War as it really is

German prisoners of war in Donald C. Thompson’s War As It Really Is (1916), from http://www.realmilitaryflix.com

Realmilitaryflix is the ungainly name for a remarkable new source of online video. The site has been put together by US Air Force combat camera veteran John Corry, who began building up a collection of war films while producing a television series in 1991. The site comprises 650 films (with 1,200 more promised by the end of the year), and ranges from the First World War to Iraq and Afghanistan today. Military enthusiasts can scour the decades of conflict; here at the Bioscope we concentrate on the silent material from the 1914-1918 conflict, which is significant enough in itself.

There are some thirty titles so far, most of them American official films of one kind or another, shot by the U.S. Signal Corps or produced by the propaganda outfit, the Committee on Public Information. Care has been taken to give correct titles and to determine dates, locations and regiments. I’ve not yet had the chance to view them all, but here’s a quick guide to some of the highlights:

Actualities of the World War
Realmilitary flix says “If you only watch one WWI film, make it this one”, and it’s not far wrong. This dynamic four-part compilation was made up of American military film after the war, and the material was expertly edited to form a general narrative of American participation in the war 1917-1918. Its correct title appears to be Flashes of Action, and the National Archives and Records Administration’s ARC catalogue identifies it as c.1921 (many of these films of this site are duplicated in NARA, and some of the descriptions come from NARA’s records). It is filled with vivid scenes of the kind we expect to see of the war, leavened with plenty of human detail.

War As It Really Is
This 1916 production is a single person’s effort – the redoubtable Donald C. Thompson, an independent and resourceful American cameraman who filmed British, French, Belgian, Russian and German troops over 1914-1916, speaking volumes for his diplomatic abilities. He was with the French army at Verdun, where he was wounded, and from which conflict much of this film derives. The quality of the footage is evident throughout, while some of it is startling – apparently close shots of trench warfare (one should always be suspicious of footage where the cameraman would have been in peril e.g. being positioned above the trenches), the shooting of a spy (before and after), and shots of corpses and skeletons.

German Film of the WWI Sea Commerce Raider “Moewe”
This, as it says, is a German-produced film, made in 1917, which was captured by the Allies and subsequently released as The Notorious Cruise of the Raider ‘Moewe’. It follows the German raider ship Moewe as it captures Allied shipping, several examples of which are shown sinking. Its breezy tone comes over as all the more startling having the matter-of-fact titles translated into English.

British WWI Film on the Mideast and other Naval Operations
This is British official film taken in Palestine and Mesopotamia 1917-1918. There is some very impressive footage here, including a gunboat firing on the Tigris and striking aerial photography of a British convoy at sea. It ends with famous, iconic footage of General Allenby entering Jerusalem in December 1917, with fleeting glimpses of Lawrence of Arabia (in military uniform), if you know where to look.

T.E. Lawrence and General Allenby, shown in British WWI Film on the Mideast and other Naval Operations, from http://www.realmilitaryflix.com

And there’s much more: demonstrations of gas warfare, the operation of observation balloons, the construction of dummy soldiers as camouflage, radio operations, black troops, and the peace treaty negotations at Versailles in 1919. As indicated, one should always take care assessing the authenticity of war footage from this era – the cameramen were frequently brave, but they were severely limited by both equipment and army officialdom, and of course had to preserve their own lives. Overly dramatic footage (always consider where the cameraman was positioned when the film was taken and then ask why he wasn’t killed) may show genuine action but may equally have been staged. That said, there seems relatively little fakery here, just much startling footage intercut with skilfully-shot scenes of the mundanities of warfare which somehow bring it home all the more to us today.

All of the titles are available in Flash, and look OK blown up to full screen. One notable last point to make – all of the contemporary films of the war are shown silent. Go explore.

The instruction of disabled men in motion picture projection


Motion picture projectors for instruction at the Red Cross Institute

It’s been a while since we added anything to the Bioscope Library. The latest addition is James R. Cameron’s The Instruction of Disabled Men in Motion Picture Projection (1919). Cameron was Instructor of Projection at the Red Cross Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men, in New York. The Institute sought to instruct soldiers disabled during the First World War in suitable professions, and motion picture projection was one of them. As Cameron tells us, “almost any man with both hands intact could, with a course of study of about two months in duration, acquire sufficent knowledge to enable him to enter an operating booth, and take charge of the machines”.

