Filming war, changing war

The Warwick Trading Company’s Joseph Rosenthal, with his Bioscope camera, at the time of the Anglo-Boer War

The latest addition to the Bioscope Library is a dissertation whose publication online is the most considerable, and perhaps the most significant, work yet from one of most important – though overlooked – writers on early cinema. Dr Stephen Bottomore’s dissertation Filming, faking and propaganda: The origins of the war film, 1897-1902 (2007) has been published online as a PDF by the University of Utrecht. Here is the abstract, describing its theme and intent:

In this thesis I present the first detailed treatment of war and early cinema, describing the representation of conflicts in film from the Greco-Turkish War of 1897 through the Spanish-American War, Boer War, and others up to about 1902. I show that in attempting to cover these events, early filmmakers faced a difficult task, for warfare at the end of the nineteenth century was changing, relying more on defence and concealment and less on highly visible offensives; there was also increasing regulation and censorship of reporting. With the new tactics making battle less visible, and with increasing official controls, how could wars be represented on film? Surprisingly, in just half a decade, filmmakers found ways to cope, by developing new ‘genres’ of films such as acted fakes, and new exhibition strategies, and in these ways managed to present wars to the public of the time fairly effectively.

This is a prodigious work. It runs to 565 pages, reaching to almost 300,000 words, suggesting that the University of Utrecht is fairly relaxed when it comes to word limits. Histories of the rise and fall of major civilizations have been written using fewer words, and Bottomore’s subject is not simply filming war, but restricts itself to only the very first films of war, and then only up to 1902, not daring to contemplate tackling the later Russo-Japanese War, Balkan Wars or the First World War. Instead what might have been a mere footnote in other histories expands into a major study of the impact of a new medium at a time when warfare itself was changing. It is a triumphant assertion of the footnote as the stuff of empirical history.

Indeed there are an amazing 1,804 footnotes, many of them not simply bibliographic citations but instead an overflowing of ideas with indications of avenues of great interest down which others might profitably travel. The sheer breadth of the references is awe-inspiring. Bottomore is an internationalist, whose work as a researcher and filmmaker has taken him to many countries, each of whose archives and libraries he has scoured and scoured again, putting to shame all of us who might think that a few trips to the British Library or the Library of Congress count as exhaustive research.

So, does the theme match the endeavour? Bottomore is interested in getting to the truth of how and why the first films of war were produced, and through this to demonstrate the richness of the early cinema period as a subject for study. At the time when motion pictures arrived and started to find their way in the world, the age of empires was coming to an end, with a host of conflicts that each in their way pointed to the great conflagration that was to be the First World War. Bottomore covers the Greco-Turkish War (1897), the Battle of Omdurman (1898), the Spanish American War (1898), the Philippine War (1899-1902), the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), and the Boxer Rebellion (1900). None of these was documented on film in the way that we might now expect. The technology was too limited – short film length, limited lenses, immobile cameras etc. – military censorship limited what could be filmed, audience expectations and sensitivies provided further constraints, as did the plain economic considerations of production in lands often far from the homes of film production in Europe and America.

Bottomore usefully defines the different types of early war film, showing how filmmakers adopted different strategies for documenting conflict – strategies which to a large extent exist still, even if moving image technologies have moved on vastly since 1897-1902. He identifies two main types of films: actuality and staged, then subdivides them as follows (paraphrased from pp. xxvi-xxvii):

A. Actuality war film: a film of real people and events, shot at an actual war-related location, i.e. a non-fiction recording of reality (not with actors, nor filmed in substitute locations nor a studio).

  • 1) Conflict-zone actuality: a film shot in the conflict zone showing military activity.
  • 2) Arranged actuality: a film shot in the conflict zone with genuine troops, but in which the action has been ‘set-up’ to be filmed.
  • 3) War-related actuality: a film which, while not shot in the conflict zone at the time of war, is somehow related to the war and shows military activity.

B. Staged war film: a film about the conflict, shot with actors or scale-models away from the war zone.

  • 1) Fake war film: a staged film which re-enacts an incident or event from the current conflict, and was not made at the real location nor with the real participants.
  • 2) Staged allegorical war film: this type, rather than reproducing specific military incidents, portrays wider allegorical or emblematic themes.
  • 3) Dramatised film about the conflict: a film made during or soon after the conflict which is more elaborate than a mere re-enacted battlefield incident.

There are qualifications and sub-classifications that Bottomore adds to this taxonomy, but the essential categories are useful enough. The early cinema approached the documenting of conflict in different ways, variously determined by technology, taste, opportunity, prior example (including ‘pre-cinema’ image technology such as the magic lantern), economics and censorship. One does not simply film war – one makes a significant choice in how the war should be filmed, and how such films should be shown. Audience understanding of what it was being shown – in particular the issue of so-called ‘fake’ films which recreated war scenes away from the battlefield in a form that would appeal to audience expectations of what should look like – therefore becomes crucial to understanding what these first war films were.

The difference between war imagined and war in reality is key to the argument. Motion pictures arrived at a point when war itself was changing. The era of hand-to-hand combat and romantic cavalry charges was over. Long-range artillery meant that opposing armies were positioned further apart and often the one side could not even see the other. Battlefields expanded, and the long-range rifle and the sniper took over from the close fighting which was many people’s picture of how war was fought. Camouflage and the use of smokeless powder further conpsired to make war less visible. Bottomore quotes Fredric Villers, war correspondent and the first person to attempt to document a war as film actuality (for the Greco-Turkish War in 1897), who was further disillusioned by the change in war’s display:

… there was no blare of bugals [sic] or roll of drums; no display of flags or of martial music of any sort… It was most uncanny to me after my previous experiences of war in which massed bands cheered the flagging spirits of the attackers and bugals rang out their orders through the day. All had changed in this modern warfare: it seemed to me a very cold-blooded, uninspiring way of fighting, and I was mightily depressed for many weeks till I had grown accustomed to the change.

On top of all this, increased regulation and censorship controlling the movement of reporters from a military which distrusted the media and sought to control the flow of information (including visual) about its activities, added further limits what could be filmed.

Georges Méliès’ Combat Naval en Grèce (1897), a dramatised incident from the Greco-Turkish War

A war where there was little to see was quite a challenge for motion pictures, still more when there was such audience thirst to see something exciting. Small wonder that producers turned to dramatisation (Villiers found that his limited records of the Greco-Turkish conflict lost out in audience favour to the dramatisations of the same war produced by Georges Méliès), collaboration with the military (filmmakers such as W.K-L. Dickson and Joseph Rosenthal staged ‘actualities’ with the co-operation of British forces during the Anglo-Boer War), and downright fakery (Edward Amet’s use of models to depict naval battles from the Spanish-American War).

