The great white silence

Trailer for the BFI National Archive restoration of The Great White Silence

Last night I attended the premiere of The Great White Silence at the London Film Festival. The Great White Silence is a documentary feature, released in 1924, which documents the expedition of Captain Robert Falcon Scott to reach the South Pole. He of course failed, and died with four companions on his wretched journey back from the Pole, having discovered that he had been beaten into second place by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian party.

But Scott had romance on his side. He left behind a diary of exceptional artistry and poignancy, which helped enshrine his legend and turn vainglorious failure into the epitome of noble, patriotic self-sacrifice. And he had ensured that future generations would become engrossed in his story through what they could see as well as what they could read. Herbert Ponting (1870-1935) was taken on as expedition photographer and cinematographer, both for documentary purposes and because the sale of photographic and cinema rights helped pay for the expedition (40% of the profits from the films’ exhibition went to the expedition, 40% to the Gaumont company for producing and distributing the film, and 20% to Ponting).

Ponting was a still photographer of renown, who had done notable work in Japan. But he had never handled a cine camera before. He turned out to be a cinematographer of uncommon ability. Kevin Brownlow pays him the highest of accolades in The War the West and the Wilderness by comparing his work that Mary Pickford’s cinematographer:

Herbert Ponting was to the expedition film what Charles Rosher was to the feature picture – a photographer and cinematographer of unparalleled artistry.

Herbert Ponting achieved work that was exceptional in every degree. It was exceptional in image quality, exceptional in the way it overcame the difficulties of filming in extreme conditions when cinema technology was still in its infancy, exceptional as a documentary record.

Iconic image of the Terra Nova, from The Great White Silence

The BFI National Film Archive has restored the 1924 feature because the footage no longer survives in the original forms in which it was released. The release structure of Ponting’s films was determined by the nature of the expedition and a need to keep up audience interest over the two years that the expedition would take. Ponting joined Scott’s ship the Terra Nova in New Zealand in November 1910. He took an initial 15,000 feet of negative film with him, along with Prestwich and Newman Sinclair cine cameras (the latter’s manufacturer Arthur S. Newman gave Ponting intensive instruction in its use, and added special ebonite fittings to prevent Ponting’s fingers from freezing to the camera). He shot and developed 8,000 feet of this on site (Cape Evans) before the Terra Nova returned to New Zealand in January 1911. This film was delivered to Britain, and edited by Gaumont into a 2,000 foot release (lasting around 30 minutes) entitled With Captain Scott, R.N. to the South Pole. This was first exhibited in November 1911. Ponting’s second batch of film was released by Gaumont as the ‘second series’ of With Captain Scott R.N. to the South Pole, into two 1,500 foot parts, first shown in September and October 1912 respectively, and which featured the final scenes of the polar party, included sequences where they demonstrated sledge-hauling and life inside their tent. By this time Scott and his final polar party were all dead, and news of Amundsen’s success in reaching the pole first dented the film’s commercial appeal. One of the most haunting passages of The Great White Silence is where four of the final five-man party illustrate how they were going to journey across the ice, including scenes of them huddled together for warmth in a tent. Scott, Birdy Bowers, Edward Wilson and Edgar Evans – but not Titus Oates – all appear in a sequence which was produced in anticipation of triumph but now looks like an uncanny intimation of their fate.

The tent scene from The Great White Silence, with (left to right) Evans, Bowers, Wilson and Scott

The bodies were discovered in November 1912 and the news reached the outside world in February 1913. Ponting then began to devote his life to the promotion of the Scott legend, and to the recouping of his investment, because in 1914 he purchased all rights in the film from Gaumont for £5,000. This he did against a waning audience interest, and much of the bitterness that Ponting was to feel in his latter years was due to the public’s insufficient awe at a story which he progressively built up and romanticised, as the Scott story evolved into myth. The films were re-edited and released in 1913, after Scott’s death had been reported, as The Undying Story of Captain Scott.

Ponting then lectured with the films constantly, giving a Royal Command performance in May 1914, where King George V declared that:

I wish that every British boy could see this film. The story should be known to all the youth of the Nation, for it will help to foster the spirit of adventure on which the Empire was founded.

He continued to show his films throughout the First World War, emphasising the call to patriotic sacrifice, but now to dwindling audiences. In 1924 Ponting re-edited the films once more as a feature-length documentary, The Great White Silence, which followed on from the 1921 publication of his book The Great White South. The film was 7,000 feet long (around two hours in length), and released by the New Era company. Reviews were complimentary, marvelling at the hardships endured, and praising both the film’s patriotic virtues and “extremely clever studies of Antarctic life”, while pointing out (a little meanly) that the final scenes were, of necessity, heavily dependent on still pictures, diagrams and intertitles. Scott’s adventures were already of another age, and the film was not a notable success.

Ponting failed in his subsequent attempts to sell his films to the nation, an appropriate film archiving body not existing at that time, and in 1933 he produced a sound version of his films, now entitled 90º South, released by New Era once again, and whittled down to 75mins. Ponting himself provided the film’s commentary, and years of lecturing to these images tell in his polished and succinct words. This time the reviews were more enthusiastic, as reviewers newly aware of the documentary as an art form rightly praised Ponting’s artistry.

90º South is the form in which we have been familiar with the footage in recent years, because the BFI did not have a complete viewing print of The Great White Silence. But with material from a release print held in the Netherlands, and with reference to Ponting’s uncut footage, an exceptional restoration has been produced. The images really do look like they were shot yesterday. The clarity of the faces of the explorers – Wilson, Evans, Bowers, Oates and the rest – is a revelation. The grading is a tour de force. Perhaps most notable is the colour tinting, introduced digitally by following Ponting’s own instructions (written onto gaps in the original footage), which results in the familiar polar scenes unfolding in strange, otherwordly amber, blues and greens. We see the familiar anew.

The film itself is not a documentary as we now expect. It was probably released by Ponting because he had been encouraged by the success of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), but if that film ushered in the new form of documentary filmmaking, Ponting’s film is the ultimate expression of an older form of documentary, one with its roots in the magic lantern lecture. Ponting was a practiced lantern lecturer before he joined Scott, and entertained the expedition party with lantern shows during the Antarctic winter. Throughout his work on the Scott expedition, Ponting imagined how he would present such scenes to an audience back home, and selected, composed and arranged his material accordingly. This included a marked emphasis on animals, particularly penguins (inevitably), to what seems to us the surprising detriment of the human story, but Pointing knew his market and he balances his material admirably. Certainly the 2010 audience seemed as engrossed in seals, penguins, killer whales and skuas, and as susceptible to their anthropomorphic appeal, as those in 1912.