Twelve pupils joined the inaugural class in May 1918 – “Most all were leg cases, either paralysis or amputation”. Cameron tells of the success of most of those undertaking the course, their earnings, and the elements of training that they received. The remainder of the booklet is then concerned with the practicalities of motion picture projection, with illustrations, terminology and lengthy question-and-answer sections, all presumably derived from the course itself, though little further mention is made of disability. The booklet therefore serves as a standard technical guide to projection at this period.

However, there is more to the history than this. There is an exceptional website, Project Façade, based on a 2005 National Army Museum exhibition, which looks at the treatment of facial injuries of British soldiers during the First World War. Some men had injuries so terrible that they were unrecognisable to family and friends, and, as the site says, “unable to see, hear, speak, eat or drink, they struggled to re-assimilate back into civilian life”. The site celebrates the pioneering plastic surgery undertaken by Sir Harold Gillies, but even with surgery and prosthetics etc., some men remained so disfigured that they felt they could not return to normal society. The site tells us that one profession that remained open to them was that of projectionist. Such men could arrive for work before anyone else, spend their working day on their own, shut away from society, and then return home in darkness. This sad revelation may be what partly lies behind the Red Cross Institute’s interest in the profession, though Cameron’s booklet, perhaps not surprisingly, makes no mention of it.

Tin facial prosthetics film

Tin facial prosthetics film (c.1916), from Project Façade

Project Façade also has a remarkable film on the making and fitting of tin masks and facial prosthetics for injured servicemen, from around 1916. There is no information on who made the film, or where it came from, but I do encourage you to see it (it requires QuickTime and is available in small and larger versions). It is gentle and inspiring. It contains nothing particularly unsettling, but do be warned that there are images elsewhere on the site which might upset some.

The Instruction of Disabled Men in Motion Picture Projection is available from the Internet Archive, in DjVu (4.3MB), PDF (14MB) and TXT (161KB) formats.

The Great War in Colour

The BBC is putting on more for the Albert Kahn and autochrome addicts among you. This Monday BBC2 starts a three-part series The Great War in Colour: The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn, which looks at the First World War through the colour photographs in the Kahn collection. Part one is on 21 January, at 19.00. The programmes are streamed online via BBC iPlayer for one week after transmission.

Note: If you are new to this site and looking for background information on Albert Kahn, please visit the Searching for Albert Kahn post.

A Study in Scarlet

Bioscope Festival of Lost Films

UK 1914

Director: George Pearson
Production Company: Samuelson Film Company
Producer: G.B. Samuelson
Cinematographer: Walter Buckstone
Assistant to the director: Jack Clair
Script: Harry Engholm
Based on the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: James Braginton (Sherlock Holmes), Fred Paul (Jefferson Hope), Agnes Glynne (Lucy Ferrier), Harry Paulo (John Ferrier), James Le Fre (Father), Winifred Pearson (Lucy as a child)

Distributed by Moss
5,749 feet

A Study in Scarlet

James Braginton as Sherlock Holmes

Welcome to the opening screening of the inaugural Bioscope Festival of Lost Films! Over the next five days we will be bringing you five feature films (with accompanying shorts), each of them notable film productions, and each (so far as can be ascertained) a lost film, untraceable in any of the world’s film archives or private collections.

Today we are showing A Study in Scarlet, George Pearson’s lost classic from 1914. The screening is taking place at the magnificent West End Cinema Theatre in London’s Coventry Street, later known as the Rialto. This magnificent venue, built by Hippolyte Blanc at a cost of £31,00 with gorgeously ornamental interior design by Horace Gilbert, opened in March 1913. It seats nearly 700, and boasts the first use of a neon sign in central London. It has been long disused but is still open for dreams. Musical accompaniment comes from that incomparable organist and doyenne of the National Film Theatre, Florence de Jong. Please settle down now. Ask your children to behave, and if possible please avoid reading out the titles on the film to your neighbour. And please avoid throwing orange peel and nutshells at Miss De Jong. This is a high-class venue, and in any case she is only doing her best. So lights down, and we can begin…

A Study in Scarlet is the second feature-length film with the character of Sherlock Holmes. It is not the first film to have been made of Conan Doyle’s detective – that was the American Biograph film of 1903, Sherlock Holmes Baffled (a film which survives) – and it was preceded by several Holmesian films including earlier in 1914 the French four-reeler, Le Chien de Baskerville (also lost), which seems to have been the first Holmes feature film.

