100 years of newsreels in Britain

Frame still from Pathé Gazette’s The Movie Cameramen’s Derby, released 7 September 1922, which shows a race between British newsreel cameramen (with their cameras) – available to view at www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=19541

One hundred years ago, give or take a few days, a new kind of film appeared for the first time on British cinema screens. The Bioscope of those days took note of this interesting new development with this report:

There is no mistaking the smartness of Messrs Pathé, and their latest achievement — the production of a weekly cinematograph paper, The Animated Gazette — has just about beaten all records for the interest which it has awakened among the great B.P. [British Public]. The daily Press has been devoting considerable space to it, with the result that curiosity has been aroused, and people are now busily discussing the latest thing in moving pictures.

Briefly the idea is to incorporate the usual journalistic methods of writing into filming, and to portray, in lengths of about 80 odd feet, the chief items of interest that have happened during the week. Thus the illustrated newspaper is being superseded by The Animated Gazette, which depicts the actual scenes of contemporary history in living and moving reality.

Mr Valentia Steer, a well-known journalist, is editor of this moving picture periodical, and he has a staff of photo-correspondents, who are stationed in all the big cities of Europe, besides another staff at home. Last week’s news consisted of pictures of the cross-channel flight, Oxford University Eights’ trial, Peary at Edinburgh, Roosevelt at Cambridge, besides many interesting ‘glimpses’ from home and abroad.

This week’s contents bill announces motor-racing at Brooklands, the manouevres at Salisbury Plain, the departure of the Terra Nova, Chinese mission in Paris, quarrymen’s strike, Caruso in the street, Modes in Paris, and other ‘newsy’ films.

That the idea will catch on is undoubted, and it is perhaps not looking too far into the future to anticipate the time when the weekly Animated Gazette will become an indispensable ‘daily’.

The Bioscope, 9 June 1910

This piece announced the arrival of the British newsreel, in the form of Pathé’s Animated Gazette, edition no. 1 of which appeared at some point in the first week of June 1910. It wasn’t the first newsreel in the world – that honour generally goes to Pathé Fait-Divers (later Pathé Journal), launched in France in 1908. There has been film of news events ever since films had been invented, but they weren’t newsreels. Newsreels meant regularity of service, and that was dependent on a network of cinemas and an audience which could be guaranteed to come back to the cinema week after week. Before cinemas started to appear – the first ten years or so of film history – a film might be made of a news event, but it seldom could be presented as news, that is while the event was still current and with the report being understood as being part of a regular, always updated filmed news service. Cinemas supplied the loyal audience, and it is the audience that makes the news, because what is news to one person isn’t necessarily news to another – it all depends where you are, and where that news is coming from.

Pathé’s Animated Gazette main title card from 1915 (with British Pathé spoiler). Note the boast that it was reaching 20 million people (5 million is more likely for the UK) and the line about having been passed by the British Board of Film Censors – only in wartime were British newsreels subject to censorship

Pathé’s Animated Gazette was immediately recognised as an exciting innovation. It was a product of cinema, yet it had a clear relationship with newspapers. It gave a new social purpose to cinema-going. This new film form was called by a variety of names – animated newspapers, topicals etc.- but not as yet newsreels (that term didn’t begin to catch on until 1917 or so), and Pathé’s model was soon followed by Warwick Bioscope Chronicle (1910), Gaumont Graphic (1910), Topical Budget (1911), Eclair Journal and Williamson’s Animated News, all before the First World War. In the US there was Pathé’s Weekly (1911), Gaumont Animated Weekly (1912), Mutual Weekly (1912) and Universal’s Animated Weekly (1912); France added Gaumont Actualités and Eclair-Journal; Germany had Tag im Film (1911), Eiko-Woche (1913), Union-Woche (1913) and Messter-Woche (1914). Russia had Zerkalo voiny (Mirror of the World) (1914); Australia had Australasian Gazette.(Note by the way how the newsreels all emulated newspapers by taking on names like Gazette and Journal)

The form spread around the world, often as off-shoots of the French parent companies of Pathé and Gaumont. Filmed news became a product of the early film multinationals, and through means of international exchange, world news was screened in cinemas across the globe, though the time taken to transport film internationally lessened its value as news, and audiences expressed a strong preference for local news, on subjects that were news to them. ‘Foreign’ news often wasn’t news at all, in its timing or in how the audience viewed it.

The newsreels were released at regular intervals to match the pattern of cinema-going that people in their millions were starting to adopt. In Britain newsreels were very early on issued twice-weekly and stayed that way for five decades. In the US the distances were greater and so news tended to be issued weekly. Newsreels had become firmly established as part of practically cinema programme by the start of the First World War, and newsreels were to play a key part in informing audiences about how the war was progressing. Such was their importance that the British, French and American governments each took over or created a newsreel to act as a means to deliver officially sanctioned footage (i.e. propaganda) – respectively War Office Offical Topical Budget, Annales de la Guerre and Official War Review.

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks visit Britain, from Pathé Gazette issue 679, released 24 June 1920. Available to view at www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=27815

In the 1920s newsreels built on these strong foundations and became an essential and popular element of the cinema programme. The average newsreel in the silent era ran for some 7-8 minutes and contained anywhere between four and eight stories, eached introdued by a title card with the story title and a short comment, and sometimes with further titles cut into the story as the newsreels increasingly sought to add commentary even before sound gave them their voice. The newsreels rapidly gained a repuation for light-hearted items, stunts and gimmicks, with a fascination for sport, royalty, pageantry, tradition and sensation. Oscar Levant notoriously summed up newsreels as being “a series of catastrophes ended by a fashion show”.

That’s unfair. Anyone who has looked at newsreels in any sort of depth will soon find that there was a lot more too them than fashion shows. The newsreels were acutely aware of what were the current topics of conversation (they were released after the daily newspapers, so the news agenda had been already set for them) and picked up on the personalities and issues of the day that audiences wanted to see covered with an astute eye. This propensity for the topical makes them an excellent barometer of contemporary social concerns, albeit usually sugared with that lightness of tone that the newsreels deemend necessary because they were, after all, in the entertainment business, and their audience had come to the cinema to be entertained.

The newsreels entertained, and that ultimately became the noose around their necks that condemned them. That however was in the future – our concern is with the silent era, and in the 1910s and 1920s the newsreels reigned supreme, and we cannot understand what silent cinema means if we do not take them into consideration. Indeed no other area of silent cinema is so well represented online as newsreels (such is their continuing commercial value).

Fortunately there is amply opportunity to consider them. The newsreels may have faded away in the 1950s and 60s, but their libraries live on, selling footage to television programmes. In the UK there are five major newsreel libraries and a great deal of what they hold has been made available online, either available to all or free at point of use for educational users. They are:

  • British Pathé
    Pathé operated a newsreel in Britain between 1910-1970. Its entire archive (3,500 hours) is freely available online, albeit with low resolution copies
  • ITN Source
    ITN holds the British Gaumont (1910-1959), Paramount (1929-1957) and Universal (1930-1956) newsreel libraries. A substantial amount of this is available on its site, included among other footage managed by ITN – go to the advanced search option and select ‘New Classics’ to narrow searches down to newsreels. The entire Gaumont collection is available in download form for UK higher and further education users only via Newsfilm Online
  • British Movietone
    The entire British Movietone News collection 1929-1979 is available for free, alongside non-Movietone silent material going back to the 1890s
  • BFI National Archive
    The BFI owns the Topical Budget (1911-1931) newsreel, examples of which are available on its Screenonline site (accessible to UK educational and library users only) and on its YouTube channel
  • Imperial War Museum
    The IWM holds service newsreels from the First and Second World Wars, a number of which are available through Film and Sound Online (UK higher and further educational users only)

These services has been covered by the Bioscope before now (see links below). As it is Pathé’s centenary, let’s finish with a few words about them. First of all, happy centenary! the Bioscope sends its congratulations on having achieved such a major milestone and still a significant commercial moving image presence. Pathé has changed hands several times down the years. Until a couple of years ago it was owned by the Daily Mail newspaper; now it is managed by venture capitalists.


For anyone who cares about newsreels, the British Pathé site is a mixed blessing. It is a wonderful window onto the past, the digitisation of the films having been originally funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund but kept on as a free service long beyond the original agreement with the HLF. But on the other side it has of late become a little soulless, disfigured by front page advertising, and dominated by an idea of news as gimmick and sensation, a lucky dip into the quaint ways in which our ancestors behaved rather than showing what the newsreel fundamentally was – a vehicle for the news.

One cannot get a sense of the Pathé newreels as newsreels i.e. as a set of stories released on a single reel, and for that it is necessary to cross-refer to the BUFVC’s News on Screen site (formerly the British Universities Newsreel Database) where you will find an almost complete record of issues for all British newsreels 1910-1979, together with background histories, biographies of those who worked in the newsreels, digitised documents, and links across to the British Pathé site. It is place to go if you appreciate newsreels for what they mean to the study of society and history. Newsreels matter – and the more we understand them the more we will get from viewing them.

Finding out more
These Bioscope posts have covered British newsreel collections and the use of online resources: British Pathe part one, British Pathe part two, Revisiting Pathe, Movietone and Henderson and Welcome to Newsfilm Online

Pathé editor P.D. Hugon wrote an informative booklet Hints to Newsfilm Cameraman (1915) with much information on how newsreels operated at that time. The online text has an important introduction by Nicholas Hiley.

British Pathé has a lively Twitter feed, drawing attention to exciting novelties they discover in their collection.

I’ve written lots about newsreels in the past. My history of the Topical Budget newsreel (1992) is long out of print (but you can get it dirt cheap second-hand), but there’s Yesterday News: The British Cinema Newsreel Reader (2002) which tells the history of British newsreels through texts contemporary and modern, and most recently I’ve an essay on newsreels in Richard Howells and Robert W. Matson’s Using Visual Evidence (2009).

How I filmed the war

How I Filmed the War – trailer available from traileraddict.com

Has anyone come across a modern silent documentary? I suppose you could point to Godrey Reggio’s wordless Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and its successors, with their Philip Glass scores, but I’ve not come across an example of a documentary from today which emulates the style of documentaries from the silent era. Until now.