Herbert Ponting giving a magic lantern show on his Japanese travels for members of the Scott expedition

Once Scott had died and Ponting went on the road with the films, he lectured to them – and his hundreds of still photographs – literally hundreds of times. This experience is readily evident in The Great White Silence. The intertitles chat to us in familiar style; Ponting (the titles are written as though it is he speaking to us) points out things for us to look at, his words guide our eyes and our thoughts. He knew how to engage an audience, and he suceeded all over again in 2010. The film is a mixture of footage, photographs and intertitles, and is in effect a lecturer’s show with his words transferred to the intertitles. The slideshow effect reaches its height in the last half hour of the film, when there is no more footage (because Ponting did not travel with Scott into the Antarctic interior) and so all that he can use are photographs, passages from Scott’s diaries, and quaint but moving model animations showing ant-like sledges moving over the polar wastes. Scott’s diaries have barely lost their power to move even in this cynical age, and the film’s ending left the audience breathless, the final scenes accentuated by a solo voice singing ‘Abide with me’.

Ah yes, the music. The film was accompanied by a ‘soundscape’ by composer Simon Fisher Turner which combined strings (more plucked and scraped than bowed) with electronica, gramophone recordings from the time, recordings of banjo music, Terry Riley-ish sequenced keyboard music, singing, and at one disconcerting point a modern voice speaking in Scott’s hut from earlier this year. You can experience some of the electronica on the YouTube clip at the top of this post. The ‘music’ was clearly greatly appreciated by many in the audience, so I shall refrain from commenting as severely as I might. I shall say just this – the point of musical accompaniment for a silent film is to draw attention to the film, not to draw attention to the music. I’m all for imaginative forms of silent film presentation, but last night’s accompaniment drew far too much attention to itself.

The Great White Silence is going to be given the works when it comes to exhibition. A DVD and Blu-Ray release is planned for next year, it will be screened on the Discovery channel, and it is going to get a theatrical release in the UK. So, amazingly, we will have had Metropolis screened in many UK cinemas in 2010, and The Great White Silence at your local fleapit (who knows?) in 2011. These are remarkable times for silents, and The Great White Silence is a remarkable film. See it if you can – you are certainly going to be presented with every opportunity to do so.

The BFI Live channel has a fascinating short documentary on the technicalities of the film’s restoration. (It’s also available on

Some of the text of this post is adapted from an essay I wrote, The Great White Silence: Antarctic Exploration and Film’, in South: The Race to the Pole (London: National Maritime Museum, 2000).

Pordenone diary 2010 – day two

Verdi theatre, Pordenone

There’s no time for slouching at Pordenone if you are serious about your film-watching. A few habitués of the Giornate del Cinema Muto seem to have come for the sun and conversation, taking up near permanent residence in the pavement cafés, but for the rest of us breakfast was swiftly followed by the first film of the day at 9.00am sharp and the final film of the day concluding around midnight. They do let you out for lunch and dinner, but in general it’s a tough regime we had to follow.

And so we move to day two, Sunday 3 October, and what was to become the daily routine of starting off with a long Japanese film, just to test our stamina. Our 9.00am offering was Nanatsu No Umi (Seven Seas) (Japan 1931-32), made in two parts and shown back-to-back over 150 minutes. The films were made by Hiroshi Shimizu, director of the previous day’s Japanese Girls at the Harbour, and there were clear similarities in preoccupations and style.

The film tells of Yumie (played by Hiroko Kawasaki) who is torn between two brothers. She is engaged to the first but seduced by the second, following which her father dies and her sister goes mad. She marries her seducer but takes her revenge by refusing to let him touch her and spending all his money on her sister’s care in a mental hospital. It was pure soap opera, with a somewhat discontinuous narrative (particularly in part 1) characterised by seemingly random elements (just who was it who committed suicide in part 1, and why?) and unclear connections between some of the characters. Then it all ended with a happy ending so rapidly organised that you suspected that a reel was missing. As with Saturday, Shimizu showed off plenty of directorial tricks but lacked the basic skill of connecting one shot with another to propel a narrative forward. But he also showed the same intriguing, codified cultural elements, dividing the action up into public lives that showed the influence of the West (clothing, occupations, the key location of a sports shop) and traditional Japanese dress and manners within the private sphere. You felt you had been given a privileged glimpse into early 1930s Japanese life in the kind of middle-brow film that doesn’t usually make it to retrospectives. Japan’s leading silent film pianist Mie Yanashita was an excellent accompanist for this and all the other Japanese films that featured in the festival.

Scenes from Rituaes e festas Borôro (1916), from

Now these dramatic films are fine in themselves, and even the severest of film critics likes to see a story told well, but regulars will know that what really stirs the heart of the Bioscope is the non-fiction film. So I was looking forward greatly to what was next on the list – Brazilian documentaries – and was not disappointed. In particular the first film of three, Rituaes e festas Borôro (Rituals and Festivals of the Borôro) (Brazil 1916) was one of the highlights of the festival. The filmmaker was Luiz Thomas Reis, photographer and cinematographer with the Commission of Strategic Telegraph Lines from the Mato Grosso to the Amazon, more simply known as the Rondon Commission. The Commission was tasked with mapping the unknown regions of Brazil and making contact with remote tribes. Reis documented this work on film, in part with the hope that the exhibition of such films would raise further funding.

Rituaes e festas Borôro is an extraordinary work, simply by letting the extraordinary speak for itself. Its subject is the Borôro people of the Mato Grosso region, specifically the funeral ceremonies for an elder of the village. I am no expert in anthropology, but the film seemed to me notable for its observant, unpatronising, humane manner. The camera never intruded, only witnessed, and the Borôro were not looked upon as objects of curiosity but as people respected for their customary practices and milieu. This was somewhat charmingly exemplified by the dogs. Stray dogs in early films are something of a Bioscope fetish, and Reis’ film captured not just the dances of the Borôro but the dogs who casually wandered in and out of the frame, surveying the strange things that these humans do in whatever part of the globe that humans happen to gather. The only questionable note was the assurance made by the film’s titles that these rites were not permitted to be seen by whites or women – yet here was the camera filming them. Such are the paradoxes of the anthropological film, a subject to which the Giornate would find itself returning in subsequent days.