This six-reel British production is based on the first Sherlock Holmes story that Conan Doyle wrote, and it has been authorised by the author (unlike an American two-reeler based on the same book made later in the year). This exciting story of murder, love, revenge and detection takes place among the Mormon pioneers of Utah in 1850. Years later, in London, the great detective Sherlock Holmes is called upon to solve a murder, the roots of which lie in a man’s sworn revenge against the Mormons.

The Bioscope spoke to the director Geoge Pearson and asked him about the making of the film:

TB: Mr Pearson, can you tell us how you managed to recreate the Salt Lake plains and the Rockies in England?

GP: The film called for ambitious locations, but much can be suggested camera-angles to hide geographical inaccuracies. We discovered what we needed in the Cheddar Gorge and the Southport sands.

TB: How did you find your Sherlock Holmes, Mr James Braginton?

GP: Sherlock Holmes was a problem; much depended upon his physical appearance, build, height, and mannerisms had to be correct. By a remarkable stroke of fortune Samuelson had an employee in his Birmingham office who absolutely fitted these requirements.

TB: But surely he could not act?

GP: A tactful producer can control every action of an inexperienced actor. I decided to risk his engagement as the shrewd detective. With his long and lean figure, his deer-stalker hat, cape-coat and curved pipe, he looked the part, and played the part excellently.

TB: The scenes of the wagon train are very impressive. What planning was involved?

GP: As Buckstone and I were finishing our last scenes in the gorge on June 25th, we received an urgent message that all was ready at Southport; everything possible had been done to meet the problem of a suitable date for all concerned, and that date was Friday, June 26th, and furthermore, only the morning of the day! There was a little moonlight when we arrived, and since Buckstone and I had not yet seen the actual sport in the sands where it might be possible to stage that long procession of waggons, we spent the anxious hours before dawn in search of a suitably lengthy gully, and with a compass to guide us stuck sticks in the sand to mark the camera position and the line route for the waggons. The long snakelike winding caravan had to appear round a far distant bend in the sand-dunes, and move slowly towards the camera position. We had to get that important scene right first time, for a retake could only result in utter chaos. How we got that long line of wagons with their characteristic hoods, the cattle, the women, children and bearded drivers past the camera without mishap is beyond belief, but get it we did.

A Study in Scarlet

The Mormon trek, recreated on Southport sands

The producer of this great work is the ebullient G.B. ‘Bertie’ Samuelson, who created such a sensation in 1913 with his bold epic of the life of Queen Victoria, Sixty Years a Queen (of which just a one minute fragment survives). Bertie was born in Southport, Lancashire, so this is very much a personal film for him, with many local people turning out to play the Mormon pioneers. It is also the first film to be made at Mr Samuelson’s impressive new studios at Worton Hall, Isleworth, on the outskirts of London. The spectacular production has been acclaimed already by the critics, who have been impressed by its economy of style, its scenic settings, and the intense performance of Mr Fred Paul as the vengeful Jefferson Hope. Some have even gone so far to say that the work improves upon aspects of Conan Doyle’s original novel, by cutting out some of the more wearisome descriptive manner. Enthusiasts of the great Sherlock Holmes may feel that his appearance, only towards the end of the film, is a little too brief, but all are agreed that these scenes are undeniably dramatic.

Owing to the unfortunate outbreak of the Great War, the film’s release was delayed until December 1914, though we understand that Mr Samuelson managed to sell the film to the United States for a handsome four-figure sum. If anyone is going to put the British film on the map (at last!) it will be the indefatigable Samuelson.

The main feature will be preced by a short film, equally lost. The Great European War (UK 1914) is a Samuelson production which he has made in the period between the outbreak of the Great War and the release of A Study in Scarlet at the end of 1914. This startling compilation of actuality film and dramatic inserts is a typically bold, if hurried, flourish from Mr Samuelson. As George Pearson, the director, tell us, Mr Samuelson conceived of the idea of a film about the war on the evening of the day on which hostilities were announced, 4 August 1914. They wrote the script all night and began production on 7 August! Mr Pearson calls the film ‘a fictitious News-Reel brought bang up to date with material provided by the headlines of the daily Press’. Every out-of-work actor in town has been comandeered, along with every concievable kind of military costume. Filled with trenchant symbolism (‘a flag unfolding, a lion rampant, German hands tearing a parchment treaty to pieces…’) this is filmmaking forged in the heat of the historic moment. Posterity may find it all a little on the ridiculous side, but posterity was not there at the time, and in any case posterity does not – we fear – have the chance to see it.