How I Filmed the War is a documentary by Yuval Sagiv, a graduate student of Toronto’s York University (the film is his thesis production). It received its premiere last week at Canada’s Hot Docs festival of documentary film. Its subject is Geoffrey Malins, the British cameraman who (with J.B. McDowell) filmed the 1916 documentary The Battle of the Somme, a feature-length account of the conflict from the British point of view produced by the British Topical Committee for War Films, a British film trade organisation formed with War Office support.

Malins went on to gain greater fame than his co-filmmaker because he wrote an account of his experiences, entitled How I Filmed the War (1920), which is something of a vainglorious work (and mentions McDowell not at all), but is nevertheless a lively and informative record that provides us with one of the best written records that we have of filming in the First World War.

Yuval Sagiv’s film adopts the title of Malins’ book and over 75 minutes analyses text and film in the form of a silent documentary, as the Hot Docs blurb explains:

One the most successful films ever made, The Battle of the Somme, shot and edited by Geoffrey H. Malins during the First World War, is brilliantly decoded in this riveting experimental doc that unravels fascinating secrets and manipulations. A compelling contemplation of the ownership of history plays out on intertitles taken from excerpts of Malins’s controversial autobiography juxtaposed with conflicting historical accounts and emotionally devastating clips from the original film. Dispatched to the front as Britain’s “Official Kinematographer,” Malins filmed from the muddy trenches to capture the valour and horror of “the big push” on July 1, 1916—a day that has become synonymous with the futility of war. The British alone suffered 58,000 casualties by nightfall. The rising tension in this fascinating deconstruction of propaganda, illusion, and “truth” in documentary is underscored by a haunting electro-ambient soundscape.

You can get some sense of the effect from the trailer to the film, which is available on traileraddict.com. Malins’ book is available on the Internet Archive, and was covered by a previous Bioscope post, while The Battle of the Somme itself has been made available on DVD by the Imperial War Museum (also covered by an earlier Bioscope post). There is a short biography of Malins on the IWM‘s site.

The Battle of the Somme itself is indeed arguably one of the most successful films ever made, at least in the UK – historian Nicholas Hiley (to whom thanks are due for alerting me to the new film) has calculated that the film was seen by some 20 million people, or half the population of the UK at that time, a degree of social impact for a screen entertainment that would go unmatched until the rise of television. It will be really interesting to see how How I Filmed the War tackles its tremendous subject – the trailer suggests a compelling interplay between original footage and words carefully selected from Malins’ book (with their original typeface and page number) to set up a stimulating counter-narrative. There’s an interesting review at Toronto Film Scene which describes a subtle, challenging work once one has got over the unusual technique and minimalist style. I hope that it makes it to a few other festivals.

Lives in film no. 1: Alfred Dreyfus – part 2

Alfred Dreyfus (inset) walks from the courtroom at Rennes, with the military guard lined up with their backs against him because of the disgrace that he represented. This and other frame grabs taken from the Biograph series of Dreyfus trial scene films, with kind permission of the Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.

This series looks at the ways in which the early motion picture recorded and influenced the lives of some significant individuals. We have started with Alfred Dreyfus, and in part one we saw how Georges Méliès documented the ‘Dreyfus affair’ by creating a multi-part drama that demonstrated great fidelity to genuine incident and appearance. For part two, we look at the responses of other film companies to Dreyfus, which ranged from dramatic sketches to on-the-spot news coverage. Firstly, a recap of the Dreyfus story itself.

The Dreyfus affair
Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French officer, was arrested in October 1894 on suspicion of spying for Germany. A military court suspended him from the Army and on highly dubious evidence he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. In 1896 one Colonel Picquart found documents which seemed to offer convincing evidence of Dreyfus’ innocence and it became apparent that the guilty party was another French officer, Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. The military authorities under General Auguste Mercier ordered the matter hushed up, and Picquart was transfered to Tunis. But Dreyfus’ family continued to plead his cause, and a campaign led by the author Emile Zola (who wrote an open letter to the French president Émile Loubet famously entitled ‘J’accuse’) resulted in a fresh trial in 1899, which became a mockery through the Army’s refusal to admit that it could be in the wrong and the general anti-Jewish hysteria that abounded. Dreyfus was found guilty again (to the shock and disgust of world opinion), but President Loubet swiftly pardoned him. The case was reviewed in 1906 and Dreyfus found innocent. The whole affair saw France bitterly divided between Dreyfusards (generally liberals, Socialists, anti-clericals and intellectuals) and anti-Dreyfusards (generally Roman Catholics, monarchists, anti-Semites and nationalists). It became the major political crisis of the Third Republic, and seriously weakened the world view of France as a champion of liberal values.

Francis Doublier
It’s not certain whether Lumière cameraman Francis Doublier‘s tale of exhibiting films of the Dreyfus affair while he was touring Russia in 1898 is apocryphal or not, but it is such a good story – recounted several times in histories of documentary – that has to be included for the record. He told the story several times – this version comes from a lecture that he gave in 1941 at New York University, which was reproduced in 1956 in Image magazine:

The Dreyfus affair was still a source of great interest in those days, and out of it I worked up a little film-story which made me quite a bit of money. Piecing together a shot of some soldiers, one of a battleship, one of the Palais de Justice, and one of a tall gray-haired man, I called it “L’affaire Dreyfus.” People actually believed that this was a filming of the famous case, but one time after a showing a little old man came backstage and inquired of me whether it was an authentic filming of the case. I assured him that it was. The little old man then pointed out that the case had taken place in 1894, just one year before cameras were available. I then confessed my deception, and told him I had shown the pictures because business had been poor and we needed the money. Suffice to say, I never showed “L’affaire Dreyfus” again.

Whatever the precise truth, Doublier’s story reveals two fundamental truths about film – one, that it doesn’t matter what the image literally shows but what you say that it shows that counts; two, that audiences aren’t always quite a dumb as filmmakers like to believe that they are. Or at least some of them aren’t.

Biograph is a name associated with D.W. Griffith, but the original company was the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company and it made use of a 68mm filmstock which produced films of startling size and image quality. In term of product, it produced both comic sketches, often of a midly salacious nature for viewing through the peepshow Mutoscope, and films of actuality which tended to feature at prestige theatre screenings. It gained a high reputation for films of news, sport, travel and famous personages, particularly when one of its founders, William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, moved to Britain in 1897 to become filmmaker for the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Biograph diversified further, and the Société Française de Mutoscope et Biographe was formed in 1898. These two companies, and the American parent company, each produced Dreyfus-related films.

The Zola-Rochefort Duel, from The Wonders of the Biograph (1999/2000).

The first Biograph film related to the Dreyfus affair was the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company’s The Zola-Rochefort Duel, made around June/July 1898. This was the year of Emile Zola’s polemical open letter ‘J’accuse’ which brought the Dreyfus injustice out into the open. Henri Rochefort was a journalist and a rabid anti-Dreyfusard. The film dramatises a duel with swords between the two men in a park. A Biograph catalogue record describes it this:

This is a replica of the famous duel with rapiers between Emile Zola, the novelist, and Henri Rochefort, the statesman. The duel takes place on the identical ground where the original fighting occurred, seconds and doctors being present as in the original combat. The picture gives a good idea of how a French affair of honor is conducted.

However, there was no duel fought between Zola and Rochefort in reality, so either the film is meant to be symbolic or it is based on a false news report.

The American Biograph at the Palace – an advertising film for Biograph films (which were billed in the UK as American Biograph) at the Palace Theatre, London, highlighting films of the Dreyfus trial. From Richard Brown and Barry Anthony, A Victorian Film Enterprise. (1999).

The following year, at the time of the trial, Biograph used all of its publishing muscle (the British company was managed by newspaper and magazine interests) to promote itself as the company with all that anyone needed to see relating to the story of the hour. It produced an advertising film in which a billsticker puts up posters advertising Dreyfus films to be seen at the Palace Theatre in London (Biograph’s showcase theatre). The British company also produced Amann, the Great Impersonator, in which quick-change artist Ludwig Amann poses before the camera as Zola and Dreyfus, while the American branch made two films staring Lafayette, ‘the great mimetic comedian’, entitled The Trial of Captain Dreyfus and Dreyfus Receiving His Sentence (these latter two films do not appear to exist, but the three British films do).

Crowds pouring out of the courtroom at Rennes, filmed by Biograph. Dreyfus trial scenes, Filmmuseum.

However, Biograph’s major contribution to the Dreyfus affair was made by its French branch. The Société Française de Mutoscope et Biographe produced a series of what are effectively news reports filmed outside the courtroom at Rennes during Dreyfus’ second trial over August-September 1899. Here we are taken away from the comic sketches and dramatic reconstructions to the startling reality. The series of films (which are held by the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam) are extraordinary to witness, not just because they document the actuality, but because they do so with a camera style that comes across as all too modern. This is the inquisitive news camera, eagerly gazing on history in the making, making us news voyeurs, as we urge the camera to give us whatever glimpse it can of the personalities involved.

Alfred Dreyfus, in hat and dark civilian clothes, accompanied by an official (with white trousers), walks in the prison yard at Rennes, filmed by the Biograph camera from a high vantage point. Dreyfus trial scenes, Filmmuseum.

The camera operator certainly tried his best (we don’t know his name; some sources credit Julius W. Orde, but he was a director of the French company, not a cameraman). The most remarkable achievement was to capture a few seconds of of Dreyfus exercising in his prison yard, filmed from a platform built on a overlooking roof. It is pure paparazzi, except that the operator was working with a camera which with all its batteries and accoutrements weighed over half a ton. The fleeting sight of the man of the hour became a huge coup for Biograph, its brevity only enhancing the sense of a precious image snatched by the ingenuity of the operator. This film captured the headlines, but a second film of Dreyfus – illustrated at the top of the post – was also obtained, just managing to show him (via a frantic panning shot) walking from the court room across the street with a guard all standing with their backs to him because of the dishonour he represented (there was supposed to be a practical side to it as well, because the guard would be looking out for assassination attempts rather than looking at Dreyfus). A third film in the Filmmuseum set has a similar line-up of guards but it is unclear whether Dreyfus passes through them.