Two other Reis films made for the Rondon Commission followed, Parima, fronteiras do Brasil (Brazil 1927) and Viagem ao Roroima (Brazil 1927). Each just under 30mins in length, these were more conventionally ‘travelogue’ in style. The first documented an inspection of the Brazilian-French Guiana border, following the river, with some thrilling shots taken from the front of a travelling canoe (the Brazilian version of the phantom ride), but with plenty of signs of encroaching colonisation in the builings that littered the banks of the river. The second explored the borderland between Brazil, Venezuela and British Guiana and concluded with breathtaking views of 1,000-foot high rock faces. In both films there were sequences where they came upon tribes, so positioned in the film as to be the big pay-off shots, the exotic conclusions which would capture the interest and wallets of likely funders. Rituaes e festas Borôro was in every sense the better film.

Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück, with a band in the understage area playing the Internationale

So that was the morning session. A foul snack lunch and earnest conversations about budget cuts (again) and we were back at 14:30 for Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück (Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness) (Germany 1929). This was being shown as pat of the Giornate’s ‘The Canon Revisited’ strand. There is an occasional air of pompousness about the festival, and this idea of re-assessing canonical films exemplifies it. It’s a good idea to revisit classics, especially for the new audiences the festival is attracting, but a number of these films were titles that many of us had not had any chance to see the first time round; indeed I suspect most of us had not even heard of them. Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück was a case in point; a film I’d vaguely heard of, but never seen, though I will admit it’s a classic of sorts and certainly merits being brought back to the screen once more.

Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück is as agit-prop a film as you could expect to see. Directed by Piel Jutzi, it combines melodrama with documentary realism in its depiction of the ground-down lives of the Berlin proletariat. It tells of the family and tenants of an apartment managed by the aged Mother Krause (Alexandra Schmidt), pitting the apathy and resignation of the individualised poor (generally the elderly) against the positive binding together of those who follow the Communist party (generally the young). Its highpoint is where the harassed daughter (Ilse Trautschold) joins her boyfriend in a protest march to the sounds of the Internationale – literally so in our case, because at this point a marching band of red-suited musicians entered the Verdi theatre and played the marching song to much applause. It was a wonderful thearical coup – typical of the imagination that goes into the Giornate.

However, despite such rousing gestures, the film’s message was an unsettling one. We were supposed to reject Mother Krause’s miserablist view of her fate, but only after the film had done all it could to make us feel sorry for her, so that the ending – where she gasses herself and a sleeping child, because life simply isn’t worth it for either of them – was distasteful and the conclusion ambiguous. It was a stylish and imaginatively experimental film, but what it expounded was more posture than principle.

Next up came a selection of Pathé short comedies with surprisingly sophisticated live musical accompaniment from pupils of the Scuola Media “Balliana-Nievo” from nearby Sacile, music that was a good deal richer in colour and instrumentation than other schools’ work with silent films that I have heard. They were followed by pupils of Pordenone’s Scuola Media Centro Storico, who took on the truly bizarre Charley Bowers, an American comedian whose gimmick was to combine comedy with stop-frame animation. In There it is (USA 1928) he plays a Scottish detective from Scotland Yard who tackles the case of a haunted house with the aid of his cockroach sidekick, MacGregor. It wasn’t strictly funny, but it left this viewer – whose first Bowers film it was – opened-mouthed at its unabashed weirdness. If Salvador Dali had been employed by Leo McCarey, he might have made There it is.

In need of a break, I missed the new documentary Palace of Silents (USA 2010) on the story of Los Angeles’ Silent Movie Theater, returning for the evening’s screenings. The Giornate was celebrating the 75th anniversary of two of the world’s leading film archives, MOMA and the BFI National Archive. To mark its 75th year, the BFI took the interesting decision to try and recreate part of a programme of the Film Society. The Film Society was formed in London in 1925 by a bunch of radicals led by the Hon. Ivor Montagu, which eventually included such notables as Anthony Asquith, Iris Barry, Sidney Bernstein, Roger Fry, Julian Huxley, Augustus John, Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. The Society (the first of its kind in the world) put on films of artistic, historic or political interest at the New Gallery Kinema in Regent Street, often showing films from the USSR which had been refused a licence by the British Board of Film Censorship (they could do so because the films were shown to members of a private club). The Film Society had a huge influence on British film culture, and after it ceased operating in 1939 its collection went to the BFI.

On 10 November 1929 the members of the Society witnessed perhaps the most remarkable film programming coup ever – the world premiere of John Grierson’s Drifters, the cornerstone of the British documentary movement, and the UK premiere of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, plus James Sibley Watson’s avant garde classic The Fall of the House of Usher (USA 1928) and Walt Disney’s Barn Dance (USA 1929). Now that’s programming.

Drifters (1929)

Audiences were made of sterner stuff in 1929, because we were only shown the first two. Drifters (UK 1929) is one of those classics more cited than seen and those who have seen it generally did years ago. Looking at it again after twenty years in my case, it is a work that easily merits its high reputation. It documents the work herring fishermen, and by its Soviet-inspired use of montage combined with a very British tatse for understated realism it immediately stands out from any other film of actuality produced in the UK (or anywhere else) to that date. One understands why its effect on audiences at the time was so electric, and why it did indeed inspire a whole school of documentary filmmaking.

However, it is also an odd film. It falls into three parts. The first, where the fishermen go out to sea, is in classic documentary style, showing man pitted against the elements, elevated (but not excessively ennobled) by toil. Part two, the night-time sequence, is strange. The fishermen sleep, but in the seas beneath we see the herring shoals swimming to and fro, menaced by dogfish. What has this to do with documentary? It tells us nothing of the people involved. Are we mean to gain insight into the lives of the fish? What is going on? It’s a sequence that dosn’t seem to get discussed much in studies of Drifters, yet here is the archetypal Griersonian documentary, and at its heart it slips into a strange, blue-tinted reverie, a fisherman’s dream. Part three is where the catch is taken to harbour, with often exhilaratingly scenes of commerce, industrialisation and human interaction. As Russell Merritt notes in the Giornate catalogue, “Grierson claimed the sequence was pointed social critique, exposing capital’s exploitation of the workers”. It is no such thing. It is unabashed championing of the power of the marketplace. Grierson the instinctive filmmaker was not the political filmmaker that he thought that he should be – he was too good for that.