So, a great start to our festival of lost films, we hope you will agree. Please return tomorrow, when we will be at the Court Electric Theatre, Tottenham Court Road, to see a most strange and adventurous 1925 German film…

From 1896 to 1926 – part 9

Edward Turner

Edward G. Turner, from http://www.victorian-cinema.net

This is the ninth and final part of the reminiscences of Edward G. Turner, pioneer British film distributor with the firm of Walturdaw. The series of articles was originally published in the Kinematograph Weekly, 17 June, 24 June, 1 July and 15 July 1926, under the title ‘From 1896 to 1926: Recollections of Thirty Years of Kinematography’. Other film veterans supplied pieces to the journal at this time – Will Day, Jack Smith, James Williamson, Frank Mottershaw, E.T. Heron, Will Onda, Monte (Monty) Williams – which makes June/July 1926 in the Kinematograph Weekly an area well worth investigating by film historians. Here Turner recalls business during the First World War, through to the 1920s and the demise of the Walturdaw film renting business.

Then the fatal year of 1914 arrived. In February of this year, Walker came to me and said, “Turner, our ten years with the Walturdaw Company expire in Auust, and I have the opportunity of taking over all of the products of the Famous Players organisation; putting them on the English market on a renting basis, part cash and sharing.

“Will you join me when our time expires, or, if not, will you get my release from the Company, as this is too great an opportunity to let pass?”

As he still had six months to serve, I promised to do my best, and at a board meeting held a fortnight later, I secured his release, and the Walturdaw Company gave him a farwell dinner at the Monico on March 17, and so our eighteen years of partnership closed. J.D. Walker founded the Famous Players organisation in this country.

A Good Team

My old friend and I had shared hardships and success together; we had had many ups and downs and many pleasures. We had seen the kinema Industry grow from nothing to an important Industry. We were well matched for a business partnership: he had imagination, inspiration, and his head was always full of schemes; in fact, he was nearly a genius in this respect, but like all people of this type, he had not the patience or the determination to carry out his schemes; in other words, to come down to the hum-drum process of bringing his imagination to concrete facts.

I am not brilliant in imagination, neither am I a genius, but I have the faculty of dogged determination and perseverance, and the knack of geting down to things and working them out to their logical conclusions. This is very essential to bring brilliant schemes to a practical end.

I believe we both made a mistake in parting: we had got to know each other so well, he to scheme and I to carry out, that we were both somewhat lost when we parted, and I believe that had we not done so, his name to-day would be a household word, as it was in the years of which I am speaking, and both our fortunes would have been on a higher plane.

The War

In August, 1914, the Great War started. We had many thousands of pounds worth of German film just issued, or about to be issued. In two months its value was the price of scrap for melting down to make dope for our aeroplanes. This was a first big knock.

The following three years were ones of anxiety in every respect for everybody, but we all did our best to keep the flag flying. We had 95 per cent. of our our staff in the Army – all volunteers, and we had to keep the business going to provide a place for them when they came back, if they ever did. Out of our entire male staff there were only two other man and myself left, we either being over age of permanently turned down as physically unfit.

The year 1918 found me in communication with J.D. Williams, who just then had founded the First National Pictures in America, with English rights in view, and I secured these for my company in face of great opposition.

Daddy Long Legs

Daddy Long Legs (1919)

The F.N. Contract

Mr. Williams had gathered under his banner practically all the great artistes of America, including Mary Pickford, and I secured three of her productions: “Heart o’ the Hills,” “The Ragamuffin,” and “Daddy Long Legs.” For these I paid a record figure, but all the world knows what a huge success “Daddy Long Legs” was, and then we began to get films quicker than we could put them out, which is nearly as bad as not getting enough, because they could not be worked out to their capacity.

In the year 1920, a great slump took place in the English poound in America. We were having weekly consignments over, and as we were paying dollars against the depreciated pound, our losses in this respect amounted to over £30,000. Then the company with whom we had fixed up our programme for 1923 and 1924 began to fail in delivering to time, and eventually stopped altogether. This was the third great block, becuase it left us with a big organisation and nothing to put out to the exhibitors, and finally, the Walturdaw Company had to close down, going into voluntary liquidation.