Lucie Dreyfus (second left) and Mathieu (second right) leaving the prison at Rennes, filmed by the Biograph cameraman tracking left. Dreyfus trial scenes, Filmmuseum.

The other film among the Dreyfus set that attracted much interest was filmed of Dreyfus’s wife Lucie and his brother Mathieu walking from the prison, with the camera tracking left to follow them as they turn a corner. The camera feels invasive, but we are also struck by the ordinariness of the scene, as the subjects recede in to the distance and the indifferent passers-by drift past or glance at the oddness of the Biograph camera. The remaining surviving films from this set include shots outside the court, with notable figures coming and going – one appears to be General Mercier, the lead prosecution witness. The films really should receive careful analysis from experts in the field, because none of the footage is accidental; the cameraman was trying as far as he could to capture something of all of the notable names. Another shot shows someones leaving the courtoom and entering a carriage (possibly Lucie Dreyfus), while another shows people pouring out of the courtroom into the open air in such a clear and animated image that the years fall away and we are back there in Rennes in 1899.

The other valuable thing about the Biograph films of the trial is that we know something of their reception. Of the court yard scene, a British theatre reviewer (from an unidentified journal clipping) wrote:

Out … comes Captain Dreyfus in civilian attire escorted by an official. Before the pair have walked five yards towards us the official espies the camera [it is not clear if this is the case], and at once hurries his charge out of sight again through the nearer door. Captain Dreyfus, who has come out for daily exercise, does not get much, for he is not in our sight for more than five seconds. The Biograph kindly repeats the view, not as an encore, but in consideration of its brevity. Without being an artistic success, it is likely to remain for some time the view that will excite the most interest. Last night it was received in ominous silence, but was heralded and succeeded by loud cheers.

This account (part of a longer review) shows how such films could be viewed both ironically and straightforwardly, while exciting a range of emotions in the general audience. Other reports reveal the sympathies of the British audience – film of Dreyfus’ lawyer Labori was cheered, while film of General Mercier was roundly booed (this also indicates that the films had live commentary from someone explaining who was to be seen going in or out of the courtroom).

While Georges Méliès’s L’affaire Dreyfus (discussed in part one) is relatively well-known, the L’affaire Dreyfus series produced by Pathé is less-discussed, chiefly because only one part of an original eight items survives. However it was quite similar in method to Méliès’s films, using dramatisation to document the reality and breaking up the the story into dramatic tableaux which could either be viewed singly or as a complete set. In this case we know the name of the actor who played Dreyfus – Jean Liezer. These are the titles of the individual episodes:

  • Arrestation, aveux du colonel Henry
  • Au mont Valérien: suicide du Colonel Henry
  • Dreyfus dans sa cellule à Rennes
  • Entrée au conseil de guerre
  • Audience au conseil de guerre
  • Sortie du conseil de guerre
  • Prison militaire de Rennes, rue Duhamel
  • Avenue de la Gare à Rennes

Each episode was 20 metres in length. To judge from the one episode that survives (at the BFI National Archive), Dreyfus dans sa cellule à Rennes, the style was more restrained than that adopted by Méliès (though Pathé like Méliès showed the bloody suicide of Colonel Henry). It place emphasis on producing a pseudo-realistic of the personalities and places involved, with a greater concentration on the events surrounding the second trial (conseil de guerre). The extant film (no still available to illustrate, unfortunately) shows the guards with their backs to those entering the courtroom. Were the whole series to survive, one suspects that it would be a comparable work to that of Méliès, in its keen attention to detail if not in dramatic verve.

Frames from L’affaire Dreyfus (1908), directed by Lucien Nonguet, from Dreyfus à l’écran film programme, Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, 2008

What does survive, however, is a second Pathé film, made nine years after the trial and two years after Dreyfus was finally found innocent. This is a longer work (370 metres) and a single, multi-scene film, directed by Lucien Nonguet and produced by Ferdinand Zecca. However, from the frame stills (I’ve not seen the film myself) the mise-en-scène seems remarkably similar to the 1899 films, the emphasis still being on documenting the look of key incidents through close replication of people and locations (compare the trial scene, to the right of the above frames, with the trial scene filmed by Méliès, illustrated in part one). The major difference comes through an additional character – this L’affaire Dreyfus features Esterhazy, the man who produced the document betraying French miitary secrets to the Germans that Dreyfus was accused of having written. His guilt is made clear from the opening scene, turning a series of unfortunate incidents in something with tragic impetus.

Photograph of Dreyfus leaving the courtroom at Rennes, showing the guard with their backs turned. Taken from the Dreyfus Rehabilitated site, http://www.dreyfus.culture.fr

The 1909 film was the last to be made of the Dreyfus case until 1930. In 1915 the French banned any dramatic representation of the Dreyfus case from being made, and when Richard Oswald’s 1930 feature film Dreyfus was made, France still refused to allow it to be screened. But for the silent period, it was documenting history in the making that was important. The young medium used every means at its disposal to record the news story of 1899 (for some, the news story of the century) and to turn it into profitable entertainment. It employed both dramatic reconstruction and actuality, pushing the boundaries of the medium’s expression in each case, and demonstrating the power of motion pictures to capture the moment in a form that no other medium could quite emulate. Cinema brought you face to face with life itself.

Though it may be something of an inappropriate speculation, given Dreyfus’s Jewish faith, there is something of the Christian Stations of the Cross in the early Dreyfus films. Each illustrates the key stages in the victim’s noble passage to the point where false justice is executed through a series of tableaux. In each the victim is noble, passive, and wronged. The narrative does not develop in a form that is understandable to anyone new to the story, but instead represents passages of suffering told through tableaux that the faithful will recognise as having special meaning. It is interesting that the main multi-scene film narratives made in the 1890s are the two L’affaire Dreyfus films, assorted lives of Christ (by Lumière, Pathé and others), and Méliès’ Cendrillion (1899), or Cinderella – another episodic tale of suffering and redemption.

But what of Alfred Dreyfus himself? He is not recorded as being aware of the films that were made of him, and of course they were only a trivial distraction in the context of the issues that raged around him, issues of patriotism, religion, race and social order. Dreyfus was pardoned soon after the farce of the second trial, and was finally pronounced innocent in 1906. Despite the way it had treated him, he rejoined the Army, but retired on grounds of ill-health in 1907. However, he joined the Army once more in 1914 and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel (he had had hopes of eventually becoming a general before the catastrophe of 1894). He was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 1918, and died in 1935.

Information on Biograph, including the filming and exhibiting of Biograph films, can be found in two sources in particular: Richard Brown and Barry Anthony, A Victorian Film Enterprise: The History of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1897-1915 (1999) and Mark van den Tempel and Luke McKernan (eds.), The Wonders of the Biograph, special issue of Griffithiana, nos. 66/70, 1999/2000). Although more has been discovered since it was written (not least the Biograph trial films), Stephen Bottomore’s article ‘Dreyfus and Documentary’, Sight and Sound (Autumn 1984) is still the best source for learning about the relationship between the Dreyfus affair and early film. Stephen also covers still photography, making it clear just what a media scramble the whole Affair was.

For extensive background information on the Dreyfus affair, the personalities and the issues involved, see the generally excellent Dreyfus Rehabiliated website. Unfortunately its section on the films of the affair is muddled. For a concise and informative book acount, see Eric Cahm, The Dreyfus Affair in French Society and Politics. For an atmospheric eye-witness account of the second trial itself, read G.W. Steevens’ The Tragedy of Dreyfus (1899), available from the Internet Archive.

The Biograph and Pathé films are not available online or on DVD.

The third and final part of this account will be a filmography.

Lives in film no. 1: Alfred Dreyfus – part 1

L’affaire Dreyfus: la dictée du bordereau – the first part of Georges Méliès’ 1899 film series. October 1894 – Dreyfus (seated) gives a sample of his handwriting and is accused by Colonel Du Paty de Clam (left) of being the author of the Bordereau

I’m starting up a new series here at the Bioscope. It is going to document the ways in which the early motion picture recorded and influenced the lives of some significant individuals. Public lives from 1896 onwards started to be different to a significant degree because they began to be led in front of motion picture cameras, which could record them in reality or reconstitute them dramatically as entertainment. Each post in the series will investigate an individual of significance to social, cultural or political history and try to see them particularly in the light of the cinema. Each post will include a filmography including both non-fiction and fiction films. I don’t know whether any of the subjects will be actors or filmmakers – maybe so. But the series starts with a French soldier, victim of one of the most notorious cases of miscarriage of justice in history, Alfred Dreyfus.

The Dreyfus affair
Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), a Jewish French officer, was arrested in October 1894 on suspicion of spying for Germany. A military court suspended him from the Army and on highly dubious evidence he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. In 1896 one Colonel Picquart found documents which seemed to offer convincing evidence of Dreyfus’ innocence and it became apparent that the guilty party was another French officer, Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. The military authorities under General Auguste Mercier ordered the matter hushed up, and Picquart was transfered to Tunis. But Dreyfus’ family continued to plead his cause, and a campaign led by the author Emile Zola (who wrote an open letter to the French president Émile Loubet famously entitled ‘J’accuse’) resulted in a fresh trial in 1899, which became a mockery through the Army’s refusal to admit that it could be in the wrong and the general anti-Jewish hysteria that abounded. Dreyfus was found guilty again (to the shock and disgust of world opinion), but President Loubet swiftly pardoned him. The case was reviewed in 1906 and Dreyfus found innocent. The whole affair saw France bitterly divided between Dreyfusards (generally liberals, Socialists, anti-clericals and intellectuals) and anti-Dreyfusards (generally Roman Catholics, monarchists, anti-Semites and nationalists). It became the major political crisis of the Third Republic, and seriously weakened the world view of France as a champion of liberal values.

L’affaire Dreyfus: L’île du diable. April 1895 – Dreyfus (seated) within the palisade on Devil’s Island, where a guard brings him a letter from his wife but is forbidden to speak to him. Dreyfus was imprisoned on the island for over four years.