Do you really need my thoughts on Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin) (USSR 1925)? As probably the most discussed film in history outside of Citizen Kane, I guess not. It was an odd way of celebrating the anniversary of the BFI National Archive, especially as the print came from the Deutsche Kinemathek, but it was enriching to compare and contrast with Drifters. It’s a film that disappointed me greatly when I first saw it (with the original Edmund Meisel score), probably because I was so expecting to be impressed and because of the absence of conventional narrative. As a story, it hasn’t got much going for it. As cinematic posturing, particularly as one of a planned series of films celebrating the 1905 revolution, it makes absolute sense. Every scene is overplayed, but it is always compelling to watch. There is not a dull composition in it.

And that was enough for a Sunday. I did see the first twenty minutes or so of Dmitri Buchowetski’s Karusellen (Sweden 1923), which looked fabulous. but I was sceptical of any story where a circus sharpshooter somehow is able to afford a vast country house and where the happily married wife instantly falls for a stranger because that’s what always happens with strangers. Enough of such artificiality – give me the kine-truth of documentary, and better still the unvarnished simplicity of actuality. For all of the canonical classics on show, the film of the day was a plain record of tribal dances from the Amazonian forest in 1916. So often the simplest is best.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Memory of the world

Roald Amundsen and his Norwegian team reach the South Pole. From

In the report on the British Silent Film Festival I covered the Amundsen polar films. What I didn’t mention is that the films have been included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme. It seems worthwhile just taking a look at Memory of the World and identifying those silent films which are registered on it.

UNESCO’s Memory of the World is an ongoing programme of identification and commemoration of key artefacts held in archives that are important to the world’s documentary heritage. The objective of the programme is described thus:

The vision of the Memory of the World Programme is that the world’s documentary heritage belongs to all, should be fully preserved and protected for all and, with due recognition of cultural mores and practicalities, should be permanently accessible to all without hindrance.

It has these three main mission statements:

  • To facilitate preservation, by the most appropriate techniques, of the world’s documentary heritage.
  • To assist universal access to documentary heritage.
  • To increase awareness worldwide of the existence and significance of documentary heritage.

In practice the Memory of the World means a register of the world’s archival gems. Archives, museums and libraries vie with one another for the honour of having their prized items listed on on the register (though nominations are by country, not by institution). There’s no monetary gain involved: merely glory, plus all the strength and worldwide recognition that comes from UNESCO’s backing. Consequently it is quite an achievement for the silent films and film collections that have made it to the register, although together they present a rather uneven picture of what is most precious about the world’s early film heritage.

These are the silent films (with their nomination details) currently on the register, alongside such world treasures as the Bayeux tapestry, the diaries of Anne Frank, Magna Carta and Criminal Court Case No. 253/1963 (State Versus N Mandela and Others).

METROPOLIS – Sicherungsstück Nr. 1: Negative of the restored and reconstructed version 2001

Documentary heritage submitted by Germany and recommended for inclusion in the Memory of the World Register in 2001.

Fritz Lang’s motion picture METROPOLIS (1927) is without doubt famous testimony of German silent film art, a testimony that made history. The combination of motion picture and architecture: this is above all and still METROPOLIS, the film which was shot by Fritz Lang in the Babelsberg Film Studios in 1925/1926, which, due to its immense expenditure, caused the UFA, the largest German film group, to run into financial difficulties, which then had a glittering première in Berlin in January 1927, and an unparalleled success all over the world ever since – and which became the symbol of a (film-) architectural model of the future.

Substantially shortened and changed almost immediately after the première in Berlin, only one (though fragmentary) of the initially three original negatives of METROPOLIS has been left in the possession of the German Federal Archives, as well as master copies of the lost original negatives in a few archives abroad.

As a result of intense investigations on the initiative of the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, a new reconstruction has been produced. It was first shown in February 2001, on the occasion of the Berlin Film Festival. Considering that the result this time is again not the original version of METROPOLIS, but “only” a synthetic version made of the fragments handed down, it comes, however, as close to the original piece of work as possible. With this reconstruction project a new digitized “original” negative has been produced to provide more independence and better copying quality in the future. This reconstructed version of METROPOLIS is proposed for nomination here.

Lumière Films

Documentary heritage submitted by France and recommended for inclusion in the Memory of the World Register in 2005.

The collection nominated for inclusion in the Memory of the World Register comprises all the original films (negatives and positives) known as the Lumière films (i.e. having round perforations) and listed in the catalogue of 1,423 titles produced at the factory of the brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière. Since 18 films have been lost, the collection comprises the original films of the 1,405 Lumière titles that have been identified and restored.

Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition (1910-1912)

Documentary heritage submitted by Norway and recommended for inclusion in the Memory of the World Register in 2005.

Roald Amundsen and his 4-man team reached the South Pole, with the help of polar dogs, on 14 December 1911. The expedition, and particularly the dog-sled journey to the Pole, is described as daring and with an exceptionally good logistic planning and execution.

The Antarctic and the Arctic Polar Regions, for several centuries, were regarded as the final frontiers for mankind to conquer, and the North and South Poles were for a long period of time the great goals to attain within geographic discovery.

The discoveries in the polar areas contributed, not least in Norway but also internationally, to greater consciousness of, and political interest in, questions concerning sovereignty and rights in these sea and land areas.

The original film material of Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition documents a great historic achievement, outside the borders of the civilized world and in an extreme climatic environment.

In his time, Roald Amundsen (1872 – 1928) contributed, through several expeditions and together with his teams, to new knowledge within several aspects of polar research. First and foremost, however, he is remembered as a master of the classic polar expedition’s planning and execution.

The film collection is unique, as it documents the important events of this first expedition to reach the South Pole. Though the material is incomplete, it is made up of original sequences, filmed between 1910 and 1912, consisting of negative film and first and second-generation print material.

The Battle of the Somme

Documentary heritage submitted by United Kingdom and recommended for inclusion in the Memory of the World Register in 2005.

The 1916 film The Battle of the Somme is uniquely significant both as the compelling documentary record of one of the key battles of the First World War (and indeed one which has come to typify many aspects of this landmark in 20th Century history) and as the first feature-length documentary film record of combat produced anywhere in the world. In the latter role, the film played a major part in establishing the methodology of documentary and propaganda film, and initiated debate on a number of issues relating to the ethical treatment of “factual” film which continue to be relevant to this day. Seen by many millions of British civilians within the first month of distribution, The Battle of the Somme was recognized at the time as a phenomenon that allowed the civilian home-front audience to share the experiences of the front-line soldier, thus helping both to create and to reflect the concept of Total War. Seen later by mass audiences in allied and neutral countries, including Russia and the United States, it coloured the way in which the war and British participation in it were perceived around the world at the time and subsequently, and it is the source a number of iconic images of combat on the Western Front in the First World War which remain in almost daily use ninety years later …

Finally, it has importance as one of the foundation stones of the film collection of the Imperial War Museum, an institution that may claim to be among the oldest film archives in the world.