But the Walturdaw Cinema Supply Company, of which to-day I am a director, sprang up from its ashes like the Phoenix of old, and we are carrying on the traditions of the old company – carrying all its personnel, and I am sure the good will of the thousands of old clients.

Such is the review which has passed before my mind during the time I have been jotting down this article and it practically gives the life story of the kinema trade.

Turner’s optimism was not ill-founded. The Walturdaw Cinema Supply Company continued as a successful provider of cinema equipment for decades. Turner himself became a senior figure within the film industry. He became chairman of the Kinematograph Renter’s Society and the Kinematograph Manufacturer’s Association, and president of the Cinema Veterans Society. He died in 1962.

The previous parts of Turner’s memoir are available here:

Part 1: The first film shows
Part 2: Popular film titles of the 1890s
Part 3: Pitching the product to the working classes, and developing film renting
Part 4: Exhibition in the 1890s and the effect of the Bazar de la charité fire
Part 5: The London County Council’s fire regulations and the cinematograph business
Part 6: The hiring business and establishing the Walturdaw name
Part 7: Developing fireproof equipment
Part 8: Flicker Alley and the rise of the exclusive film.

Seeing it Through

Charles Masterman

Charles Masterman, from http://www.firstworldwar.com

Just a note to folks that this evening on BBC Radio 3 we had Neil Brand’s ninety-minute play, Seeing it Through. The subject of the play is Wellington House, the covert British propaganda outfit from World War One (also known as the War Propaganda Bureau), which under Charles Masterman conducted a would-be civilised campaign of information management, using willing well-known authors (Wells, Bennett, Doyle, Chesterton) to argue Britain’s rightfulness in fighting such a war, and employing other media, including film. There was passing mention of Charles Urban, who produced the documentary feature Britain Prepared (1915) for Masterman, and reference at the end to The Battle of the Somme (1916), made by the British Topical Committee for War Films, with somewhat anachronistic comment on its use of some inauthentic footage. A thoughtful, skillful piece from the prodigious Mr Brand.

You’ll be able to catch the play for the next week on Radio 3’s Listen Again service. I recommend doing so.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 2

Lumière train (1897)

L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895)

Part two of our series taken from the series of articles written in 1926 by Edward G. Turner of the British film company Walturdaw, reminiscing on thirty years in the film trade, has him describe the sorts of films he showed in the 1890s. He recalls many individual titles, and interestingly the majority of them are from British producers.

The first films used were Edison Kinetoscope subjects, 40 ft. long. I can remember “The Cock Fight,” “Scene in a Bar Room,” “Tyring a Wheel,” “The Black Diamond Express,” and “The Comic Wrestlers.”

Then McGuire and Baucus, of Dashwood House, Bishopsgate street, provided us with a number of subjects, the saleswoman there being Miss Rosenthall, sister of J. Rosenthall, whom all old operators will remember. McGuire and Baucus were years after taken over by the Warwick Trading Co., when Chas. Urban presided over its fortunes.

Lumière were the best source of our supply, as he had sent out to various parts of the world a number of cameras. Of his subjects I remember: “The Dancers from the Moulin Rouge,” “A Market Scene in Paris,” “Diving from a Raft,” “A Pillow Fight,” “A Street Scene in Paris,” “The Gardener,” “Bad Boy and Hose Pipe,” “High Diving at Milan Baths,” “A Train Arriving at a Station,” “The Sleeping Coachman,” “Comic Boxing in Tubs,” “Dublin Fire Brigade,” “Heavy Load of Stone.”

R.W. Paul’s list included “The Miller and the Sweep,” “Whitewashing a Fence,” “David Devant Conjuring,” “Children at Tea,” “Bill Stickers,” and “A Sea Cave.”

Films were also supplied by Birt-Acre, of Barnet, the most famous of which were “Policeman, Solider and Cook,” “The Magic Sausage Machine,” and “A Man Going to Bed.”

G.A. Smith, of Brighton, produced “The Corsican Brothers,” in 75 ft., and a number of excellent subjects besides.

Williamson, of Brighton, produced a large number of small subjects, including his films of the Boxer Rising in China.

Later, came the old showman’s wonderful film “The Poachers,” of which I think Col. Bromhead will bear kindly remembrance; the Sheffield Photo Co.’s “Daylight Burglars”; and later, the faked films of the South African War, made by Mitchell and Kenyon.