The Dreyfus affair was debated across the world. It filled the newspapers, and the second trial at Rennes in 1899 witnessed a media frenzy of a kind we are all too familiar with today. Eager to participate in that frenzy and take advantage of one of the first news stories of worldwide interest to come into its view was the motion picture camera. Films were made of the Dreyfus affair because they were excellent business, but also – in one significant case – because they enabled the filmmaker to express his dedication to the Dreyfus cause. The motion picture industry responded with newsfilm, dramatic reconstructions and sketches, so that the Affair served as a demonstration of everything that the young medium could do to capture the semblance of reality.

L’affaire Dreyfus: Mise aux fers de Dreyfus. 6 September 1896 – Dreyfus is placed in irons inside his cell on Devil’s Island. He was shackled to his bed for a period between September-October 1896 after a false report of an escape attempt.

Four companies produced films on the Affair while it was ongoing: Star-Film (i.e. Georges Méliès), Pathé Frères, the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company and its sister company the Biograph and Mutoscope Company for France. There’s a lot to cover so the latter three will be covered in a second post, with a full filmography in a third post. Here we will tackle the contribution by Georges Méliès.

George Méliès is said to have picked up his strong Dreyfusard feelings from discussions with his cousin Adolphe. It is heartening to know that France’s great creative filmmaker in the early years of cinema chose the right side. He set about making his Dreyfus films with an eye to commercial opportunity but also as a means to express his personal sympathies – probably the first time that film had ever been used in this way. His approach was radical – he would make a multi-part news narrative, tracing the Dreyfus story from his original imprisonment in 1894 to the second trial in 1899. At a time when films were almost entirely single-shot narratives of less than a minute in length, Méliès produced a 15-minute, eleven-part chronological series of documentary fidelity and great cinematic invention (strictly speaking it was twelve parts, as one scene covers two catalogue numbers in the Star-Film catalogue). Filming took place August-September 1899, while the trial was taking place, at his studios at Montreuil, Paris.

L’affaire Dreyfus: Suicide du Colonel Henry. 31 August 1898 – Colonel Joseph Henry, who discovered the ‘bordereau’ that incriminated Dreyfus but who later forged documents in an attempt to compromise the Dreyfus-supporting Colonel Picquard, cuts his throat with a razor while in prison in Paris.

Méliès did not consider filming actuality – he got nearer to his idea of the truth through dramatic recreation. He took great care to replicate locations, using newspaper illustrations and photographs as reference, and employing performers who looked like the leading players in the real-life drama. An unnamed blacksmith played Dreyfus because of a physical similarity, while Méliès himself played Dreyfus’ bearded lawyer, Fernand Labori. The choice of tableaux indicate Méliès’s sympathies while showing both his commercial sense and artistic imagination. The series (nine parts of the original eleven survive today at the BFI National Archive and are illustrated throughout this post) starts with Dreyfus being accused of writing the Bordereau, the notorious document that betrayed French military secrets to the Germans. The scene in which Dreyfus was dishonourably discharged from the French army by having his sword symbolically broken is lost, so next comes Dreyfus imprisoned on Devil’s Island, followed by a scene in his cell in which he is placed in leg-irons, punishment for a supposed escape attempt. Méliès’s Dreyfusard sympathies are already made clear. The scene then switches to France to show Colonel Henry in prison, the man whose zealous loyalty led him to forge documents intended to compromise Dreyfus supporter Colonel Picquard, spectacularly cutting his throat with a razor blade. It’s the point where Méliès meets Tarantino; probably the first blood to be seen shed in cinema history.

L’affaire Dreyfus: Débarquement à Quiberon. 30 June 1899 – Dreyfus (the figure in civilian clothes in the centre) returns to France at Quiberon (where a storm rages) to face his second trial.

With the next scene the news realism takes over. Dreyfus is shown returning to France at the port of Quiberon, at night, in the middle of a storm. Lightning flashes, the performers are soaked in water, sailors on the boat bob up and down on the waters – it is as far as possible the scene as it had occured only a few weeks before Méliès started filming. We then see Dreyfus in jail, where he converses with his lawyers (including Méliès as Labori, giving himself the heroic defender role – was this series the first set of films in which named living people were portrayed by actors?) before meeting with his wife Lucie in a calculatedly pathetic scene.

L’affaire Dreyfus: Entrevue de Dreyfus et de sa femme à Rennes. 1 July 1899 – Dreyfus (furthest right) in prison at Rennes meets his wife Lucie for the first time in four years. Georges Méliès, playing the lawyer Labori, is the figure in the centre, with another Dreyfus lawyer, Edgar Demange, portrayed to the right.

Next follows what was an assassination attempt on Labori, Méliès going to the trouble of replicating the locale, next to a bridge crossing the river Vilaine at Rennes. Labori survived a shot in the back and is seen in the next scene in which Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard journalists come to blows. The scene appears symbolic, but reflects actual uproar that occurred at the court-house in Rennes on 14 August 1899 when news of the attack on Labori was reported, with a confrontation occuring between anti-Dreyfusard Arthur Myer of the Gaulois and Dreyfusard ‘Séverine’ (Caroline Rémy) of the Fonde, as the Star-Film catalogue relates. A New York Times report makes clear the connection between the two incidents. For film form enthusiasts the scene is most remarkable for the way the journalists all run at and past the camera, breaking the cinema screen’s fourth wall in revolutionary style. However there is some dramatic licence, because the injured Labori did not return to the trial for a week after the shooting.

L’affaire Dreyfus: Attentat contre M. Labori. 14 August 1899 – In the company of Colonel Picquart and M. Gast, Mayor of Rennes, Dreyfus’s lawyer Labori is shot in the back by a would-be assassin beside the river Vilaine at Rennes.

L’affaire Dreyfus: Bagarre entre journalistes. 14 August 1899 – rival news reporters fight one another during the court martial proceedings upon hearing the news of the attempted assassination of Labori.

The double-length court room scene is where Méliès took the greatest trouble in depicting the news as it was more or less happening. The catalogue description makes clear the minute attention to detail regarding personality, action and appearance (text from the English language version in the Warwick Trading Company catalogue):

A scene in the Lycée at Rennes, showing the military court-martial of Captain Dreyfus. The only occupants of the room at this time are Maître Demange and secretary. Other advocates and the stenographers now begin to arrive and the sergeant is seen announcing the arrival of Colonel Jouaust and other officers comprising the seven judges of the court-martial. The five duty judges are also seen in the background. On the left of the picture are seen Commander Cordier and Adjutant Coupois, with their stenographers and gendarmes. On the right are seen Maître Demange, Labori, and their secretaries. Colonel Jouaust orders the Sergeant of the Police to bring in Dreyfus. Dreyfus enters, saluting the court, followed by the Captain of the Gendarmerie, who is constantly with him. They take their appointed seats in front of the judges. Colonel Jouaust puts several questions to Dreyfus, to which he replies in a standing position. He then asks Adjutant Coupois to call the first witness, and General Mercier arrives. He states that his deposition is a lengthy one, and requests a chair, which is passed to him by a gendarme. In a sitting position he proceeds with his deposition. Animated discussion and cross-questioning is exchanged between Colonel Jouaust, General Mercier, and Maître Demange. Captain Dreyfus much excited gets up and vigorously protests against these proceedings. This scene, which is a most faithful portrayal of this proceeding, shows the absolute portraits of over thirty of the principal personages in this famous trial.

L’affaire Dreyfus: Le conseil de guerre en séance à Rennes. 12 August 1899 – The court room at Rennes, with the lead prosecution witness General Mercier (centre) making a showy entrance. Dreyfus, dressed in military uniform, is seated on the raised dais to the right.

L’affaire Dreyfus concluded with a now-lost scene showing Dreyfus being led away to prison once more. The set of films was produced with the intention of capturing audience attention immediately following the trial (which ended on 9 September 1899). The films could be bought as a complete set (lasting some 15 minutes) or individually, according to taste and pocket. Méliès’ granddaughter much later wrote that there were pitched battles in the theatres where the films were shown. Police had to separate Dreyfusards from anti-Dreyfusards, which supposedly led to the film being banned by the French government and that consequently no film was allowed to be shown about the Dreyfus affair until 1930. However, there is no concrete documentary evidence that I’m aware of for the film being banned, or even for the scuffles in theatres, and in any case the French ban on accounts of the Dreyfus affair was not made until 1915 (so, for example, Pathé made a film about Dreyfus in 1908). However, there must have been great uncertainty among some exhibitors about showing the film, as film historian Stephen Bottomore suggests that some British theatres chose not to screen the films because of the unseemly passions they might arouse, so one can hardly expect less of a reaction that this in France. Nevertheless the films were never removed from the Star-Film catalogue, and by remaining on sale one has to deduce that they were never banned, not in France or anywhere else.

In truth we don’t know much about the reception of Méliès’ films. We have commentaries, and we have concerns raised in some quarters about the dramatisation of actuality. “Where is this new kind of photo-faking to stop?” asked Photographic News, wringing its hands in mock despair. What we can gather from watching what survives today is that the news story gave the filmmaker the opportunity to produce a documentary (there can be no other word for it) using every valid filmic device at his disposal while expressing through the mise-en-scène his sympathy for Dreyfus the victim.

Unsurprisingly the films do not give us much of an idea of Dreyfus the man, but it is remarkable that they give us anything of him at all. Throughout the affair, and in all acounts that were made of it, Alfred Dreyfus was a cipher, a figure upon who one could unload one’s prejudices or sympathies. Dreyfus (shown left, in 1895) was not an unremarkable man. He had had a notable military career, and was recognised for his keen intelligence. He seems to have been something of an unpopular figure, however, standing out from his fellow officers by being neither one of the humbler sort (he was wealthier than most of them) nor an aristocrat. A perceived aloofness stood against him. During both trials he refused to play the pity card and put his faith in reason – a stubborn policy when surrounded by such rabid anti-Semitism and blind refusal from many to accept that the French military could do any wrong. But there was nobility in such a stance, and Méliès’ Dreyfus does at least give us some sense of his principled forebearance, and this at a time when films had not yet advanced to giving much sense of individual character in dramatic representations. Among the many ‘firsts’ that can be ascribed to L’affaire Dreyfus is surely the first human portrayal of someone on screen.

