall’s classic biography of Flaherty, The Innocent Eye is available on the Internet Archive, and will be placed forthwith in the Bioscope Library. Nanook of the North is available on DVD from Criterion. Man of Aran is not currently available on DVD, but used copies can be easily found. Derek Mahon’s Night-Crossings is out of print, but ‘Epitaph for Robert Flaherty’, ‘Recalling Aran’ (later retitled as ‘Thinking of Inishere in Cambridge, Massachusetts’), ‘Canadian Pacific’ and ‘April in Toronto Island’ can all be found in his Collected Poems.

The colonial gaze

Baghdad (1928), made by British Instructional Films, from http://colonialfilm.org.uk

Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire is a newly-published website supplying information on films about the British colonies. How quaint that sounds. But for a large part of the twentieth-century (and therefore for a large part of the time that there have been motion picture films) the British Empire and its aftermath was assiduously documented on film, dramatised on film, and film traffic between the colonies was much debated and legislated over.

The result is a substantial archive of film about the Empire that is no more which has become a rich source for socio-politcal historians as well as film historians with an interest beyond the familiar. It was to serve such an audience that the Colonial Film project was established, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and organised by Birkbeck College and University College London in partnership with three film archives: the BFI National Archive, the Imperial War Museum, and the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum.

The chief result of this three-year project is the website, at the heart of which is a database of some 6,000 colonial films, taken from the records of the three archives. A lot of these records are available elsewhere i.e. on the databases of the BFI and the IWM, but there is obviously some convenience in bringing them together under this particular subject. The project researchers have added a great deal of background information for some the films, beyond the shotlists that the archives previously produced (some of them typed by these very fingers, a number of moons ago), including ‘context’ and ‘analysis’ sections, which put the films in a modern perspective. The project has also digitised and made available online some 150 titles.

The Stoll Film Company’s Nionga (1925)

The films catalogued range in date from Arrivée d’un train à Melbourne (1896) to RAF Gibraltar Flight Safety Commercials (2005). Our interest, as always, is in the silent film material, and of those 6,000 around 750 are from the silent era, and 32 are available to view online. The films described included actualities, newsreels, drama-documentaries, travelogues, industrial films and fiction films, all evidence of the abiding interest the Empire had for British filmmakers and (to a degree) British audiences.

What I want to highlight here are the films that are available to view, because they are fine collection in themselves. The site comes with some impressive searching tools, including an interactive map of the world for searching by country, and searching by theme (“Empire and Administration, Empire and Development, Empire and Education, Empire and Health, Empire and Independence …”), production company, genre and event. The advanced search option lets you select by date range and narrow searches down to films you can view, so select 1896-1929 and tick the box that says “show only works with videos” and there you are.

Among the treasures to view are three silent feature films, examples of the remarkable (and curiously British) mini-genre of dramas set in far-flung lands (usually Africa) featuring native performers. There is Palaver: A Romance of Northern Nigeria (1928), made by Geoffrey Barkas for British Instructional Films (“Filmed amongst the Sura and Angas people of the Bauchi Plateau in Northern Nigeria, where the rivalry between a British District Officer and a tin miner leads to war”); the Stoll Film Company’s Nionga (1925) (“Nionga, a chieftain’s daughter, is induced by a vindictive witch-doctor to persuade her betrothed lover, Kasari, to plot the destruction of a neighbouring tribe”), for which the filmmaker is not known; and Stampede (1930), made by the adventurers Majour Court Treatt and his wife Stella, filmed in the Sudan (“The film tells the story of Boru, adopted into the ‘Habbania’ tribe after his mother is killed by a lion, who grows up with the Sheikh’s son, Nikitu”).

One watches these curious mixtures of travelogue, ethnography and melodrama with both fascination and bemusement, the latter because to is hard to see how they were ever viewed as commercial propositions. The films attempt to be liberating in how they tell stories of African life with African performers, but the colonialist attitude is revealed in patronising titles, the portrayal of Africans as impressionable and child-like, and the choice presented of good (because paternalist) and bad (because they lead Africans astray) whites in Palaver. Nionga has an all-African cast and so offers the opportunity for a fresh point of view, but titles promising a drama of “a crude life of simple people” and “a glimpse into the minds of Savages” demonstrate that the film is constructed entirely from a Western White point of view. Stampede (which has a music track and commentary) was made by travel filmmakers who added a fictionalised element because it was the only way for them to produce a commercial film. In the end one watches these films not for the dramas imposed upon the performers but for the incidental details of African life that the dramas cannot entirely obscure.

Montego Bay to Williamsfield, Jamaica (1913)

There are other short fiction films: the resoundingly gung-ho How a British Bulldog Saved the Union Jack (1906) and Edison’s drama of the Indian ‘Mutiny’, The Relief of Lucknow (1912). Among the non-fiction films and such gems as the Charles Urban Trading COmpany’s A Trip through British North Borneo (1907); British Instructional Film’s engrossing West Africa Calling (1927); another BIF travelogue of particular interest today, Baghdad (1928); Gaumont’s spectacular record of the 1911 Delhi Durbar ceremonies marking the coronation of King George V; and another Charles Urban production, the Kineto company’s Montego Bay to Williamsfield, Jamaica (1913), a subject apparently filmed in both Kinemacolor and monochrome (alas, only the monochrome survives).

This is an impressive resource, though some are going to find it frustrating to be faced with so many catalogue descriptions that aren’t accompanied by the films themselves. Other might find the contextualisation are little heavy on the political correctness, anxious that we should only interpret these films in the correct way. Ultimately most are not going to be interested in the lessons – either those imparted by the original colonialist filmmakers, or those deduced by modern commentators from a post-colonial point of view. It’s what we are allowed to see of the people, the landscapes, the industries, the townscapes that lingers in the mind. The camera came to observe and report back, but what endures are the individuality and dignity of its subjects and the difference of their cultural milieu. The camera ultimately serves them.

Go explore.