The South African War provided many films, and the public wanted more.

What an impetus these films gave to the Trade!

What a remarkable memory he had. Historians of the period will note that his chronology may be a little awry, but he is almost completely spot on with which producer supplied which titles – some of which survive to this day, others now are lost with only evidence such as this to tell us of their one-time significance. “Miss Rosenthall” is Alice Rosenthal, sister of Anglo-Boer War cameraman Joseph Rosenthal, and later a film producer herself. Birt-Acre is Birt Acres, “McGuire and Baucus” were Franck Z. Maguire and Joseph Baucus. “Williamson” is James Williamson. Next up, financial crisis, and a crucial change of exhibition policy…

Focus on Film

Focus on Film

The Learning Curve is a free online teaching and learning resource provided by the UK’s National Archives (formerly, and far better known as, the Public Record Office). It brings together a range of archive materials around key historical themes, and this includes film. Its Onfilm resource has recently been revamped and renamed Focus on Film.

This now comes with 150 film clips, all of them downloadable and re-usable, and the site now has its own online editing tools, in The Editor’s Room. The National Archives does not hold film itself (selected British government films are preserved by the BFI National Archive on its behalf), so it uses film from Screen Archive South East, the BFI, the Imperial War Museum, British Pathe and the BBC.

Focus on Film

There are several silent film clips available. There is an absolutely delightful film of Folkestone in 1904, with people just being themselves, parading up and down the streets, having fun at the beach, fooling before the camera, dressed on their Sunday best. It’s long been one of my desert island films (it has no known producer or title, and goes by the supplied title of Edwardian Folkestone), and I strongly recommend it (how drearily the teaching notes on the site describe it: “The roller coaster ride reminds us of the primary aim of early film-makers, profit via entertainment”). Scarcely less delightful nor more absorbing in its social detail is a 1920 tour through the streets of Canterbury, taken from the back of a moving vehicle.

There are newsreel films of the suffragettes, including the infamous film of the 1913 Epsom Derby in which Emily Davison runs on to the race-course and is killed. There are several film clips for the First World War, including key sequences from the great documentary testament The Battle of the Somme (1916). Somewhat peculiarly, there are also clips of a modern actor telling us about the experience of the Somme, which together with clips elsewhere of actors giving us vox pops on life in the Tudor and Stuart periods may end up confusing a few schoolchildren. There’s also footage from Ireland in 1916 (The Easter Rising) and 1920s.

The quality of the downloads is good (QuickTime Pro is needed if you are going to retain a copy), and the suggested activities (for PC or interactive whiteboard) and editing facilities are fascinating. Note that the site states: Teachers and students are granted a limited, non-exclusive licence to use the film clips for non-commercial educational use only and may not re-publish materials without permission of the copyright holder.

Well worth a look.

Iamhist conference report


Iamhist (International Association for Media and History) is an organisation of filmmakers, broadcasters, archivists and scholars dedicated to historical inquiry into film, radio, television, and related media. It publishes the widely-respected Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, and organises biennial conferences. This year’s was held in Amsterdam 18-21 July, on the theme Media and Imperialism: Press, Photography, Film, Radio and Television in the Era of Modern Imperialism. There were several papers given on silent film subjects, and the Bioscope was there with pen and notebook.

A number of the best papers were given on media outside Iamhist’s usual frame of reference. Pascal Lefèvre spoke lucidly and informatively on Imperialist images in French and Belgian children’s broadsheets of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, finding arguably positive or some downright critical images that differed from the usual Western view of African peoples at this time. Andrew Francis was equally entertaining and observant in talking about the use of pro-Empire imagery in New Zealand newspaper advertising during the First World War.

On silent films themselves, James Burns spoke on the distribution (or lack of distribution) of the films of the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries boxing match in 1910 and D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1914 to black audiences in Africa and the Caribbean. The Johnson-Jeffries film (the black Johnson defeated ‘white hope’ Jeffries for the world heavyweight title) is well-known for how its images of a black victory alarmed many in America, though Burns pointed out that films of Johnson’s earlier victories over white opponents had not aroused anything like the same rabid reaction. He also pointed out that Birth of a Nation was not exhibited in Africa (until 1931), yet no evidence has yet been found to show why it was withheld. Burns’ has done excellent work on film and black African audiences (see his Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe), and his new research promises much, even if evidence of black audience reactions (outside the USA) remain elusive.