The Méliès L’affaire Dreyfus is available to view online on the Europa Film Treasures site and as part of the 5-DVD set issued by Flicker Alley, Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) (also the source of the frame grabs used here). For a filmic analysis, see Michael Brooke’s Georges Méliès blog.

For extensive background information on the Dreyfus affair, the personalities and the issues involved, see the excellent Dreyfus Rehabiliated website. Unfortunately its section on the films of the affair is muddled. For a concise and informative book acount, see Eric Cahm, The Dreyfus Affair in French Society and Politics.

The essential account of the Dreyfus Affair and early film is Stephen Bottomore’s essay ‘Dreyfus and Documentary’, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1984, to which these posts are much indebted.

Part two will explore the dramatic records made by Pathé, at the time of the trial and later, and the extraordinary actuality films of the trial made by Biograph. Part three will be a Dreyfus filmography.

A sixth part of the world

Happy new year one and all, happy new decade too, and to kick things off well for 2010 there’s news of the latest silent DVD release from the always excellent Edition Filmmuseum, Dziga Vertov’s A Sixth Part of the World (Sestaja cast’ mira) and The Eleventh Year (Odinnadcatyj), with new scores by Michael Nyman.

As your scribe is currently suffering from a sprained wrist (one icy pavement too many), and writing is a bit of a trial, I hope you’ll forgive me if I mostly just give you Edition Filmmuseum’s own words on the release:

Edition Filmmuseum 53

The poetic travelogue A Sixth Part of the World and the “visual symphony” The Eleventh Year mark the beginning of Dziga Vertov’s most creative period, which peaked in the canonical film Man with the Movie Camera. This 2-disc set presents the two rare masterpieces in a new transfer and with new soundtracks by British composer Michael Nyman. The bonus features offer materials on the methods of the filmmaker, as well as an introduction to the Vienna research project on Vertov, “Digital Formalism.”

The Films

Sestaja čast’ mira (A Sixth Part of the World) Soviet Union 1926 Directed by: Dziga Vertov Assistant and editor: Elizaveta Svilova Director of Photography: Michail Kaufman – Produced by: Goskino, Moscow – Premiere: October 19, 1926 (Berlin)

Odinnadcatyj (The Eleventh Year) Soviet Union 1928 Directed by: Dziga Vertov Assistant and editor: Elizaveta Svilova Director of Photography: Michail Kaufman – Produced by: VUFKU, Kiev – Premiere: March 21, 1928 (Kiev)

Im Schatten der Maschine. Ein Montagefilm (In the Shadow of the Machine. A Compilation Film) Germany 1928 Directed by: Albrecht Viktor Blum, Leo Lania – Produced by: Filmkartell “Weltfilm”, Berlin – Premiere: November 9, 1928 (Berlin)

Vertov in Blum. Eine Untersuchung (Vertov in Blum. An Investigation) Austria 2009 Written and directed by: Adelheid Heftberger, Michael Loebenstein, Georg Wasner – Produced by: Österreichisches Filmmuseum, Vienna – First release

DVD features (2-disc DVD)


* Sestaja čast’ mira 1926, 73′
* Music by Michael Nyman
* 32page bilingual booklet with essays by Barbara Wurm, Thomas Tode, Adelheid Heftberger, Aleksandr Derjabin, Michael Loebenstein, Alexander Horwath


* Odinnadcatyj 1928, 53′
* Music by Michael Nyman
* Im Schatten der Maschine. Ein Montagefilm 1928, 22′
* Vertov in Blum. Eine Untersuchung 2009, 14′
* ROM section with additional documents and interactive applications about Vertov’s “Phrases” in Odinnadcatyj, the film’s intertitles, the “Blum Affair” and the projekt “Digital Formalism”.

Edited by: Österreichisches Filmmuseum, Vienna
DVD authoring: Ralph Schermbach
DVD supervision: Michael Loebenstein, Adelheid Heftberger, Georg Wasner

First edition: December 2009

Further silents are promised by Edition Filmmuseum soon. Shortly to be released will be Svend Gade’s Hamlet (1920), with Asta Nielsen as the Dane, and Boris ‘Miss Mend’ Barnet’s Devushka s korobkoy & Dom na Trubnoy (1927/28), while these titles are in preparation:

Frankfurt im Film 1900-1945
Karl Valentin und das Kino 1912-1930
Der Hund von Baskerville Rudolf Meinert, 1914
Sein eigner Mörder Max Mack, 1914
Von morgens bis Mitternacht Karl Heinz Martin, 1920
Sappho Dimitri Buchowetzki, 1921
Max Davidson Comedies Leo McCarey, 1927-1928
Abwege Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1928
Das Mädchen Sumiko Shigeyoshi Suzuki, 1929
Waterloo Karl Grune, 1929
Der lebende Leichnam Fedor Ozep, 1929

Catwalks and pavements

Paris fashions displayed through stencil colouring, from the Discovering Cinema DVD, www.flickeralley.com

A subject I’ve long meant to cover on the Bioscope is fashion in silent film. It’s a subject of great importance, because of the strong relationship between what was worn on the screen and what the audience in the cinema then dreamt of wearing. That relationship was exploited commercially, by fashion firms whose products featured in films and by those stars who were used to promote fashions (on and off-screen). Moreover, there is an equally important, if less recognised connection between fashion and film, which is the record that film can provide of what ordinary people in the street were wearing. Fashion is found not just on the catwalk or the movie screen, but on the pavement as well.

However, I am no expert in fashion (as anyone who has seen how I dress would be quick to affirm). But I can produce a guide to some sources, particularly online video sources, to help those who might like to explore this area further for themselves.

Let’s start with films of the fashion houses. Short films showcasing the latest fashions from the Paris houses were a staple of film programmes of the 1910s and 20s. Films showing mannequins parading gowns, hats and shoes beyond the hopes of most in the cinema audience were seen in individual films and occasional special film series, but more commonly as part of newsreels and cinemagazines. Beyond the hopes of most they may have been, but not all. There was commercial sense in it because coturier fashions were starting to move from appealing to the exclusively rich and were starting to appear in department stores, just at the time when cinema was doing it best to attract a more middle class and monied audience. Fashion films were part of the general aspirational trend of the cinema, and they were there in particular to attract women to the cinema.

French film companies became the natural specialists in the field, not least because Pathé and Gamuont had factories dedicated to producing artificially coloured films employing a stencilling process (and many women workers painting the individual frames using those stencils). Fashion films in which the models moved slowly displaying gorgeously coloured gowns were ideal subjects for a colour process that struggled to capture objects moving at speed. Colour was naturally attractive for the fashion film, and fashions were a fine means of showing off colour processes. One of the earliest of all magazine film series was Kinemacolor Fashion Gazette (1913), edited by British fashion journalist Abby Meehan, which showcased the pioneering natual colour process and combined its exhibition with a live fashion revue organised by the Evening News newspaper at the West End Cinema in London.

An exquisite example of a stencil colour fashion film can be found on the Flicker Alley site, in its Screening Room – a 1926 Unie Film Revue from the Netherlands showing fashions from Maison Redfern, Maison Blanche Lebouvier and Maison Tolmann (click on the Discovering Cinema option – the clip comes from their Discovering Cinema 2-DVD set, or you can find the same film on Europa Film Treasures). There’s a frame grab at the head of this post. And below is a c.1927 colour tinted film from Australian Screen, here showing off a Le Mennier headpiece:

Scene from Camp-Berlei Foundation Garments: Physiological Support (c.1927), from Australian Screen, http://aso.gov.au/titles/ads/camp-berlei-foundation/clip1/

Colour fashion films from the silent era are hard to find online, but there are monochrome examples a-plenty. The British branch of Pathé featured many fashion items, particularly in its women’s magazine series Eve’s Film Review, and numerous examples (including Fashions à la Parisienne, illustrated below) can be found at www.britishpathe.com (type in ‘fashions’, ‘maison’ or ‘paris fashions’ for the best results.

A black and blue hat with ribbon cockade and flowers from Maison Mimoso, from Fashions à la Parisienne, Eve’s Film Review (c.1921), www.britishpathe.com

The sheer extent of fashion films in British newsreels can best be judge by applying the same search terms to the BUFVC’s News on Screen database of all British newsreels, though there are no clips (there are links across to the Pathé site, however). Or search under such fashion houses as Lucile’s (i.e. Lady Duff-Gordon, sister of Elinor Glyn), Maison Lewis, Marco’s, Joseph Paquin, Maison Worth and Paul Poiret. British Gaumont films (which as with Pathé include many international films which happened to be released through the British reels) can be seen on the ITN Source site – go to Advanced Search, click Deselect All under Partners then click on New Classics, select 1920s as a decade, then put in your search term. There are numerous fashion clips there, such as this interesting example of Chinese fashions (actually from the American International News):

New Fashions for Chinese Flappers, International News (1926), www.itnsource.com/shotlist//BHC_RTV/1926/03/15/BGT407111003

Gaumont’s early 1920s Around the Town cinemagazine had many fashion-related items, though only a few examples of the series exist today, and none online (many of the lost films can nevertheless be found described on News on Screen). Examples from French Gaumont and Pathé can be found on www.gaumontpathearchives.com, though that requires registration and it’s not easy to obtain permission unless you are a production company.

But as said, there was more to fashion than Paris. One of the overlooked virtues of archive films is what they are able to show us of what we wore. There is nothing quite like film for showing what was worn by people day-to-day, how those clothes fitted in motion, and how popular fashions changed. Again the newsreels provide an excellent source, but a still more useful one has just emerged from Brighton. It was Brighton professor Lou Taylor whose 1980s television series Through the Looking Glass first alerted me to the value of using archive actuality film to study what ordinary people were wearing, and it is the University of Brighton’s Screen Archive South East which is the source of Screen Search Fashion, a thematic guide to fashion and dress in films of the 1920s and 30s held in the Archive’s collection.