The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)

Documentary heritage submitted by Australia and recommended for inclusion in the Memory of the World Register in 2007.

Just as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is testimony to German silent film art, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) symbolises both the birth of the Australian film industry and the emergence of an Australian identity. Even more significantly it heralds the emergence of the feature film format.

The Story of the Kelly Gang, directed by Charles Tait in 1906, is the first full-length narrative feature film produced anywhere in the world. Only fragments of the original production of more than one hour are known to exist and are preserved at the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra. The original poster and publicity booklet provide confirmation of those fragments’ authenticity and together this material represents the unique and irreplacable beginning of feature film culture.

What is striking is just how much film is represented on the register so far. As well as the above, from the sound era there is Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), Norman McClaren’s animation film Neighbours (1952), The Wizard of Oz (1939), the Ingmar Bergman Archives, and the John Marshall Ju/’hoan Bushman Film and Video Collection – though one might query the documentary value of some of these choices. The prominence of film can be seen by looking an individual countries: there have been five items registered by the UK – the Hereford Mappa Mundi, Magna Carta, the Registry of Slaves of the British Caribbean 1817-1834 (submitted by the UK and Caribbean nations), the Appeal of 18 June 1940 (a radio broadcast, submitted by the UK and France), and The Battle of the Somme.

Not everyone would argue that The Battle of the Somme should be among the UK’s top five archival treasures (though I would), and its presence there is due in part to the strong arguments made in its favour by its host archive, the IWM – but nevertheless film is there on the register, again and again. It is not only heartening, but it adds significant strength to the arguments of archives that need to argue the case for the preservation of film as a medium equal to any other. Celluloid is the equal of vellum.

The individual records for the films listed above are worth checking out because there is a link to the nomination forms, which give much supporting information (in English and French) on the films’ preservation and current status. There are also some photographs.

But if you were picking five examples of silent film heritage to represent the world’s documentary heritage, would you have picked those five – or what would you argue should be included?

Finally, the restored Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition film is to be made available on DVD from the Norwegian Film Institute on May 6th – details here.

The show goes on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The beskop in Tibet

Jigme Taring

Bioscope is a word with many meanings (which is why it was chosen for the title of this blog). Bioscope can mean a view of life (its original dictionary definition), a cinematograph camera, a projector, a fairground film show, a cinema, a make of microscope, a film trade journal, and a science-based visitor attraction in France. The term was commonly used for a place to see films in the early years of the twentieth-century, and that term persisted in some countries, notably India and South Africa. What I hadn’t know before now is that it also also adopted in Tibet – albeit in the local pronunciation, beskop. I have just come across two detailed and fascinating articles on the history of film in Tibet, ‘The Happy Light Bioscope Theatre & Other Stories’, written by Jamyang Norbu for the Tibetan news website Part one is here, and part two is here. It can also be read on Jamyang’s Shadow Tibet blog. He has quite a story to tell.

Film had come to Tibet by 1920. Jamyang tells us that when the “first (invited) British mission reached Lhasa” the head of the mission, Charles Bell, was entertained by Tsarong Dasang Dadul, commander-in-chief of the Tibetan army, with some film shows held in his private screening room. Tsarong operated the projector himself. Jamyang doesn’t say what the films were, but reasons that it was probably one of only two projectors in Tibet. The Dalai Lama is likely to have had the other one.

Tibetans however were not unaccustomed to screen entertainments. Jamyang traces the history of puppet shows with special visual effects and the magic lantern shows exhibited by British visitors at the turn of the centiury. But after 1920 subsequent British political missions brought film projectors with them. Jamyang says that Frederick Bailey (political agent and spy) showed newsreels in Lhasa in 1924, including King George V opening parliament, while in 1933 Derek Williamson showed Charlie Chaplin and Felix the Cat films to the 13th Dalai Lama. His wife Peggy, in her memoirs recalled:

In Lhasa, Charlie Chaplin was the great favourite; we had one of his films called The Adventurer, in which he played an escaped convict. The Tibetans renamed this film ‘Kuma’ (The Thief) and everyone wanted to see, including His Holiness, who laughed heartily throughout the performance.

Tibetans called Chaplin ‘Chumping’, from Charlie the Champion, the word entering the language. Rin Tin Tin was another great favourite. The cinema came to be known as beskop, adapted from bioscope, though now Tibetans use the term ‘lok-nyen’, a translation of the Chinese ‘dian-ying’ (electric shadows). Jamyang stresses that there is little evidence of Tibetans having viewed the cinema superstitously. The first cinema in Lhasa may have opened before 1934, managed by two Muslim brothers named Radhu, Muhammad Ashgar and Sirajuddin, though the details are uncertain. It seated around a hundred, with a balcony for twenty or thirty paying higher prices, from which a Muslim translator would narrate the story to the Tibetan audience.

Much of the evidence for all this comes from accounts written by British political mission members and explorers. The Austrian adventurer Heinrich Harrer, author of the celebrated Seven Years in Tibet, wrote that talkies were being shown in Lhasa by the mid-1930s. Sir Basil Gould, who headed the British mission of 1936, reported that:

Monks were amongst the most ardent of our cinema clientele. There is nothing which Tibetans like better than to see themselves and their acquaintances in a frame or on the screen.

Gould was among those who supplied that need, because as well as bringing projectors with them the British brought cine cameras.

Extract from Sir Basil Gould’s films of Tibet (1940), from the BFI’s YouTube channel

The first film shot in Tibet was probably film taken by J.B.N. Noel, cinematographer with the 1922 British Everest exhibition, whose footage is included in the documentary feature Climbing Mt Everest (1922). It is included in a new BFI National Archive touring programme, The Search for Shangri-La: Tibet on Film 1922-1950. The bulk of the programme is (silent) home movie footage shot by British missions and explorers iin the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. They include the botanist George Sherriff, the aforementioned Frederick Bailey and the Williamsons, Charls Bell (on his return to Tibet in 1934) and Sir Basil Gould, who brought a cameraman with him to Lhasa, Frederick Spencer Chapman. These films feature ceremonies, landscapes and Tibetan flora and fauna. Shot for the most part in colour they form an extraordinary archive of Tibetan life before the Chinese takeover, and were used in the 2008 BBC television series The Lost World of Tibet (now available on DVD).