Simon Popple spoke on films of the Anglo-Boer War, focussing on the dramatised scenes of the conflict produced by the Mitchell and Kenyon company. M&K are now renowed for their actuality films of life in Northern England in the Edwardian era, after the successful BBC series The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon, but they also made dramas, recreating melodramatic scenes from the South African war to feed a public appetite for moving picture scenes of the war which had been disappointed by undramatic newsfilms of the conflict. These crudely histrionic dramas, with titles such as Shelling the Red Cross, A Sneaky Boer, and Hands Off the Flag, raise a laugh now, but presumably had them cheering in the aisles in 1900.

With the unavoidable but unfortunate practice of parallel sessions so that as many speakers as possible can be crammed in, no one could attend everything, and I missed some relevant papers, including Teresa Castro on ‘Imperialism and Early Cinema’s Mapping Impulse’ and Yvonne Zimmermann on ‘Swiss Corporate films 1910-1960’. Too few witnessed Guido Convents‘ excellent presentation on the huge production of Belgian colonial films, from the early years of the century onwards, all designed to remind the world and audiences at home that Belgian had a presence in Africa and an Imperial role to play. He also showed a heartbreaking film of the difficulties faced by the Congo film archive, which put into perspective some of the institutional troubles faced by the world’s larger film archives, described by Ray Edmondson in a plenary session. Edmondson nevertheless made an eloquent case for the ways in which some film archives have come under threat through insensitive political fashions and institutional follies. Archives seem hampered by being archives: politicians do not grasp what it is that they are about in the same way that they do with museums, a far more generously funded sector with a considerably greater public profile.

And there was more. Martin Loiperdinger showed magic lantern slides of British Empire subjects from the nineteenth century and considered their impact upon audiences. Kay Gladstone of the Imperial War Museum showed a two-hour selection of films from its amazing archive for the two world wars (and more), including a live action political ‘cartoon’ from the Anglo-Boer War, and images of Colonial troops in the First World War, though what left the audience stunned was silent, colour home movie footage of India at the time of partition in 1947, showing scenes of the misery caused that the newsreels of the time scrupulously avoided. And there was plenty on post-silent subjects, and me thrilling a small audience with a disquisition on databases and the misuse of thesauri and keywording in describing Imperial and Colonial themes. You should have been there…

These conferences are curious affairs. They are an excellent meeting place and a good way to catch up on the latest ideas, but you do also sit through some truly grim presentations – mumbled monotones, heads bowed down reading from indigestible text, oblivious to the needs of an audience. How some people can still continue to draw salaries as lecturers beats me – you do pity their poor students. And then there are the natural entertainers, who know their audience as well as their subject, and can speak wisely and clearly, in whatever time allotted. It was a well-organised event, the sun shone, the pavement cafés were inviting, and the coffee was fine. I’ll be following up some of the themes (especially silent cinema in Africa) in future posts.

A Girl Cinematographer at the Balkan War

Jessica Borthwick

Jessica Borthwick, from The Bioscope

Having promised more on early war films, in recognition of Stephen Bottomore’s recent work, and the posts on British women filmmakers and the collection of women’s writings on cinema, Red Velvet Seat, I’m going to combine these interests by writing something on Jessica Borthwick, cinematographer of the Balkan War of 1913. Red Velvet Seat, in its otherwise excellent author biographies, says of Borthwick “no information found”. Well, I think we can do a little better than that.

Jessica Borthwick was twenty-two years old when she set out to film and photograph the second Balkan War (essentially the Bulgarians were fighting the Turks, Serbians and Greeks) in 1913. She filmed there for a year, not on behalf of any film company, but purely for her own interest, with the aim of exhibiting films and photographs on a lecture tour around Britain on her return.