Group of people standing outside the Heath cinema in Haywards Heath, c.1928, from the Screen Archive South East collection

This wonderful resource employs selected themes (1920s fashion, 1930s fashion, work, sport, leisure, travel etc) to guide users through the collections, using stills and clips from the Archive. There are overviews of types of fashion and periods, descriptions of the clothing to be seen in the clips, and even modern photographs of particular clothes for comparison (or else links to external collections). As an example of the descriptive text, here is part of what’s written about the Heath cinema film above:

A group of young people stand outside a cinema in Burgess Hill. The men wear three-piece suits. One man wears the fashionable ‘plus fours’ style popularised by the Prince of Wales rather than full-length trousers. The women follow the fashionable androgynous silhouette of the period with knee-length hemlines. They wear interchangeable separates including sweaters, skirts, dresses and coats. One woman sports a necktie reinforcing the boyish look. Their clothing is probably ready-to-wear rather than made by a dressmaker. All the women have bobbed hair and none wear hats.

This is just what film archives should be doing – making us look at films anew. Amateur films, home movies, newsreels and magazine films are filled with sociological detail, but it needs someone with an intelligent understanding of the films’ milieu and contents to open our eyes to hat these films contain. This Screen Search Fashion does so well, illuminating men’s and women’s clothing, and for both adults and children. It is such a sensible and well-executed idea to have had, and I warmly recommend it.

Turning to the feature film, there was a close connection between the couture houses and some film producers from the mid-1910s onwards. The already-mentioned Lucile, or Lady Duff-Gordon (shown left, from www.ladyduffgordon.com), was the great pioneer, dressing a number of films from the mid-teens onwards (Lillian Gish tell us that Lucile supplied the models for the ball scene in Way Down East) as well as ensuring that her fashions appeared regularly in magazine films.

Elizabeth Leese, author of the essential Costume Design in the Movies (1991), writes:

Couture houses have always supplied dresses for feature films, particularly from New York, as quite a lot of filming was done in the East Coast studios. The couture houses did not, as a general rule, get any kind of screen credit, although news items often appeared in trade and fan magazines telling film-goers that a star would be getting her dresses from a particular fashion house. Many actresses who were rather short on acting talent relied on the lavishness of the wardrobes, because the ability to wear clothes well was just about all they had to offer. Roberta Hickman (who was working around 1915) wore clothes from Lucille [sic] and Poiret, Irene Castle used Lucille Ltd. Alice Joyce and Corinne Griffith were faithful to Madame Frances. Many actresses used Hattie Carnegie, but she was smart enough to get a screen credit for the films she did with Constance Bennett.

Then were were people from the couture houses who went to work in films – but that takes us into the world of the costume designer as a profession in the silent era, and that will have to be the subject of another post, at another time.

For some further reading (aside from Elizabeth Leese), Jenny Hammerton’s For Ladies Only? Eve’s Film Review: Pathe Cinemagazine 1921-33 is very informative on the fashion films in this key series, while Emily Crosby’s essay ‘The Colour Supplement of the Cinema: The British Cinemagazine, 1918-1938’, in Projecting Britain: The Guide to British Cinemagazines illuminatingly links the cinemagazines’ use of fashion to the place of fashion in 1920s culture as a whole. The book also contains some interesting examples of letters written by Pathé’s editor to some fashion houses.

The world of local topicals

Sir Harry Lauder Visits the Regent Picture House (1928), from the Scottish Screen Archive

I am pleased to be able to offer for you a piece written especially for The Bioscope by Janet McBain, Curator of the Scottish Screen Archive at the National Library of Scotland. Janet’s subject is the local topical. You will have to search very hard in the film history literature to find anything written on the local topical, but go to any UK film archive and you’ll find them in abundance. For the local topical was a local newsreel – filmed locally (often by a cinema’s projectionist) and shown locally. Such films, which flourished in particular in the 1910s and 20s, showed parades, civic marches, works’ outings, visits of dignitaries, or often simply people miling about in the street, filmed by a touring showman who would then tell you to turn up at the ton hall that evening, where you would be guaranteed to see yourself on the screen.

Just such films have become known to more than archivists of late, thanks to the sterling work done by the British Film Institute and the National Fairground Archive to promote the Mitchell & Kenyon collection of films predominantly showing working class life in English northern towns in the 1900-1910 period. M&K were commissioned to film local parades, galas, football matches and such like, and would indeed film people in the streets to encourage them to see the film show in the evening. Mitchell & Kenyon have achieved modern fame, through books, a television series and DVDs. But there were many other such films, as Janet McBain’s piece informs us.

The world of local topicals: observations on life after Mitchell and Kenyon through local films made for the Regent Cinema, Glasgow in the 1920’s

As we have seen with the Mitchell and Kenyon film collection early independent exhibitors, in the first decades of the moving picture, clearly understood the appeal and the business value of ‘ local films for local people’. With marketing slogans such as ‘Come and see yourselves as others see you’ they understood their audiences and what they wanted to see and exploited this with flair and showmanship learned out on the road with the travelling fairground shows.

Still very much in the shadow of these Edwardian films and ripe, I would suggest, for re-discovery are local topicals from succeeding decades. Still presented and marketed as ‘see yourself on the silver screen’, but offered by exhibitors running permanent, fixed site shows from 1911/12 onwards.

There are literally hundreds of these post-M&K films in the UK’s moving image archives dating from just before the Great War to the decades after World War 2. (Scottish Screen Archive has over 500 titles in its collection alone). They are classified inconsistently as topicals, local topicals or local newsreels. The fact that we in the archive community still do not have a standardised genre or classification term is indicative of the lack of understanding of, or attention to, this material.

When talkies came along in the late 20’s the local topical continued – but remained silent. Due in part to shortage of film stock during the Second World War they disappear, only to re-emerge in the post-war era – still mostly silent. But by the end of the 1950’s, with changes in cinema-going habits and the demise of many of the independently owned cinemas the local topical all but disappeared.

Typical of the content of these films are crowd pulling events: gala days, parades, local festivals and holidays, unveiling of war memorials, sports meetings – events that would get local people out onto the streets and in front of the camera lens.

We still know relatively little about audience reception, means of production or how the exhibitors financed and publicised these films. There is evidence that some exhibitors and cinema managers shot the films themselves, other times that they engaged newsreel and production professionals to make them.

Whatever and whoever he was the cameraman would be instructed by the exhibitor to get in as many close-ups of faces in the crowd as possible. Hence the frequent use of the panning shot, very much the hallmark of the local topical, to maximise your audience who would be enticed into the picture hall a few nights later with the prospect of seeing themselves on the big screen.

Local topicals sit somewhat uncomfortably between news reportage and actuality. They can be seen as both … and neither. They are not hard news per se, but they cover newsworthy events within a local sphere. They are intended as promotional tools and this influences content, which in turn robs them to a degree of the objectivity of the actuality. Perhaps the local topical could be described as a discrete genre in its own right.

Two examples of local topicals discovered recently by Scottish Screen Archive illustrate the fudged line between news and actuality – the grey zone in which sits the local cinema newsreel.

They have a consistent theme. Both were commissioned by William McGaw, manager of the Regent Picture House in Renfield Street in Glasgow, one of the first purpose built cinemas in the city centre. McGaw was a enthusiastic publicist and won many trade awards for showmanship during his career.

Both films were shot on the occasion of special screenings at the Regent with the personal appearance of a film star, illustrating another fascinating feature of the local topical, that of recording the history of cinema-going itself.

Both films were intended to serve as local topicals – to be shown in the picture house, and to engage the audience through recognition, of themselves and their friends, on the screen. The Minute Books for the Regent’s proprietary company give accounts of the manager’s application to the Directors’ to approve this advertising strategy.

The two films differ, however, in editorial approach.

Vera Reynolds Visits Regent Picture House (1926)

The first one records Vera Reynolds, young American actress, making a personal appearance at the cinema in September 1926 for the Scottish premiere of The Road to Yesterday. It looks like a newsreel item. The focus is on the celebrity, it is a two-camera shoot suggesting it was made by a professional unit, possibly local stringers from Gaumont’s or Pathe’s Glasgow office. Reynolds herself is very camera aware and is the star of the film in every sense.

The second title comes two years later on 5th October 1928 with Sir Harry Lauder’s personal appearance at the cinema for the premiere of Huntingtower, George Pearson’s adaptation of the novel by John Buchan and in which Lauder took the leading role as Glasgow grocer Dickson McCunn. We know from reports in the trade press that the topical was shot by James Hart, projectionist at the Grosvenor Cinema, a small picture house in the west end of the city. At the time Hart made this film for McGaw and the Regent his own locals, under the banner Grosvenor Topical News, were appearing on screen on an almost weekly basis. Lauder travelled specially from Edinburgh on a Friday morning to see Huntingtower for himself for the first time. Hart’s topical was screened at the first house on that same evening and before every performance of the big picture during the weeks thereafter.

Sir Harry Lauder Visits the Regent Picture House (1928), Lauder himself in the centre

Of the two films Hart’s footage is more quintessentially recognisable as a local topical. He foregrounds the future audience with long tracking shots and pans of the cinemagoers and the crowds waiting on the street outside the picture house, almost overshadowing the appearance of the star. Lauder and four boys from the cast of Huntingower posed in the entrance of the cinema are on screen for maybe a third of the film. Hart gives us intertitles identifying the participants, including McGaw the cinema manager. He understood the rationale for the film, arguably more so than the professional newsreel maker who assembled the earlier Reynolds film. In this one she is undoubtedly the star taking up all the screen time. There are no identifiable shots in this film of the local people – they are not visible on camera as individuals.

Both films have been preserved by Scottish Screen Archive and can now be viewed along with other local topicals online at www.nls.uk/ssa.

Also another of the writer’s favourites – illuminating aspects of cinema history – is also now available online:

There are hundreds more local topicals awaiting re-discovery in the nation’s archives – come and find them!