In these initial strategies and their outcomes we can see themes that have remained constant throughout the filming of war. What do we ever see of war? It is omnipresent on our television screens, but the stuff of war itself we seldom see. We see its build up, and some of its effects, but not the heart of war. No matter how much it may try, the camera cannot replace the gun. Instead we have talking heads, embedded reporters, incidents created for the purposes of propaganda, incidents reported but not shown, scenes selected, withheld or distorted. We may thrill at footage where a reporter seems to be in the thick of fighting, but they are caught at just one point, whereas the truth of war – if such a thing lies somewhere – lies at many points, reflecting multiple perspectives. As D.W. Griffith said of the impossibility of filming the First World War:

It is too colossal to be dramatic. No one can describe it. You might as well try to describe the ocean or the milky way. A very great writer could describe Waterloo. But who could describe the advance of Haig? No one saw it. No one saw a thousandth part of it.

Instead we often require drama to explain the actuality. Selectivity and creativity (and personable actors) bring across to audiences the lessons of war, transmuting its huge complexities into something that we can understand, something that entertains us. From which have we learned most about the wars of today – the television news, or Three Kings, Battle for Haditha and The Hurt Locker? It all depends on what you are looking for. Film can never be an open window on war’s reality. Instead it is a narrow and distorting mirror, and it is the job for us as the audience to understand that distortion.

But has film changed war? Bottomore references Paul Virilo’s argument, in War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, that the evolution of war over the twentieth century has been bound up with a change in human perception, itself profoundly linked to developments in photographic and cinematic technique. How war is seen impacts on what war is. This then begs the question what exactly war is. Are we still looking for hand-to-hand combat and those romantic cavalry charges? Is that really war? Or does the real fighting take place across desks, terminals, screens, and offices? The propaganda war is as powerful as the war itself, as we all know now. And that, ultimately, is what film has shown us. The real fighting has gone on elsewhere, and from 1897 all the way to 2012, the cinematic image has probably had no influence on that at all.

W.K-L. Dickson (centre) with Biograph camera and crew in South Africa in 1900 during the Anglo-Boer War, from Filming, Faking and Propaganda

Stephen Bottomore is a prodigious collector of information on early film from primary sources, but he is interested in ideas as well. He has read the theoriticans, and understands their work well enough to position early cinema within a broader world of ideas, while regularly expressing his disappointment at conclusions drawn by thinkers who have insufficiently examined the primary evidence. And it is the primary evidence to which he will always return: the quotation, the newspaper reference, the contemporary illustration, the catalogue – anything and everything that points not so much to the actuality of war as to the actuality of the films themselves. These films were made once; now we must understand them. That’s the simple message.

Will Filming, faking and propaganda contribute to ideas on how we understand war and how we understand the moving image? Bottomore’s ultimate goal is to champion early cinema in all its rich variousness, and this limitation, together with the work’s immense length, may restrict its influence. But its impeccable research and its appreciation of socio-political contexts will pay off in the long term. This is a work on which it will become essential to rely from now on. One hopes, of course, that it will make it into hard-copy format eventually, though it will have to be greatly reduced if that happens. In this form, at least, Bottomore’s work is uncontrained by the harsh demands of an editor.

Bottomore’s published books include I Want to See This Annie Mattygraph: Cartoon History of the Coming of the Movies (1995), an innovative study of early film through the cartoons of the period; and The Titanic and Silent Cinema (2000), a work much cited this year and increasingly admired (by Titanic-ists). His most influential work has been in articles, however, including ‘Shots in the Dark: The Real Origins of Film Editing’ (1988), ‘Out of This World: Theory, Fact and Film History’ (1994), ‘The Collection of Rubbish.’Animatographs, Archives and Arguments: London, 1896-97’ and most notably ‘The Panicking Audience?: Early Cinema and the ‘Train Effect’ (1999), on how people reacted to the first films. A collection of Bottomore’s best pieces would be most welcome, if some enterprising publisher were to take it on. It would certainly help cement the non-fiction film not just in early cinema studies but among the wider audience of historians working on this period who need a better understanding of just what film means to those times.

Bottomore was one of the founders of Domitor, the international body for the study of early cinema, and has been a frequent editor of Film History. Unlike most film writers he has a strong background in filmmaking (North South Productions, producers of many documentaries on environmental and development issues). He has been everywhere, his passion for the subject undimmed. Now we have his magnum opus. Do download it, and read it.

Australian journey no. 1 – Gallipoli

The first of our mini-posts on Australia and silent film (while we are away visiting the country) doesn’t feature the land of Australia at all. It’s some of the precious footage that survives of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, in which many Australian and New Zealand troops died trying in vain to establish a sea route for Allied forces through to Russia.

The film was shot by British journalist (and later MP) Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett. Ashmead-Bartlett’s written reports aroused great passions, and were important in establishing the idea of the Anzac. He took a cine camera with him, and the resultant film, With the Dardanelles Expedition: Heroes of Gallipoli (1916), was shown in England, Australia and America, causing great consternation among the British authorities, for whom Ashmead-Barlett’s words and images were anything but helpful propaganda.

The film was acquired by the Australian War Memorial in 1919, and was restored in 2005 with help from Peter (‘Lord of the Rings’) Jackson. The above video is a three-minute sequence from the twenty-minute original.

Further clips with useful curatorial notes on the film can be found on the australianscreen site, which has a section devoted to Gallipoli on film generally.

An example of Ashmead-Bartlett’s reporting, covering the Anzac landing at Gallipoli, can be read on the Gallipoli and the Anzacs site, with extracts from his diary which mention his use of the cinematograph on the same site.

Film was also taken from the Ottoman Turk side, though it’s unclear by whom. The footage can be found on YouTube, though the original source is unclear, and certainly wasn’t consulted.

Somme on tour

The Philharmonia Orchestra playing to The Battle of the Somme at the Queen Elizabeth’s Hall, London, in 2006

Silent films going on tour with live orchestral accompaniment is not something that happens too often. So it is particularly pleasing to be able to report the forthcoming tour of The Battle of the Somme (1916), the iconic First World War documentary filmed by J.B. MacDowell and Geoffrey Malins, with orchestral score by Laura Rossi. Rossi’s exceptional music (the first scored for a British feature-length silent since the silent era itself) was first heard at the Queen Elizabeth’s Hall in London in 2006, and can now be found on the Imperial War Museum’s DVD release (the background to film and DVD can be explored further on this Bioscope post).