The first Tibetan filmmaker may have been Tsarong Dasang Dadul, who acquired a camera at some time after the projector with which he entertained Charles Bell in 1920. Actuality films were made by Tsarong’s son Dundul Namgyal, while Tsarong himself filmed Anglo-Tibetan football matches outside Lhasa in 1936. Heinrich Harrer reports that the young 14th Dalai Lama was a keen filmmaker and knew how to dismantle a projector and put it back together again. Jamyang Norbu writes that another filmmaker in the 1940s was Tibetan official Jigme Taring (shown at the top of this post) who filmed festivals and street life in Lhasa, and the 14th Dalai Lama’s official tour of Sera, Drepung and Ganden.

Jamyang goes to to write about films and cinema exhibition following the Chinese occupation, including Tibetan fiction films (the first is believed to have been made in the mid-1970s). He also writes about his personal experience of exhibiting world cinema classics to Tibetan students in the 1980s, including Nosferatu (1922). It’s a fascinating history, showing how film was not just the harbinger of modernity for Tibet but how it fitted into (and documented) established traditions. Film was never simply about the shock of the new; it complemented the old as well, and was shaped by every society that encountered it.

The Search for Shangri-La tours Britain until May 2010 – details of screenings are here; while the Everest films of J.B.L. Noel will feature at this year’s British Silent Film Festival in April.

The Silent Film Bookshelf

The Silent Film Bookshelf was started by David Pierce in October 1996 with the noble intention of providing a monthly curated selection of original documents on the silent era (predominantly American cinema), each on a particular theme. It ended in June 1999, much to the regret to all who had come to treasure its monthly offerings of knowledgeably selected and intelligently presented transcripts. The effort was clearly a Herculean one, and could not be sustained forever, but happily Pierce chose to keep the site active, and there it still stands nine years later, undeniably a web design relic but an exceptional reference resource. Its dedication to reproducing key documents helped inspire the Library section of this site, and it is a lesson to us all in supporting and respecting the Web as an information resource.

Below is a guide to the monthly releases (as I guess you’d call them), with short descriptions.

October 1996 – Orchestral Accompaniment in the 1920s
Informative pieces from Hugo Riesenfeld, musical director of the Rialto, Rivoli and Critierion Theaters in Manhattan, and Erno Rapee, conductor at the Capitol Theater, Manhattan.

November 1996 – Salaries of Silent Film Actors
Articles with plenty of multi-nought figures from 1915, 1916 and 1923.

December 1996 – An Atypical 1920s Theatre
The operations of the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.

January 1997 – “Blazing the Trail” – The Autobiography of Gene Gauntier
The eight-part autobiography (still awaiting part eight) of the Kalem actress, serialised over 1928/1929 in the Women’s Home Companion.

February 1997 – On the set in 1915
Photoplay magazine proiles of D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett and Siegmund Lubin.

March 1997 – Music in Motion Picture Theaters
Three articles on the progress of musical accompaniment to motion pictures, 1917-1929.

April 1997 – The Top Grossing Silent Films
Fascinating articles in Photoplay and Variety on production finance and the biggest money-makers of the silent era.

May 1997 – Geraldine Farrar
The opera singer who became one of the least likely of silent film stars, including an extract from her autobiography.

June 1997 – Federal Trade Commission Suit Against Famous Players-Lasky
Abuses of monopoly power among the Hollywood studios.

July 1997 – Cecil B. DeMille Filmmaker
Three articles from the 1920s and two more analytical articles from the 1990s.

August 1997 – Unusual Locations and Production Experiences
Selection of pieces on filmmaking in distant locations, from Robert Flaherty, Tom Terriss, Frederick Burlingham, James Cruze, Bert Van Tuyle, Fred Leroy Granville, H.A. Snow and Henry MacRae.

September 1997 – D.W. Griffith – Father of Film
Rich selection of texts from across Griffith’s career on the experience of working with the great director, from Gene Gauntier, his life Linda Arvidson, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish and others.

October 1997 – Roxy – Showman of the Silent Era
S.L. Rothapfel, premiere theatre manager of the 1920s.

November 1997 – Wall Street Discovers the Movies
The Wall Street Journal looks with starry eyes at the movie business in 1924.

December 1997 – Sunrise: Artistic Success, Commercial Flop?
Several articles documenting the marketing of a prestige picture, in this case F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.

January 1998 – What the Picture Did For Me
Trade publication advice to exhibitors on what films of the 1928-1929 season were likely to go down best with audiences.

February 1998 – Nickelodeons in New York City
The emergence of the poor man’s theatre, 1907-1911.

March 1998 – Projection Speeds in the Silent Film Era
An amazing range of articles on the vexed issue of film speeds in the silent era. There are trade paper accouncts from 1908 onwards, technical papers from the Transactions of Society of Moving Picture Engineers, a comparative piece on the situation in Britain, and overview articles from archivist James Card and, most importantly, Kevin Brownlow’s key 1980 article for Sight and Sound, ‘Silent Films: What was the right speed?’

April 1998 – Camera Speeds in the Silent Film Era
The protests of cameramen against projectionsts.

May 1998 – “Lost” Films
Robert E. Sherwood’s reviews of Hollywood, Driven and The Eternal Flame, all now lost films (the latter, says Pierce, exists but is ‘incomplete and unavailable’).

June 1998 – J.S. Zamecnik & Moving Picture Music
Sheet music for general film accompaniment in 1913, plus MIDI files.

July 1998 – Classics Revised Based on Audience Previews
Sharp-eyed reviews of preview screenings by Wilfred Beaton, editor of The Film Spectator, including accounts of the preview of Erich Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March and King Vidor’s The Crowd, each quite different to the release films we know now.

August 1998 – Robert Flaherty and Nanook of the North
Articles on the creator of the staged documentary film genre.

September 1998 – “Fade Out and Fade In” – Victor Milner, Cameraman
The memoirs of cinematographer Victor Milner.