Janet McBain
Scottish Screen Archive,

December 2009

As pointed out, you can see the two Regent films at the Scottish Screen Archive’s excellent site (where there are over 1,000 film clips freely available to view), the subject of a Bioscope post a year or so ago. Other UK film archives with local topicals can be found via the Film Archive Forum site, or you can see examples on Moving History, a sampler site of films from archives around the UK. For example, check out the North West Film Archive’s Milnrow and Newhey Gazette (1913) or the Media Archive of Central England’s The Meet of the Quorn Hounds 1912, each of which is accompanied by a mini-history of the local topical genre..

If by chance you haven’t come across Mitchell & Kenyon as yet, the BFI provides a handy guide which gives an overview of the collection, the history of their production, images, and links to DVDs and books, particularly Vanessa Toulmin, Simon Popple and Patrick Russell (eds.), The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon: Edwardian Britain on Film (2004). And there are numerous examples of M&K films available to videw for free on the BFI’s YouTube channel.

Albert Kahn at last on DVD


Regular visitors to this blog will know all about The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn, the BBC television series which highlighted the astonishing collection of Autochrome photographs and motion picture records of life around the world in the early years of the twentieth century, created by French millionaire philanthropist Albert Kahn. You may also know that there has been immense frustration for the many fans of the series that no DVD release has been made available, supposdly for licensing reasons, except for a colossally expensive version intended for the educational market.

Now prayers have been answered. The series has made it to DVD. The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn has been released by 2 entertain (the video distributor part-owned by BBC Worldwide). The 3-disc DVD set (PAL, region 2) is in nine episodes, running 462 mins (500 mins says the BBC shop). The series shows beautifully-composed scenes from around the world: China, Brazil, the United States, Ireland, France, Mongolia, Norway, Vietnam and much more, from the mid-1900s, through the First World War and into the 1920s. Kahn’s team of photographers chiefly took still photographs, using the complex Autochrome process (invented by the Lumière brothers) with its hauntingly beautiful results, but they produced monochrome motion picture records as well, capturing distant lands and cultures on the brink of disappearing into history, and unconstrained by the need to convert the material into form that would be acceptable to the commercial cinema.

It’s unclear to what degree the DVD represents the original BBC series, which was shown in nine one-hour parts, the first five broadcast on BBC4 on April 2007 under the title The Edwardians in Colour (subtitled The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn); the remaining four as The Twenties in Colour in November 2007. The BBC Active educational version is 9×50 mins. Amazon and the BBC Shop site say that there are ten parts, but the British Board of Film Classification registers the release as being in nine parts, and this seems more likely. Anyway, the DVD set is now available, having been released on 7 September.

If you want to find out more about Kahn and his Archives de la Planète project, visit the Searching for Albert Kahn post on this blog.

Revisiting Pathé


Georges Méliès’ Nouvelle Luttes Extravagantes (1900), from http://www.britishpathe.com

In the early, far-off days of the Bioscope I wrote two posts on the British Pathe collection of newsreels, 3,500 hours of freely-available digitised newsreels covering the period 1896-1970. One post was on the newsreels, the other on the early silent fiction films which lurk on the site, if you know where to look.

The site is still very much active, but after British Pathe was bought by private equity interests recently (the previous owner was the Daily Mail and General Trust) the site has undergone a revamp and has become that much easier for researchers to use. Previously you had to register to use the site, and to view any film you had to fill in personal details and then you could download a low resolution version. It was a somewhat laborious business, and in the new version (for which British Pathé has regained the acute accent on the e) the films are no longer downloadable Window Media files but are instantly accessible streaming files in Flash, without any of the form filling-in. Of course, it’s a little disappointing to not be able to take copies away, and it is disappointing also that the frame stills library has been removed, but the ease of access is a real boon.

The site is a marvellous resource for discovering silent film, and the life and times of the silent era. To remind you about what you can expect to find on the site, I’m going to reproduce some of my original 2007 posts. So, firstly, there’s searching for non-fiction material:

In 2002 British Pathe, owners of the Pathé newsreel library, put up the whole of its collection, thanks to a grant from the New Opportunities Fund’s NOF-Digitise programme. It was a controversial decision, because a commercial company was being given public money to do what some felt the company might have done for itself, but others welcomed a new kind of public-private initiative. The result for the public was 3,500 hours of newsreel footage from 1896 to 1970, available for free as low resolution downloads. Later 12,000,000 still images were added, key frames generated as part of the digitisation process. It was, and remains, one of the most remarkable resources on the net, and a major source for those interested in silent film.

Charles Pathé established the Société Pathé Frères, for the manufacture of phonographs and cinematographs, in 1896. A British agency was formed in 1902, and its first newsreel (which was the first in Britain), Pathé’s Animated Gazette, was launched in June 1910. This soon became Pathé Gazette, a name it retained until 1946, when it was renamed Pathé News, which continued until 1970. These newsreels were issued twice a week, every week, in British cinemas, and were a standard feature of the cinema programme in silent and sound eras.

Pathé also issued other films. It created the cinemagazine Pathé Pictorial in 1918, which ran until 1969. Eve’s Film Review, a cinemagazine for women, was established in 1921 and ran to 1933, while Pathétone Weekly ran 1930-1941. There were other film series and one-off documentaries.

All of this and more is on the site. Pathé were distributors of others’ films, some of which turn up unexpectedly on the site. For example, there are some of the delightful Secrets of Nature natural history films made by Percy Smith in the 1920s. There are also actuality films from before 1910 which Pathé seems to have picked up along the way, though not all of them are Pathé productions by any means – for example, assorted films from the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.

For the silent period, researchers should note that the collection is not complete. For the First World War and before (what British Pathe calls Old Negatives) the surviving archive is patchy, and the cataloguing records less certain with dates. For the 1920s, the record is substantially complete – indeed, there is unissued and unused material as well as the standard newsreels. These of course show events great and small throughout the decade, with an emphasis on sport, celebrity, spectacle and human interest. Look out in particular for the women’s magazine Eve’s Film Review, a delightful series with an emphasis on “fashion, fun and fancy”. For silent film fans, there are newsreels of Chaplin, Valentino, Pickford, Fairbanks etc. There are all sorts of surprise film history discoveries to be made, such as a Pathé Pictorial on feature film production in Japan in the 1920s.

Then there are the fiction films:

Pathé somehow picked up assorted pre-First World War films, some though not all made by its French parent company, and these got digitised alongside the newsreels and are available on the site. There is no index to these fiction films, so below is a list of some of the ones that I have been able to find, with descriptions and some attempts at identifying them, as few are given correct titles or dates:

(the first title given is that on the British Pathe database – enter this in the search box to find the film)

THE FATAL SNEEZE = comedy in which a man suffers from an increasingly violent sneeze. This is That Fatal Sneeze (GB Hepworth 1907).

THE RUNAWAY HORSE = comedy in which a runaway horse causes chaos. This is a famous comedy of its time, Le Cheval Emballé (FR Pathé 1907).

FLYPAPER COMEDY = This is a French comedy with Max Linder, in which Max has flypaper sticking to him which he then finds sticks to everything else.

THE FANTASTIC DIVER = early trick film in which a man dives into a river fully clothed then returns by reverse action in a swimsuit.

THE RUNAWAY GLOBE = Italian? comedy in which a giant globe intended for a restaurant runs away down a street and is chased by a group of people before being sucked up by the sun, only to be spat out again.

THE MAGIC SAC [sic] = French trick film in which an old man hits people with a sack and makes them disappear.

MYSTERIOUS WRESTLERS = French trick film where two wrestlers pull one another to bits. This is a brilliant George Méliès trick film, Nouvelle Luttes Extravagantes (FR Star-Film 1900).

ATTEMPTED NOBBLING OF THE DERBY FAVOURITE = section from a British racing drama, made by Cricks and Sharp in 1905.

THE POCKET BOXERS = trick film in which two men place two miniature boxers on a table and watch them fight.

ESCAPED PRISONER RETURNS HOME = guards wait while prisoner bids a tearful farewell to his sick wife. This must be a James Williamson film, perhaps The Deserter (GB 1904).

LETTER TO HER PARENTS = extract from a drama at which elderly parents are upset at a message they receive.

ASKING FATHER FOR DAUGHTER’S HAND = scenes from a film where a fiancée has to prove himself to the father.

HAVING FUN WITH POLICEMEN = British comedy in which two legs stick out of a hole in an ice-covered pond, placed there by boys to trick a policeman.

POINT DUTY = a policeman is run over by a car and put back together again. This is How to Stop a Motor Car (GB Hepworth 1902).

THE MOTOR SKATER = comedy where man buys a pair of motorised skates and causes chaos.

RUNAWAY CYCLIST = comedy where man buys a bicycle and causes chaos (as can be seen, this was a common theme for comedies of the period).

FIRE = mixture of actuality film of a fire brigade and a dramatised fire rescue. This is Fire! (GB Williamson 1901).

HAMLET = scene with Hamlet and his father’s ghost, using trick photography, from Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson’s production of Hamlet, a feature-length film (GB Hepworth 1913).

THE DECOY LETTER = early, rudimentary Western, where a soldier lures away an innkeeper with a decoy letter and attempts to assault his wife.

THE VILLAGE FIRE = comedy fire brigade film. This is The Village Fire Brigade (GB Williamson 1907).

THE RUNAWAY CAR = French comedy in which three men try to ride a bicycle and then a car.

RESCUED BY ROVER = a dog finds a kidnapped baby. This is of course the famous Rescued by Rover (GB Hepworth 1905).

One other point. British Pathe used to be managed by ITN Source and available from that company’s website as well, but the licensing deal has come to an end and all of the Pathé films have been removed from the ITN site.

The Biograph in Battle


A few weeks ago, we reported on the marvellous book digitisation project by the Cinémathèque française, the Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma, and said that we would return to the collection to describe some of the highlights (and put them in the Bioscope Library). So we start with one of the truly notable publications of the early cinema period, W.K-L. Dickson’s The Biograph in Battle: Its Story in the South African War (1901). This is both the first account in book form by a motion picture operator describing his work, and the first book about the filming of war. Its subject is the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, often described as the first media war, because film cameras were there to record it.