The tour dates are:

The music has been scored for (to quote from Rossi’s site) 2 Flute (2nd doubling Piccolo), 2 Oboe, 2 Clarinet in Bb, 2 Bassoon (2nd doubling Contra Bassoon), 4 Horns in F, 3 Trumpets in Bb, 3 Trombone, 1 Tuba, 1 Timpani/Percussion, 2 Percussion, Harp, Piano, Strings. You can listen to sound clips, view video clips, see a sample page from the score, purchase/download the CD or purchase the DVD, and more, all from this link on Rossi’s site.

Rossi’s press release says this about the film:

The Battle of the Somme remains one of the most successful British films ever made. It is estimated over 20 million tickets were sold in Great Britain in the first two months of release, and the film was distributed world-wide to demonstrate to allies and neutrals Britain’s commitment to the First World War … The Battle of the Somme gave its 1916 audience an unprecedented insight into the realities of trench warfare, controversially including the depiction of dead and wounded soldiers. It shows scenes of the build-up to the infantry offensive including the massive preliminary bombardment, coverage of the first day of the battle (the bloodiest single day in Britain’s military history) and depictions of the small gains and massive costs of the attack.

while the Bioscope has this to say about the film:

The Battle of the Somme captures the point of loss, the ghosts on the screen, the living pictures of the dead. Of course it is a deeply partial record. It shows no real fighting beyond shellfire, no serious injuries, no pain, little hatred (look for the shove that one British soldier gives to a captured German who stumbles past him). And of course it shows only the Allied point of view (the Germans would respond with their own film, Bei unseren Helden an der Somme, in 1917). But we recognise it for what it is able to show, not for what it leaves out. It is a profoundly memorably expression of the hopes and fears of its age.

This is a bold venture indeed (particularly with four different orchestras) and hopefully further such screenings will follow, especially as we are getting that little bit closer to the war’s centenary. Rossi has more recently composed a score for the film’s follow-up feature, The Battle of the Ancre (1917), sound clips for which can also be found on her site, as well as her earlier work composing for the British Film Institute’s acclaimed Silent Shakespeare DVD.

Lowell and Lawrence

You may recall that last year I was involved with Neil Brand in a recreation of Lowell Thomas’ celebrated multimedia show, With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, which in 1919-20 did so much to create the romantic idea of Lawrence of Arabia. On the Bioscope the research led to a detailed post on T.E. Lawrence and his life in film.

The show had one barebones presentation at the British Silent Film Festival before it was decided not to take the project any further. But there are those with other ideas, and one of them is Rick Moulton, an American documentary filmmaker with a particular interest in the work of Lowell Thomas and his media presentations. Moulton and Clio History have now produced a website, Lowell Thomas and Lawrence of Arabia: Making a Legend, Creating History.

It’s a handsomely produced site which tells the romantic tales both of T.E. Lawrence and of Lowell Thomas himself, the American journalist who went out to the Middle East in search of a heroic figure to sell the idea of the war to an American audience, and who succeeded in his quest beyond his wildest dreams. Billed as an exhibition, the site covers Thomas as journalist, T.E. Lawrence as a legend on the making, the attack on Akaba, Lawrence at the Paris Peace conference in 1919, the success of the 1919-20 show, Lawrence at the Cairo conference (where the Middle East was carved up and parceled out), the 1962 David Lean film, and the legacies of both Lawrence and Thomas. The site has just the one video clip and some audio, but it is rich in images and supporting documents, and each section of the site has several sub-pages – there is plenty to explore in what is a site created in the spirit of Lowell Thomas himself.

Lowell Thomas ready to film the pyramids from the air (a hand-coloured photograph from the time)

Lowell Thomas (1892-1981) was an American journalist who gained nationwide fame as a Movietone newsreel commentator, as co-founder of Cinerama, and as a radio and television broadcaster. He started out as a print journalist and adventurer, and it was a mixture of personal experience and drive that in 1917 got Thomas a commission to seek out material that would demonstrate to the American people why it was important to support the First World War. He found little of what he felt to be suitable material on the Western Front, so with British official support he went to the Middle East, where Jerusalem was expected to fall to British troops under General Edmund Allenby.

It was when he was in Jersualem (which fell to Allenby in December 1917) that Thomas came across the extraordinary figure of Colonel T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who was helping encourage an Arab revolt by all manner of unconventional means, including the wearing of Arab clothing. Thomas and his camera operator Harry Chase followed Lawrence for just a couple of days, taking both photographs and motion pictures. By this time, the purpose of Thomas’ expedition was really redundant, since there was no need to sell the idea of the war to American audiences any more, but once the war was over he organised his material into a form in which he could sell it as public entertainment.

Lowell Thomas (to the left of the screen) presenting With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia to a London audience

Thomas originally presented an amalgam of all his war material in New York in March 1919, where he found audiences responded most strongly to the Middle Eastern material. He moved to Britain with a show that was originally called With Allenby in Plaestine, including the Capture of Jerusalem and the Liberation of Holy Arabia. It was a truly multimedia show which Thomas billed as a ‘travelogue’ and presented himself (with Chase as projectionist). It combined live narration with music, lighting, lantern slides and film in a highly complex but slick presentation. Allenby was the great military hero, but it was the story of the incomparably romantic T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia as Thomas dubbed him, that captured the public imagination. Lawrence and Chase had spent little time with Lawrence himself, and had little substantial material to show (just a couple of film sequences taken by Chase showed Lawrence), but it was how Thomas told the tale that made the legend.

The show premiered at the Royal Opera House in August 1919. Retitled With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, it became a huge hit, tapping into an audience thirst for heroism away from the carnage of the Western front. The Lawrence tale seemed like a clean triumph replete with the values of another, more romantic age. Another major factor in the show’s appeal was how Thomas and Chase brought together word, image and music in a highly polished style we would now probably call televisual. A million people saw it during its London run; four million around the world. It made Lawrence’s name, for good or ill, establishing a legend that he then tried to hide away from for the rest of his life. Thomas followed up the show with his 1924 book Lawrence of Arabia. He produced other travelogues based on further overseas adventures, and looked for other such modern-day heroes to match the success he had found with Lawrence (for example, the adventurer, aviator and polar filmmaker Hubert Wilkins) but never again did Thomas find so perfect a subject. The 1962 feature film Lawrence of Arabia (still in thrall to romance created by Thomas, by way of Lawence’s own self-dramatisation) includes the Lowell Thomas-like figure Jackson Bentley, played by Arthur Kennedy.