October 1998 – no publication

November 1998 – Baring the Heart of Hollywood
Somewhat controversially, a series of articles from Henry Ford Snr.’s anti-Semitic The Dearborn Independent, looking at the Jewish presence in Hollywood. Pierce writes: ‘I have reprinted this series with some apprehension. That many of the founders of the film industry were Jews is a historical fact, and “Baring the Heart of Hollywood” is mild compared to “The International Jew.” [Another Ford series] Nonetheless, sections are offensive. As a result, I have marked excisions of several paragraphs and a few words from this account.’

December 1998 – Universal Show-at-Home Libraries
Universal Show-At-Home Movie Library, Inc. offered complete features in 16mm for rental through camera stores and non-theatrical film libraries.

January 1999 – The Making of The Covered Wagon
Various articles on the making of James Cruze’s classic 1923 Western.

February 1999 – From Pigs to Pictures: The Story of David Horsley
The career of independent producer David Horsley, who started the first motion picture studio in Hollywood, by his brother William.

March 1999 – Confessions of a Motion Picture Press Agent
An anonymous memoir from 1915, looking in particular at the success of The Birth of a Nation.

April 1999 – Road Shows
Several articles on the practive of touring the most popular silent epics as ‘Road Shows,’ booked into legitimate theatres in large cities for extended runs with special music scores performed by large orchestras. With two Harvard Business School analyses from the practice in 1928/29.

May 1999 – Investing in the Movies
A series of articles 1915/16 in Photoplay Magazine examining the risks (and occasional rewards) of investing in the movies.

June 1999 – The Fabulous Tom Mix
A 1957 memoir in twelve chapters by his wife of the leading screen cowboy of the 1920s.

And there it ended. An astonishing bit of work all round, with the texts transcribed (they are not facsimiles) and meticulously edited. Use it as a reference source, and as an inspiration for your own investigations.

The Open Video Project

Edison titles

2 A.M. in the Subway (1905), Japanese Acrobats (1904) and The Boys Think They Have One on Foxy Grandpa, But He Fools Them (1902), from

There are a number of online video collections out there designed for university use which feature lectures, demonstrations, educational documentaries etc. One that has been around for some time is the Open Video Project, which is hosted by Internet2 in America, and aims “to collect and make available a repository of digitized video content for the digital video, multimedia retrieval, digital library, and other research communities.” It comprises a number of collections from around the world such the University of Maryland HCIL Open House Video Reports, Digital Himalaya, NASA K-16 Science Education Programs and the HHMI Holiday Lectures on Science, but for our purposes what is interesting about the site is the Edison Video section.

This features 187 Edison production from the Library of Congress, dating from the 1890s and 1900s. Many early Edison titles are, of course, available from the LoC’s own excellent American Memory site, but the majority of the titles here are not on the better-known site. Among the varied titles only available here are A Ballroom Tragedy (1905), A Nymph of the Waves (1903), A Wake in “Hell’s Kitchen” (1903), Dog Factory (1904), Fights of Nations (1907), Gordon Sisters Boxing (1901), International contest for the heavyweight championship–Squires vs. Burns, Ocean View, Cal., July 4th, 1907 (1907), Princeton and Yale Football Game (1903), a series of films on the United States Post Office, films of the Westinghouse electrical works in 1904, and films from the St. Louis Exposition of 1904. And many more.

Basic cataloguing information is provided, though there are some peculiar errors with dates from time to time, and the presentation is rudimentary apart from some helpful synopses. There is little information available on the collection overall, so nothing to explain the significance of Edison films or why these titles – predominantly actuality – have been chosen. All are available as freely downloadable MPEG-1s, with the same frustratingly small image size as one finds on the American Memory site. But let us not be churlish – here is a wonderful selection of titles, many of them unfamiliar and indicative of the range of Edison production, including comedies, dramas, variety acts, sports films, travel films, and sponsored industrial work. Well worth exploring.

Through Savage Europe

Harry de Windt

Harry de Windt

Just added to the Bioscope Library is Through Savage Europe: Being the narrative of a journey (undertaken as special correspondent of the “Westminster Gazette”), throughout the Balkan States and European Russia. This is an account of a journey through the states of Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Servia (as the book has it), Bulgaria, Rumania and Russia in 1907. This was the area that was soon to experience conflict through the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, then to be the powder keg that helped start off the First World War.

Of interest to us is that the author, journalist and adventurer Harry de Windt, took a motion picture cameraman with him. This was John Mackenzie of the Charles Urban Trading Company, to whom De Windt refers throughout:

My sole companion was Mr. Mackenzie, of the Urban Bioscope Company, a canny Scotsman from Aberdeen, possessed of a keen sense of humour and of two qualities indispensable to a “bioscope” artist – assurance and activity. Nothing daunted my friend when he had once resolved to secure a “living” picture, and I trembled more than once for his safety in the vicinity of royal residences or military ground. For the bioscope was a novelty in the Balkans and might well have been mistaken for an infernal machine!

Relatively little is said of Mackenzie’s actual work (he left before de Windt went on to Russia), but the interest is in his very presence, in the tie-up with a British newspaper (the Westminster Gazette), and in the Balkans as a topic of sufficient interest to audiences at home to justify the expense of organising such a venture. Here is the motion picture medium as a news and documentary force, bound up with the other news media, reporting on a remote locality of pressing interest to British audiences (Urban had sent out a cameraman to the same area in 1903 to film a Macedonian uprising against the Turks) who could read it up in the papers and then, suitably briefed, see it all with interested eyes on the motion picture screen.

For the record, this a list of the films taken by Mackenzie (sadly, none is known to survive today):

Roumania: Its Citizens and its Soldiers (22 scenes, 420 feet)
Herzegovina, Bosnia and Dalmatia (22 scenes, 710 feet)
Montenegro and the Albania Alps (14 scenes, 350 feet)
Life and Scenes in Servia (17 scenes, 435 feet)
Bulgaria and its Citizens (18 scenes, 800 feet)
Bulgarian Infantry (18 scenes, 410 feet)
Bulgarian Cavalry and Artillery (17 scenes, 415 feet)

Mackenzie would go on to become a leading Kinemacolor cameraman, shooting many of the earlier productions demonstrating the colour process.

Through Savage Europe is available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (14MB), PDF (38MB), b/w PDF (17MB) and TXT (439KB) formats.