William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson had already earned his place in motion picture history by being the man who effectively invented motion picture films, when he worked as an engineer in the Edison labs 1883-1895. Dickson left Edison to join the KMCD Syndicate, formed to exploit a 70mm film system used both for screen projection (the Biograph) and for exhibition on a flick-card peepshow (the Mutoscope). The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, as they became, was the major American rival to Edison in the 1890s, and it pushed its product abroad in an ambitious campaign of proto-motion picture globalization which included the formation of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Dickson went over to his homeland in 1897 to serve as chief camera operator, filming news and travel subjects in the main. The most notable adventure he undertook while with Biograph was to film the Anglo-Boer War.

The Anglo-Boer War (more popularly known as the Boer War) was, like most wars, unclear and unnecessary. It was fought between Britain (specifically the forces of the British Empire) and the two independent Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, in southern Africa. The immediate cause of the conflict was the refusal by the Boers (Afrikaners) to grant political rights to a British immigrant workforce, known as Uitlanders, but the real impetus was British imperial ambitions and South African gold and diamonds. The Boers invaded the British colony of Natal on 11 October 1899, and Britain launched an invasion force under Sir Redvers Buller. This force met with several embarassing reverses, and Buller was replaced by Lord Roberts, who took Pretoria on 5 June 1900. Many felt the war was over by this point, but instead it turned into a guerilla campaign for the next two years, characterised by some brutal tactics and the British use of concentration camps to imprison Boer civilians, until victory was gained by Lord Kitchener in May 1902.

The war occured at just the point where the young film industry had the resources, and the eager audience, to make covering the war a most welcome opportunity. Four British companies sent cameramen to the Transvaal: Biograph (Dickson), Paul’s Animatograph Works (Walter Calverley Beevor and Sydney [?] Melsom), the Warwick Trading Company (Joseph Rosenthal, Edgar Hyman, John Benett-Stanford and Sydney Goldman) and Gibbons’ Bio-Tableaux (C. Rider Noble). Goldman and Noble are believed to have filmed the latter stages of the war (post-June 1900), for which no film survivies today. The others filmed the war in its first dramatic months. Other companies, notably Edison, Pathé and Norden Films (Mitchell & Kenyon) fed an audience thirst for images of the war by dramatising heroic actions, but what audiences most wanted to see was war’s actuality.


Dickson’s Mutograph camera at Chieveley filming a naval gun battery. Note the bicycle wheel which drove a suction pump that flattened the unperforated film against the aperture plate. From The Biograph in Battle.

Dickson sailed from Southampton on Buller’s ship the Dunottar Castle on 14 October 1899, accompanied by two assistants William Cox and Jonathan Seward, and equipped with a Mutograph camera. He also wrote a diary, originally for newspaper serialisation (Pearson’s Illustrated War News), and then for publication in book form, illustrated with many images from the films that he and his team took between October and June the following year. He started filming immediately upon arrival in Cape Town on 30 October. He travelled to the combat area in late November, and was present at the battles of Colenso (15 December 1899) and Spion Kop (24 January 1900).

It is not difficult to imagine the trials of trying to film a war with camera equipment that literally weighed a tonne. Aside from the bulky Mutograph itself, the tripod weighed 100 pounds, the four boxes of batteries needed to drive its electric motor weighed 1,200 pounds, and the whole caboodle had to be carried around in a Cape cart pulled by two horses. It was equipment hardly designed for the agile filming of war’s actuality, and it made Dickson a less than welcome presence among the troops because the camera made such a good target. Dickson describes some of the problems he operated under:

Getting back to a safer position, we watched the valiant attack of our men as they gradually pushed on. Had we a light camera these movements could have been secured, and many others of a valuable nature, but the enormous bulk of our apparatus which had to be dragged about in a Cape cart with two horses, prevented our getting to the spot. The difficulties were aggravated by the absence of roads, while the huge gullies we had to cross and the enormous boulders we had to get over made the enterprise almost impractical.

It is important to be aware of the limitations Dickson laboured under. He could not go about filming war in the raw. He was constricted by the technology, army officialdom and his independent status. Though not subject to official censorship as he was not a newspaper journalist, his movements were always under the eye of one officer or another, yet because he was not sanctioned by the War Office he could not benefit from army supplies and had considerable battles simply fending for himself and his team. His films are composed documents which record places and activities rather than the heat of battle. Indeed, owing to the range of the Mauser rifles employed by the Boer, the two armies seldom saw much of one another except for occasional assaults or mad cavalry charges. No film was going to get taken showing the fighting itself (Dickson experimented with telephoto lenses but had little success). So we see troops marching, bridges being repaired, signalmen at work, big guns firing, cavalry at the gallop, encampments. The films document the everyday, while at the same time documenting the step-by-step progress of Buller’s army as it progressed from optimism to disaster in its quest to relieve the besieged town of Ladysmith.


The Battle of Spion Kop, a frame still from The Biograph in Battle.

The Biograph in Battle records Dickson’s experiences on a day-by-day basis, particular attention given to films with which audiences were to become familiar back in Britain, where the latest motion pictures dispatches were avidly followed in the music halls and variety theatres. Most notable of these was Battle of Spion Kop: Ambulance Corps Crossing the Tugela River. This remarkable film records the retreat of British troops following the disastrous assault on the heights of Spion Kop, the culmination of Buller’s ill-fated campaign. Dickson’s film (which exists as three separate shots from the same position,one taken with telephoto lens, in the copy held by the BFI National Archive) shows an ambulance train aspart of a long line of troops passing down a winding path, while in the forground troops in an entrenchment give a palpable sense of conflict which some of these 1890s war actualities lack. Dickson describes the filming thus:

We were not long in following with our Cape cart, and after several hours’ severe work for horse and man succeeded in getting a good picture of the Ambulance Corps crossing the Tugela River over a hurriedly spanned pontoon bridge. In the immediate foreground may be seen trenches filled with our men to guard against any sudden attack should the wounded be fired on by the enemy. A little below the Tugela wends its way through great boulders and a rocky bed, over which our sick and wounded must be driven as they make their way down the opposite side across the pontoon bridge and up the embankment where we now are, the worse cases being carried by innumerable volunteer stretcher-bearers, mostly coolies. On the other side, as far as the eye can reach the Red Cross ambulances are seen waiting their turn to make their perilous descent, nearly all of them having been previously emptied of their worst cases of wounded for fear of an upset, the patients being carried over and replaced after arriving at the other side, when comparatively on safe ground. The picture has an additional value that in the background is part of the battlefield where Warren’s men fought so gallantly as they advanced towards and up Spion Kop to the right.

If only Dickson’s lens had been sharper or the film longer than a minute. Somewhere in that scene was a journalist on the cusp of fame, Winston Churchill, and serving as a stretcher-bearer was the future Mahatma Gandhi.

Following the debacle of Spion Kop, the British army withdrew, regrouped, took Colenso, finally crossed the Tugela river, and raised the siege at Ladysmith, Buller making his formal entrance on 3 March. Dickson had had to deal with both of his assistants falling ill during this period, taking them to a sanatorium in Durban, but with a new assistant (name unknown) he was back in time to record the entry into Ladysmith, arriving in the town ahead of Buller himself. Dickson was exhausted by this time, and having journeyed back to Durban he succumbed to a fever. By mid-April he and his original crew had recovered, but filming priorities had changed with the uncertain progress of the war. Dickson’s next major film would be the annexation of Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, which surrended to Lord Roberts on 13 March. The annexation ceremonies took place on 28 May, after which Dickson travelled on to film Roberts’ capture of Pretoria on 5 June. Both films represented the moment of triumph by the raising of a flag in the town square, though Dickson’s film of the latter was a cheeky restaging (he had arrived too late to record the actual event), featuring a larger flag than had been used in the ceremony. This piece of deception was spotted at the time by local audiences and came in for much criticism.


At this point, many believed the war to be over. Dickson (left) and his London employers certainly did so, and he left Cape Town for Southampton on 18 July 1900. His films had been a regular feature at the Palace Theatre (the London showcase for Biograph films) and at theatres around the world equipped for Biograph films. The films generally took three to four weeks to get back to Britain, and did so on such a regular basis that audiences could follow his reportage as a form of news, albeit delayed news. Although attempts had been made to film earlier conflicts (Frederic Villiers was present with a cine camera during the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, John Benett-Stanford filmed at Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898, and Billy Bitzer and Arthur Marvin filmed scenes during the Spanish-American War of 1898 for American Biograph), the films of Dickson and his fellow Anglo-Boer war cameramen – none of whom he mentions in his text, incidentally – were the first successful motion picture records of a war from the battlefront, and the picture that they gave to audiences back at home altered forever what was expected of the motion picture camera, and what audiences could demand to see on their screens.

The Biograph in Battle is an enjoyable, informative read, full of character and sharp-eyed observation. Some of the attitudes expressed, particularly towards the native population, are unfortunately characteristic of their time, but overall this is a remarkably detailed account from the earliest years of motion pictures. In 1894 Dickson had been filming fleeting variety acts for the Edison Kinetoscope peepshow; it is evidence of how rapidly the medium developed in scope and ambition that it could, just five years later, take on the documenting of a war and, incidentally, the demise of an Imperial dream.

There is a catalogue of Anglo-Boer War films held by the BFI National Film Archive, which lists most of the extant films of Dickson and his rivals, which I compiled many moons ago.

The Biograph in Battle is very rare (and very expensive) in its original form. A facsimile publication was produced by Flicks Books in 1995, with a new introduction by Richard Brown. This is now out of print but can be found second-hand. The PDF copy on the Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma (49MB in size) comes from the Will Day collection and is inscribed to collector and historian Day by Dickson himself.

The is a new biography of Dickson by Paul Spehr, which covers the Anglo-Boer War period in detail: The Man Who Made Movies: W.K-L. Dickson. Spehr will be giving an illustrated talk on Dickson and film at the Barbican in London on 5 June, and again at the BFI Southbank on 10 June.

(There are no examples of Dickson’s war films online that I can find, except included in television programmes which have been uploaded without the broadcaster’s permission)