Promotional video for the Lowell Thomas and Lawrence of Arabia: Making a Legend, Creating History site

It was an interesting experience trying to recreate the Lawrence part of the show at the British Silent Film Festival last year. Admittedly we only had a narrator, and actor, a PowerPoint slide show and video clips, whereas Thomas’ original show played in an opera house and featured an orchestra and a prologue with oriental dancers writhing before a backdrop of the pyramids. I felt that, though the show worked reasonably well as an entertainment, the script belonged to another age and was historically misleading. Others, however, still hold to the dream of remaking the show in all of its multimedia glory, and Rick Moulton is one of them. The Lowell Thomas and Lawrence of Arabia: Making a Legend, Creating History exhibition site is but a stepping stone to a document on Thomas and Lawrence and hopefully one day that recreation of at least the Lawrence part of the show (Allenby’s star doesn’t shine quite so brightly these days). We have the films, we have the images, we have the script, the music shouldn’t be a problem. But recreating the special presence of Lowell Thomas and still more an audience war-weary yet anxious for unsullied heroes may be that much harder to achieve.

There is a detailed account of the reception of Lowell Thomas’ travelogue in London on T.E. Lawrence biographer Jeremy Wilson’s site.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 22

United States Food Administration cinema slide from World War One, from Starts Thursday!

Jackie Cooper
Another child star of the silent era has died. Jackie Cooper, who made his first film in 1925 aged three, did not suffer the fate of many child stars in having a an adulthood of disappointing anonymity. Instead after success in the Our Gang series, he continued as a top performer throughout the 1930s, moved on to acting with success on stage and TV, then turned TV executive, won a couple of Emmys for directing, and returned to the screen as the newspaper editor in the Superman films. He died aged 88. Read more.

In competition
A late addition to the films in competition in Cannes has been announced – and it’s a silent film. The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, is described as a ‘silent black-and-white period piece about the rise of a young actress and simultaneous fall from grace of a silent movie star around the time that “talking pictures” started being made’. It stars Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, James Cromwell and John Goodman. Read more (and see clips with interviews – in French – here).

Class, silents and the public sphere
Acknowledgments to the Illuminations blog for this link to a lengthy and engrossing article by Stephen J. Ross (author of Working-Class Hollywood) on class and politics in silent film, first published in 2003. Ross notes: “Between 1905 and April 1917, when American entry into World War I altered the movie industry and the politics of its films in dramatic ways, producers released at least 274 labor-capital productions. Of the 244 films whose political perspectives could be accurately determined, 112 (46 %) were liberal, 82 (34 %) conservative, 22 (9 %) anti-authoritarian, 17 (7 %) populist, and 11 (4 %) radical”. Read more.

Propaganda between reels
A favourite blog of the Bioscope is Starts Thursday!, in which Rob Byrne covers the glass lantern slides that promoted coming attractions in cinemas from the silent era (and beyond). His latest post is a very informative guest piece by PhD candidate Krystina Benson on the American government’s propaganda campagin during WWI one, including its use of film, all handsomely and illuminatingly illustrated by Byrne’s slides. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Footage on demand

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their films, our music

Gary Lucas playing to Dracula at the New York Film Festival, September 2010, with Carlos Villarias was Dracula, from

Will silent films survive? After the present generation of enthusiasts is gone, and now with almost no one left who remembers silent films the first time round, what impetus will there be in an age of HD, 3D, video games, home cinema, web video and mobile video to attract young audience to a silent, monochrome world filled with quaint manners, outdated narrative conventions and names that no longer hold the magic that once they had?

This issue was debated recently on the silent film discussion forum Nitrateville, and many interesting arguments were given for the survival of silent films. The great availability of silent films on DVD and Blu-Ray, the rude health (general global economic downturn notwithstanding) of some excellent festivals, the sheer fascination of viewing a past that recedes ever further away from us, scholarly investigation, the importance of book publications to inspire and intrigue, and the dedication of archives, all are cited as reasons for optimism.

I would add another, which is the silent film’s need for music. What is distinctive about the silent film as a medium is that it requires accompaniment by us. We have to add something of ourselves – our music, that is – to bring the films back to life. This performance imperative is not unique to silent films. Of course it applies to dramas, operas, indeed the music of the past. The playscript and the sheet music are the preserve of the expert until what they contain is given life through performance, is popularised. But what particularly distinguishes the silent film is that marrying of two forms of artistic expression – the film, and our music alongside it.

The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917)

I experienced three illustrations of this last Sunday. It is surely strong evidence of the vitality of the medium that I was able to go to three very different screenings of silent films where the music was the real subject of interest in one city (London) on one day. I started off at Imperial War Museum to see The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917). This documentary feature was made by the British goverment’s War Office Cinematograph Committee as the successor to the hugely successful The Battle of the Somme (1916), and the film – made by Geoffrey Malins, J.B. McDowell and Oscar Bovill – documents the later stages of the Somme conflict. While the film does not have the shock value or socio-historical resonances of the first film, it is more elegantly crafted and has shots of striking visual quality, in particular shellfire at night and iconic silhouetted figures against the sky.

The film depicts the routine of war in distinctively poetic terms. No other documentary medium can tell us so much about such engrossingly mundane details as soldiers donning thigh boots to fight off frost-bite, the wounded being given tea and sandwiches, and the ominpresent mud. It also features genuine footage (filmed at a distance with shaky camera) of troops going over the top and crossing no-man’s land. And of course it has tanks, which is what the public particularly came to see and which helped make the film a commercial success.

For the screening Toby Haggith of the IWM and pianist Stephen Horne had constructed the original ‘score’. As with their earlier project of The Battle of the Somme, there wasn’t a score as such, but rather a collection of musical suggestions for the different stages of the film, recommended in 1917 by musical director J. Morton Hutcheson. Horne has put together this pot pourri of popular tunes from the era, which was played by Horne himself (piano, flute and accordion), Geoffrey Lawrence (cornet), Sophie Langdon (violin) and Martin Pyne (percussion). The emphasis was on popular. Hutcheson had picked the pop hits of the day without much thought on their relevance to the film sequences they were to match, except for some association of names, though it was hard to fathom why a tune entitled ‘The Happy Frog’ had been chosen for a scene with a tank. As the film progressed so Hutcheson became more caught in the gravity of what was being shown and the music became of greater moment, but my abiding memory of the screening is of a line of howitzers shown to the sounds of a palm court orchestra with the occasional polite thud of the drum each time of of the guns fired. You did wonder what audiences made of such a musical mélange. Did it seem appropriate? Did it affect their view on what was on the screen? Did they hear differently to ourselves? Did they simply not pay it much attention?