Three types of authenticity

The Aurora

Douglas Mawson’s ship The Aurora, from

This evening on Channel 4 there was an intriguing 90 mins documentary on Douglas Mawson, When Hell Freezes, made by the estimable Flashback Television. It’ll need to be some other time for me to produce for you a substantial post on silent film and polar exploration (a particular interest of mine), but this programme needs to be noted now for its use of original archive film of Mawson’s expedition as one type of evidence with which to convince us in our comfortable twenty-first century lives of the splendours and miseries of the golden age of Antarctic exploration.

Mawson is less well-known than Robert Falcon Scott or Ernest Shackleton, whose own Antarctic follies have been richly documented in recent years, Shackleton in particular. Mawson was perhaps less of a self-publicist, though he took care to have a motion picture cameraman with him (the motion picture rights helped pay for several of the Antarctic expeditions of this period), who just happened to be Frank Hurley, later (and particularly of late) to find fame as Shackleton’s cinematographer. Mawson also produced a book, The Home of the Blizzard.

His 1912-13 expedition – naturally conducted for the finest scientific reasons – explored the area of Antarctica to the south of Australia, and aimed to visit the South Magnetic Pole. Disaster struck when team member Edward Ninnis fell through a crevasse, complete with dogs and sled. Mawson and Xavier Mertz, who were with him, turned back from their exploration, but Mertz died on the return journey. Mawson made an astonishing solo journey back, arriving back at the home base only to find that the expedition ship the Aurora had left just a few hours beforehand (happily, some colleagues had remained behind in the faint hope of his possible survival). Hurley, of course, was not with the trio on this ill-fated section of the expedition, and consequently no film of it exists.

What I found intriguing about the film was its multi-layered approach to authenticity. We have in past years had the past made convincing to us through the use of archive film (and photographs). Today, however, the fashion is either for dramatic reconstructions, or a presenter going through the same privations as those suffered in the past. When Hell Freezes gave us all three, plus readings from Mawson’s text. Our modern counterparts were Tim and John, who retraced Mawson’s steps using the same equipment and clothing in the kind of pseudo-authencity one can only achieve when a television programme is to be made about the adventure. The dramatic reconstructions were bleached out to look like Hurley’s original footage, and at time the untrained eye would not have spotted the difference between the two.

The modern adventure failed to thrill, as it was inevitably doomed to do (“will Tim and John survive on the ice…?” Of course they will), but the idea was somehow to blend the three styles so that present became past and past became present. But modern video is too bright, too much of the moment – it anaethetizes the ordeal. The monochrome silent footage, by its very distance, makes those things endured in the past seem all the more astonishing, because they seem so distant. In seeing the films of Scott, Shackleton and Mawson we long for close-ups and the camera techniques of today that will bring them that much closer to us, but maybe it is the lack of intimacy that is their strength. When Hell Freezes‘s own faux dramatised scenes were strongest when they showed figures lost in the white distance, not trying to show the agonies etched on their faces.

Anyway, it was a good programme, and despite my advocacy of the archive footage, probably its best moment was the Touching the Void-like sequence where the exhausted Mawson falls down a crevasse and manages, utterly improbably, to climb back up, fall back, yet somehow find the strength to climb his rope once again to safety – while our modern day hero fails to emulate him. Whatever the means of imaginative recreation at our disposal, some feats lie beyond all comprehension.

Peter’s Polar Place is an excellent source of information on the works of Frank Hurley, including archive holdings of films films and those available on DVD. There doesn’t seen to be DVD available of Hurley’s original 1913 documentary, Dr Mawson in the Antarctic (erroneously known as Home of the Blizzard in some sources), but the film itself is held in the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

A Camera Actress in the Wilds of Togoland

The White Goddess of the Wangora

There was a curious sub-genre of silent films which combined exploration with drama. The enthusiasm that there was at the time for exploration films from Africa, South America, Australasia etc, led a number of these ‘explorer’s to make dramatic films, often with ‘native’ performers, which sought to sugar the pill of discovery and anthropology with human interest for the general cinema audience.

Frank Hurley, peerless cinematographer of the Douglas Mawson and Ernest Shackleton expeditions to Antarctica, in the 1920s made dramatised films of life in the Southern seas, The Hound of the Deep aka Pearl of the South Seas (1926) and The Jungle Woman (1926), set in New Guinea. British director M.A. Wetherell made Livingstone (1923) in Africa and Robinson Crusoe (1927) in Tobago. Geofrey Barkas made Palaver (1926) in Nigeria. And of course the Americans Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack made Chang (1927) in Siam and Robert Flaherty made Moana (1925) in Samoa. All were curious mixes of idealism and colonialism, documentary and drama.

One of the earliest such examples must be The White Goddess of the Wangora (Die weiße Göttin der Wangora). This was made in Togo in 1913/14 by the German explorer and sometime big game hunter Major Hans Schomburgk, and starred his future wife, Meg Gehrts. The reason for this post is that her book on the experience of making this film, along with other dramas and a number of documentaries, is available from the Internet Archive. It has the grand title, A Camera Actress in the Wilds of Togoland (1915).

The White Goddess of the Wangora

Schomburgk, famed for having discovered and captured the pygmy hippopotamus, had made an earlier filming trip to Liberia and Togo, where his negative stock was ruined and the cameraman let him down. A little wiser the second time around, he returned with the intention of making a series of dramas and documentaries of life in Togo, with a white actress in tow to act as the main draw for Western audiences. Obviously he hoped for profits which would offset the expense of the expedition. The White Goddess of Wangora told of a white child washed up on the shore of Togoland, and brought up by the local peoples as a kind of goddess. Years pass. A white hunter (Schomburgk) is captured by the tribe and sentenced to be put to death, but she has fallen in love with him. They escape, an exciting chase ensues, they get away, they live happily ever after.

The book is fascinating in detail, patronising towards the ‘savages’ they work with, but also filled with sympathetic observations, particularly on the drudgery experienced by the Togo women. It also tells us much about the indignities and privations the filmmakers suffered. Four dramatic films were produced in all: The White Goddess of the Wangora, Odd Man Out, The Outlaw of the Sudu Mountains and The Heroes of Paratau. They also made travel and industrial films. All, so far as I am aware, are now lost. It is an observant text, with plenty of interest if you can steer around the period attitudes, and it is well illustrated.

You can find a list of film credits for Hans Schomburgk on the excellent German film encyclopedia and, unexpectedly, on Stanford University’s Infolab.

The British cameraman who went with them was James S. Hodgson, who went on to enjoy a long and notable career in newsreels, eventually ending up working for The March of Time in the 1930s. You can read his biography on the British Universities Newsreel Database.