This might seem to be the converse of adding our music to their films, but it is our modern taste to seek out authenticity in this way. Horne’s meticulous musical reconstruction took us that much closer to the past, while at the same time making the past seem all the more like the foreign country where things are done differently.

The brides of Dracula from the Spanish version of Dracula (1931), from

A few hours latter, and I was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank for two film screenings with live music that were part of the London Jazz Festival. This was something of a personal thrill as two of my favourite musicians were on the same bill. First up was guitarist Gary Lucas playing guitar to the Spanish version of Dracula (1931). This is the version of Tod Browning’s film that was shot on the same sets at night with a Spanish cast and director Geoge Melford. So yes it’s a sound film, albeit one with long stretches of silence and no background music except at the beginning and end. So why accompanying it with live music?

The effect certainly was jarring to begin with. Dialogue, translated titles and great swooping washes of electric guitar laden with effects pedals was a bit too much for the ears to take in all at once, but gradually you acommodated yourself to it, and Lucas’ wall of sound has proven itself an effective form of providing musical accompaniment to silents (notably his music for Der Golem) and now quasi-silents. He speaks through his guitar and his music is an expression of his enthusiasm for what is being shown on the screen. That’s the key point. It is not simply a rock musician doing his thing with a silent film (as others have done, often with painfully inapposite results). Enthusiasm for the film comes first, and with that an expression of that enthusiasm through his medium of choice – the electric guitar (two in fact). The result leaves the film still very much a 1931 film, but also one that connects through music with 2010.

The film itself is quaint, but while I wouldn’t say it was hugely superior to Browning’s original (as some have done), it shows invention and the sort of creepiness, except where adherence to the stage production drags it down. Carlos Villarias’s smiling Dracula drew laughter from the audience (I found him off-puttingly similar to Steve Carrell), but Pablo Alvarez Rubio (Renfield) played insanity as well as I’ve ever seen it done, and Lupita Tovar (Eva) was strikingly voluptuous.

Keystone, from

The second film that evening was a silent film of sorts – a new work by experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison, who has enjoyed much acclaim for his work Decasia, composed out of found, distressed footage, which finds an otherworldly beauty in images in the process of decay. Morrison has continued to produced work in a similar vien, his latest effort being Spark of Being, inspired by the Frankenstein story, which he has developed with jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas. Douglas is building up a distinctive track record of silent film-inspired work with his band Keystone, though his modern jazz sound with strong beats behind it is better viewed as being inspired by the silents of Keaton and Arbuckle (subjects of earlier Keystone recordings) than ideal accompaniments to the films themselves.

The band came on stage – trumpet, saxophone, bass, drums, Rhodes and someone off-stage providing electronic noises – and played a punchy overture, then the film began. It was divided up into chapters (“The Captain’s Story”, “The Doctor’s Creation”, “The Creature Confronts His Creator” etc.) with the band accompanying what was shown on the screen. Morrison’s film is a mixture of distressed actuality footage and archive film, all of it silnet (or rather sound-less) including polar exploration (some of it Frank Hurley’s film of the Shackleton expedition), crowds (an amusing short sequence where people glower at the camera to signify public reaction to the Creature), two naked lovers running through woodland (““Observations of Romantic Love”) and a delightful sequence showing a Bavarian wedding projected at a slow speed that gave it a mesmeric quality). However, with the exception of the wedding, the archive film didn’t really convey the symbolic quality that was expected of it, and sometimes jarred with the bolder use of distressed footage. It was these sequences where the band seemed happiest, letting rip against a furious cavalcade of distorted images. On other occasions it seemed constrained by the need to follow the film, and one sensed that the audience would have been content just to have had the band play and never mind the film.

That’s a shame, because it was a bold coming together of experimental film and post-bop jazz, telling a familiar story in an imaginatively oblique fashion. And it was a modern silent film, given its own spark of being by Douglas’ music. I especially admire Douglas’ imaginative vision of the silent film as a springboard for musical invention, which has taken him from Keaton and Arbuckle’s Moonshine to Bill Morrison with the same band, Keystone. Certainly Sunday night would have comes as a surprise to Mack Sennett.

Silent films will survive for many reasons, but one of them is music. They are always going to sound new, to have a connection with our times, so long as we keep on re-imagining how we want to make them sound. It is a key to their enduring appeal to the imagination.

Spark of Being, from

Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Verdi theatre, Pordenone, with book fair in the background

And so we come to our final report on the 2010 Pordenone silent film festival. The Bioscope’s editor was on the plane home by this point, but happily our cub reporter The Mysterious X was on the spot to brings this account of day eight’s offering (Saturday, October 9th).

The final day; always a source of mixed feelings. On the one hand, that end-of-a-holiday sensation, saying goodbye to friends both Italian and international that we may not see for another year; on the other that the next day represents a return to normality, the chance of a proper breakfast, your own comfy bed, and more than five hours sleep per night.

But a change of venue this morning – The Verdi being prepared, and the orchestra rehearsed, for the evening show – and we all take the pleasant stroll up the Via Garibaldi to Cinemazero, Pordenone’s arthouse cinema, for the morning. Smaller, more modern, just about enough room for the audience numbers, plenty of legroom if you do get a seat. No pianos this year; we have a morning of silents in their sound versions.

Starting with Daigaku No Wakadama (Young Master at University) (Japan 1933); the notes don’t reveal whether the synchronised music score is from a later reissue print or whether we are already in a transitional period in Japanese terms. The film itself seems transitional though; as in the other Shochiku films we’ve seen this week, there is a tangible sense of a nation sat on the cusp between tradition and modernity, East and West … and not entirely comfortably. The Young Master of the title is a star player of the university rugby team; so we’re western and modern right away; except the rugby club is run along the lines of an officers’ mess in Victorian India; arcane rules of behaviour, regimented discipline, strictly hierarchical … so we’re ripped out of that feeling immediately. The Young Master is also heir to his father’s wholesalery, run on ultra-traditional lines; Father does not approve of rugby, is unsure of the benefits of university versus commercial experience, while the Young Master is not overkeen on inheriting such a rigid existence quite yet; he is, within the constraints of his environment, a practical joker and an apprentice playboy. In such a spirit, he invites young Hoshichuyo, an apprentice Geisha in love with his father’s clerk, to watch a training session incognito … but she is recognised when his sister arrives, goes into hiding in his changing room locker, whereupon she is discovered. She is banished … and so is he, from the rugby club. Further complications ensue (the clerk is betrothed to the sister, and so on) which need to be sorted out before The Young Master can be reinstated in time to play in The Big Game.

So it has the structure of a farce comedy, but is (I assumed anyway) a breezy romantic drama more than a laughfest; it did have comical moments, particularly during the climactic game when we see the legs of a downed player whip out of frame, as he is unceremoniously dragged off while the scrum is being set … it’s possible the political manoeuverings of the rugby club leaders were intended as satirical comedy, if it didn’t register as such with me. It was certainly more light-hearted than other examples we had seen this week, and a good start to the day. Incidentally, the film also featured a nicely anachronistic piece of set-dressing; in the apartment of one of the characters, I think that of the clerk, were a couple of Hollywood talkie posters; a French-language one-sheet for All Quiet on The Western Front, and another for an early Cary Grant film, The Eagle and the Hawk. So, if anyone ever asks you if Cary Grant was ever in a silent film, you can now respond “Only in Japan” …

Moana, from MoMA

The second offering I wasn’t planning on seeing; and as it was getting lively in the Cinemazero I decided to catch five minutes while standing at the edge, before getting some sunshine. Robert Flaherty’s Moana (USA 1926) was being presented with a soundtrack compiled in the ’80’s by Robert’s daughter Monica, who had been in Samoa as a very young girl during the filming; she had taken great pains in recording the sounds of Samoa, and recreating the speech of the on-screen participants, fifty years after the event; the ethics, the anthropological niceties of these efforts I’ll leave to others better qualified, but I can see why she would have wanted to make one of her father’s less well known projects more approachable for modern audiences. This was also being presented as a work-in-progress; I understand no viewable film print exists of this project at the moment; that is, however, the plan; we were watching a DVD being played off a laptop. I understand that this all went horribly wrong for a while after I exited … the feedback I got was not overwhelmingly positive on a number of points.

Back in again for the final film from the Shochiku strand: Tokyo No Eiyu (A Hero Of Tokyo) (Japan 1935), and again, a transitional dialogue-free film with a musical soundtrack. Directed by Shimizu, as were many of the films shown on the first days of the festival, this reverted to the template of a dark, tragedic exploration of the moral codes and hierarchies within Japanese society of the thirties. We meet a widowed businessman with a young son; feeling that he cannot devote enough time to his upbringing he remarries (for convenience, it seems) a widowed mother of two other children. After some initial sibling friction is played out, Father does a bunk; his business was selling shares in dodgy stocks, and he’d been found out. This leaves the mother with no income and no means to support herself, her two children plus this new stepson; she does what a woman has to do in a Shochiku film; she joins the sex trade, surreptitiously, unknown by all her family …

Fast forward fifteen years or so; her daughter is on the point of marrying into a ‘good’ family; they enquire into the family history, and the truth emerges. As does the father, up to his old tricks … at which point SHE feels the need to apologise to HIM for the shame …

At least in this film the outrage of the director towards the status quo is made obvious to a modern audience; this is a sharper critique than the preceding, far longer, films: more pointed, and to the point. The performances, of Mitsuko Yoshikawa as the woman trodden down by the societal rules, debasing herself to keep her family together; and of Yukichi Iwata as the bewildered, then angry son, are superb. While I wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone in terms of entertainment, it
was for me the best of this strand. The bad news is, I’m told, that nearly all of the extant Japanese silents have been shown at Pordenone now; unless there are new discoveries … that’s our lot.

Privideniye, Kotoroye ne Vozvrashchayetsya (The Ghost that Never Returns), from

Back down the Via Garibaldi to the Posta for lunch … creature of habit that I am … before the afternoon’s offering, Abram Room’s Privideniye, Kotoroye ne Vozvrashchayetsya (The Ghost that Never Returns) (USSR 1930). It’s a stunning film, a tour de force combination of avant garde elements within an adventure film format – with a more than a dash of revolutionary propaganda, naturally. Our hero is a political prisoner in an unnamed South American country. Sentenced to vegetate in a semi-surrealist prison, a message is got to him that a strike is being planned in the oilfields by his colleagues on the outside; meanwhile his once-a-decade one day’s parole is imminent; the catch is that if the parole’s rules are broken, an armed guard is handily placed to execute summary justice. It becomes a series of battles of wits; between the prison authorities and the prisoner, then individually between the prisoner and his guard, as he jumps a train and treks across a desert wasteland towards home, the oilfields … and freedom ??? It’s utterly unlike any other Soviet film I’ve seen … aside from its politics … it has elements of the Soviet avant garde, but equally hints of Expressionism and Hollywood … a really interesting blend of styles that suited its subject matter, and made it more persuasive than most Soviet propaganda, I would imagine. Certainly more entertaining …

The final presentation of the French Clowns followed; Tartinette to Zizi … I saw a couple, not impressed again, to be honest … a lot of work must have been put into researching these films, and getting the prints here … but the presentation of them in large chunks in alphabetical order chased away all but the most ardent devotee … and lost the films the opportunity of making new converts. A great shame.

So out to the Posta for one last appointment with a Spritz Aperol, to find that the usually milling Saturday evening crowd had been augmented by people admiring a vintage car display, half a dozen beautifully restored thirties vehicles lined up, and, for a fortunate few, giving little joyrides around the town. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much joy on one man’s face as when Phil Carli returned from his …

Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Clara Bow in Wings (1927), from

And so to the finale, perhaps even a climax; the full live orchestral presentation of William Wellman’s Wings (USA 1927), featuring the Photoplay print, and the Orchestra Mitteleuropea conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald playing the Carl Davis score. It’s one of his finest, I think, that great March as the main theme, some nice leitmotifs reappearing throughout as appropriate … very effective.

And, what with all the sound effects of the battle sequences having to come from the orchestra, I would imagine a nightmare to play. Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, they nailed it. It’s a powerful film – not just the legendary flying sequences, or the breathtaking battlefront climax … but the subtle underplaying of emotions, too … sometimes Clara and Buddy go slightly over but Arlen, and particularly Henry B. Walthall convey the suppressed emotion just beneath the surface to great effect.

But it is famous for those war sequences, and deservedly so; on the big screen you get to see so much more of it; on a small screen you don’t see the aircraft growing from the smallest dot to ambush the pontoon bridge, or the staff car … you don’t quite see the battlefield extending right to the horizons … and you’re involved, you’re in the air, or in the mud, with them. And did the shot of the white crosses covering the whole landscape inform the similar shot in Attenborough’s Oh! What A Lovely War? I would just hesitate from calling it the perfect WW1 film; for that we would need a little more Gary Cooper, a little less El Brendel, a good deal fewer animated bubbles in Paris … with the latter, a nice idea that was way overused … actually, that applies to El too. And I struggle to quite see how anyone with Clara living next door would pursue the rather more watery charms of Jobyna Ralston. However much an advantage being from The City conferred. But this is nitpicking; you sit back, let the film and the orchestra take you to a time past; either WWI, or the days in the twenties when such presentations were daily occurrences in the larger cities … it was a terrific way to end the Giornate of 2010.

The Verdi at night

Was it a classic year? Not quite, I feel, though there were, as always, cinematic experiences to cherish, lessons to learn, doors opened to unsuspected areas of interest; films that would surprise, or delight, or shock, but seldom leave without further thought. And certainly films that you will be unlikely to have a second chance of seeing, as here, as they were designed to be seen.

I’m very aware that I haven’t mentioned many of the musicians’ performances; this was entirely down to a happy event chez Sosin (many congratulations, Donald and Joanna) which meant that after his (superb) show with Jean Darling on the Wednesday he hotfooted it back home, and the remainder of the Giornate stalwarts shared out the films between them – and naturally, I failed to take notes as to who ended up playing for which film. Needless to say Messrs Brand, Buchwald, Carli, Horne, and Sweeney were all playing at the top of their game despite there being some challenging films in the programme. The Book Fair was much reduced, perched on the third floor of The Verdi, but I got hold of the one DVD I was after (Cento Anni Fa, the Bologna-compiled set of Suffragette films) so I was happy.

The social side, of course, was as good as ever, new friendships made, old friendships renewed; the Giornate staff and volunteers helpful and patient, the locals as welcoming and understanding (and as amused by our attempts at Italian ) as ever, the food and drink … I look forward to what goodies are to be pulled from the bag for us next year, the 30th renewal of the World’s most important silent film festival. I hope to see you there …

Huge thanks once again to The Mysterious X, who has donned the domino, cast a cloak about their person, and slipped away mysteriously as ever into the inky dark night. I would concur with X’s assessment of the festival – not quite a classic, but funding constraints had their effect upon the programme. We missed the variety that would have been there with another strand of programming (such as the Leo McCarey shorts which were promised early on); with just the one screen available, maybe the Japanese films (some of which were very long) took up a bit too much space. But that’s only by comparison with earlier festivals. The riches on offer were real riches, and there were major discoveries every day. I was particularly encouraged by the new faces I saw the festival – students from Italy and the USA especially – which suggests that the festival is not just showing the same films to the same crowd but continues to reach out to those who need to discover silents for the first time. Tell that to your funders, guys – you are doing the right things.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
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

The National Archives goes to the movies

The National Archives

The National Archives is the UK government’s official archive – not to be confused with the National Archives and Records Administration in the USA. In 2003 the UK’s Public Record Office merged with the Historic Manuscripts Commission to become The National Archives (known to its friends as TNA), which pointed to a broader, more inclusive remit, but some still hanker for the reassuring days of the PRO. The location has remained the same – an imposing modernist building in Kew, to the west of London, with ponds and swans in its grounds, and hordes of historians and amateur genealogists within. It holds government and public records from the Domesday Book onwards, which are released to the public generally after thirty years have elapsed from their original production.

All of which is preamble to the news that TNA has produced a podcast entitled The National Archives Goes to the Movies, and it’s rather good. Written and presented by Joseph Pugh, the podcast is a knowledgeable guide to the history of British cinema through the records of The National Archives. Recorded before an audience, around half of the hour-long talk is about the silent period. Among the subjects he covers are Will Barker’s 1911 film of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, all copies of which were burned in a publicity stunt; the efforts of the Colonial Office to ban The Birth of a Nation; concern within the Home Office at how Cecil B. De Mille’s The Cheat could offend the Japanese; the production of Maurice Elvey’s ill-fated epic The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918); the British government-sponsored dramas Hearts of the World (1918) and The Invasion of Britain (1918); Home Office efforts to ban Graham Cutts’ sensationalist Cocaine (1922); and Marie Stopes’ correspondence with the Home Office over her birth control film Married Love (aka Maisie’s Marriage) (1923).

The point of the talk is not only to entertain but to encourage research. Consequently most of the films that Pugh refers to are also listed on Your Archives, TNA’s wiki where researchers can post information on files that they have found. I’m not sure how much the wiki gets used, because researchers tend to be a little wary of giving away all their sources, but the principle is noble.

A trade paper advertisement for Cocaine and a poster for Maisie’s Marriage, taken from The National Archives’ Flickr site, original file references HO 45/11599 and HO 45/11382

The sort of records one find in The National Archives are those which document the day-to-day processes of government departments. There are memos, memos responding to memos, and memos responding to memos responding to memos. There are letters, minutes, briefing papers, personal papers, official papers, diaries, reports, lists, registers, passenger lists, medal rolls, photographs, maps and posters. The contents are generally arranged chronologically, identified by government department and then gathered together by theme into individual numbered folders.

The National Archives can be a daunting place for any newbie researcher. There is no single index, and although they produce an amazing rich online catalogue (helpfully named the Catalogue) they also have to produce a multitude of specialist guides that explain how to pursue particular topics. One of these research guides covers The Arts, Broadcasting and Film, and it’s a very good starting point. As said, The National Archives arranges its records by department, so it is important to know that responsibility for film was held by the Board of Trade’s Industries and Manufactures Department (formed 1918), but information on film is spread widely across particularly all departments. To produce a complete guide to TNA records to silent film would require a blog (or a wiki) all of its own, but here’s an outline guide to some of the key departments to explore. Please note that catalogue references will simply take you to the barest of descriptions online, and to view the documents themselves you will have to visit Kew.

  • AIR (Air Ministry, Royal Air Force etc)
    Records of aerial photography and cinematography during World War One are held in AIR 2 (search under ‘cinematography’).
  • BT (Board of Trade)
    Records of registered companies (since dissolved), including hundreds of film businesses (producers, distributors, cinemas etc), with information on capital and shareholders, are in BT 31; records of liquidated companies 1890-1932 are in BT 34; trade marks (BT 42-53) includes film company trademarks, though there is no overall index so you need to search on-site by date (see the TNA guide on registered designs and trade marks); BT 226 has bankruptcy records for companies and individuals. BT 26 and BT 27 contains lists of ship passengers who arrived in (1878-1960) or left (1890-1960) the UK. The incoming lists themselves can be viewed online (payment required) at Ancestry, and the outgoing list (again payment required) at Ancestors on Board.
  • CAB (Cabinet)
    Papers from the very heart of government. Nicholas Reeves’ Official British Film Propaganda During the First World War has a handy guide to PRO/TNA papers relating to official film, including Cabinet papers in CAB 21, 23-25, 27, 37 and 41.
  • CO (Colonial Office etc)
    Many records relating to the production, distribution and exhibition of films in British colonies and countries of the empire, including records of the Empire Marketing Board (for which John Grierson worked) in CO 758 (correspondence), CO 759 (index cards), CO 760 (minutes, papers) and CO 956 (posters).
  • COPY (Copyright Office, Stationers’ Company)
    Before the 1911 Copyright Act if a UK film producer wanted to copyright a film (usually they did so only if there had been a case of their work being copied) then they had to do so as it if was a photograph; consequently there are numerous records of films 1897-1912 registered under COPY 1. The registration forms were accompanied by single frames, bromide prints, or in a few cases a few frames of film (the originals are now held by the BFI). For a guide to this collection, which comprises a few hundred titles among the many thousands of photographs, see Richard Brown’s essay in Simon Popple and Colin Harding’s In the Kingdom of Shadows. There are also registers and indexes under COPY 3. Some film posters and other promotional material can also be found in the COPY records.
  • ED (Department of Education and Science)
    Disparate documents on film and education, a theme of growing interest throughout the 1920s, including assorted commissions of enquiry.
  • FO (Foreign Office)
    The Foreign Office was concerned with promoting British foreign policy. There are extensive records relating to British propaganda films being shown overseas during World War One, in particular FO 115 on propaganda in the USA and Canada, FO 371 covering general correspondence, and FO 395 which covers war films and American propaganda 1916-17. There is a card index to the FO papers in TNA’s search rooms, making this a particularly fruitful area to explore.
  • HO (Home Office)
    The Home Office oversaw domestic policy. There are extensive records on actual legislation (starting with the 1909 Cinematograph Act) and proposed regulation affecting the British film business, including such issues as censorship, local authority control, unlicensed film exhibitions and the filming of contentious events (political marches etc) are in HO 45. See also HO 158 for relevant general papers and correspondence.
  • INF (Ministry of Information etc)
    A particularly valuable source, with records of the War Propaganda Bureau, the War Office Cinematograph Committee, the Department of Information and the Ministry of Information, all of which were concerned with film production during the First World War (further official papers on war film production are held by the Imperial War Museum). The main section to follow is INF 4. Of particular interest is one chapter from the unpublished memoir by J. Brooke Wilkinson, leading film industry representative and first head of the British Board of Film Censors, at INF 4/2
  • J (Supreme Court of Judicature)
    Covers records of court cases (Chancery), often a rich source of information on how a film company operated. See in particular the winding up orders under J 13.
  • LAB (departments responsible for labour and employment matters and related bodies)
    Includes documents on film industry employees and industrial relations (though relatively little here for the silent era).
  • MEPO (Metropolitan Police)
    The Metropolitan Police conducted surveys of early London cinemas around 1908-09 after they were causing some social concern. The result is a rich record of the early cinema business and audiences, to be found in MEPO 2. They are described in detail in Jon Burrows’ two essays ‘Penny Pleasures: Film exhibition in London during the Nickelodeon era, 1906-1914,’ Film History vol. 16 no. 1 (2004) and ‘Penny Pleasures II: Indecency, anarchy and junk film in London’s “Nickelodeons”, 1906-1914,’ Film History vol. 16 no. 2 (2004), while the London Project database lists the venues covered by files MEPO 2/9172 file 590446/7 and MEPO 2/9172, file 590446 (see also HO 45/10376/16142). There are later surveys of cinemas and screenings of indecent films in the 1920s.
  • RG (General Register Office)
    Has census returns from 1861 onwards (1841-1851 are under HO 107). These can all be found online through various commercial services (see details here), but all are available for free at Kew – see the helpful TNA guide to researching census records.
  • WO (War Office)
    There is relatively little that specifically relates to film here, as most papers relating to the War Office Cinematographic Committee will be found at the Imperial War Museum and the House of Lords Record Office (Beaverbrook Papers). But surviving records of film personnel who served during the War (including Official cameramen) can be found at WO 338 (officers’ service records), WO 363 (service records), WO 364 (pension records) and WO 372 (medal cards). Digitised copies of the actual documents in all four categories can be found online through TNA’s Documents Online or Ancestry (in both cases payment is required for downloads).
  • Other records where information on silent era films can be found include ADM (Admiralty), CUST (Customs and Excise), IR (Inland Revenue), and T (Treasury).

This is a very simplistic overview, and it must be stressed that information on films will be found all over the place. For example, type in the term ‘cinematograph’ in the catalogue and you will get 1,108 records from forty-four separate departments (448 records from twenty-five departments if you narrow the date search to 1896-1930). It is a good idea to look at the bibliographies of books and the end notes of journal articles which have benefited from research at TNA (or PRO before it) to pick up specific references and useful indications of where it would be profitable to search.

The National Archives has produced some substantial publications which explore a subject in depth with copious file references. However, there is no such guide for film (one has been talked about for years but has never been forthcoming). However, there is a classic article by Nicholas Pronay, ‘The “Moving Picture” and Historical Research’, Journal of Contemporary History vol. 18 (1983) (available to higher education users on JSTOR) which describes in details the several kinds of government records which can be used for the study of film, describing why they were created, and giving specific file names. Note also that the above file information relates only to silent films – there is a huge amount of information at The National Archives relating to film (and television) from later periods, particularly govering the GPO Film Unit, film during World War II, the COI Film Unit, the Colonial Film Unit, broadcasting policy, British Council records, and much more besides.

The National Archives is still an underused resource for film history, though we have got beyond the days when Rachael Low could write a multi-volume history of British film apparently without any reference to the Public Record Office. If you’ve not been, and you can get there, then you really should – it’s the most engrossing and rewarding research experience imaginable. Go explore.

By the way, films can be public records too, but the productions of the Ministry of Information, the COI Film Unit and others are preserved on TNA’s behalf by the BFI National Archive and the Imperial War Museum.

My thanks to Brad Scott for alerting me to the podcast.

How I filmed the war

How I Filmed the War – trailer available from

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 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.