Good connections enabled her to take this unusual step. She was the daughter of General George Colville Borthwick (1840-1896), who had been commander-in-chief of the army in Eastern Roumelia (part of Bulgaria after 1885). His brother was Sir Algernon Borthwick (1830-1908), 1st Baron Glenesk, a prominent figure in Victorian society as editor of The Morning Post, a position that by 1913 was occupied by his widow, Alice. The Hon. Miss Borthwick therefore found many doors open to her, particularly in Bulgaria, but that does not explain the remarkable determination and enterprise shown in an interview she gave for The Bioscope, published as ‘A Girl Cinematographer at the Balkan War,’ 7 May 1914. Here’s an extract:

… I took out with me to the Balkans one small plate camera and one cinematograph camera, which was made for me by Mr. Arthur Newman, who taught me in three days how to use it. This cinematograph camera of Mr. Newman’s lasted me the whole twelve months, in spite of the fact that it underwent terribly hard usage and received no repairs whatever except for my amateurish efort to mend it with bits of wire …

The difficulties of taking cinematograph pictures on the battlefield, especially when you are alone and unaided by any assistant, are, as you can imagine, tremendous. The use of a tripod is a particular embarrassment. Things happen so quickly in time of war that, unless one can be ready with one’s camera at a few seconds’ notice, the episode one wishes to record will probably be over. During the Servian war in Macedonia, my tripod was smashed by a shell, and although the camera was intact, the film which I was taking at the time got hopelessly jumbled up and had to be cut away from the mechanism with which it had become entwined.

Another great difficulty was the want of a dark room. One day, while taking films in the Rhodope Mountains, I came to a strange village of wooden huts inhabited by a nomadic race called Vlaques. Something went wrong with my camera, and I tried to make the people understand that I wanted some place which would serve as a dark room. It was impossible to get them to grasp what I meant, however, until eventually I found a man making rugs out of sheep’s wool. After much persuasion, I induced him to cover me up with his rugs, and in this unusual and very stuffy ‘dark room’ I managed to open my camera in safety. Having no film
box with me at the moment, I wrapped the negative up in pieces of paper and stowed it away in my pocket, carrying it thus for fifteen days until I returned to Sofia. Occupied with other matters, I forgot the film and handed my coat to a servant who, being of an inquisitive nature, unwrapped the negative, and finding it uninteresting, put it back in the pocket without the paper, afterwards hanging up the coat to air in the sun. Subsequently I developed the film – and found it one of the best I had.

The want of a technical dictionary, combined with the natives’ ignorance of photography, brought about several rather amusing situations. On one occasion, in Adrianople, I lost a screw from my tripod. There were shops of most other kinds, but no ironmongers, and at last, in despair, I tried to explain to an officer what I wanted in dumb show, not knowing the word for ‘screw.’ Having followed my actions for some moments with apparent intelligence, he suddenly hailed a cab and bundled me hastily in. We drove right across the city, until eventually we entered some massive gates and drew up – inside the prison! However, I turned the misconception to advantage by securing some excellent snapshots and having some very interesting talks with the prisoners. One convict – a German of considerable education – invited me to go and see him hanged the next morning. I saw two executions in that prison.

During the cholera rage in Adrianople, everything connected with that terrible disease was painted black. The carts in which the dead bodies were carried away were black, for example, as were the coffins in which cholera victims were buried. While the scourge was at its height, I went down into the gipsy quarter to take a film. The people in this part of the city had never seen a camera before, and when they saw me pointing my black box at various objects they thought I was operating some wonderful new instrument for combating the disease which was destroying them. Quickly surrounding me, they came and knelt upon the ground, kissing my feet and clothing, and begging with dreadful pathos that I should cure them. It was a task as sad as it was difficult to explain that their hopes were mistaken, and that I was impotent to help them …

What are my present and future plans? Well, in a few days time I hope to start a month’s engagement at the Polytechnic to lecture twice daily on the war … With regard to the future, I shall leave England in June next for the Arctic regions, where I want to start a colony for the cure of consumption and other diseases. This is the dream of my life. The great open spaces of the North are God’s sanatorium, and I believe that, when once their possibilities are known, their value will be recognised. I have been in the Arctic regions before. Yes, I shall take two or three cameras with me, induding Mr. Newman’s wonderful new hand cinematograph camera. When shall I return? That I cannot say. Perhaps at the end of a year – perhaps never.

Her lecture ambitions appear to have been thwarted. A court case followed in which she accused her projectionist of incompetence and having ruined her lecture engagements. Nor did she return to the Arctic. The First World War intervened, and she is next heard of as an ambulance worker on the Western Front, where she was wounded by shell and decorated by the Belgians.

Then what happened to her? She appears not to have married, but to have been a society figure, mentioned from time to time as having attended august gatherings of London society, into the 1940s. In 1946 she is recorded as having given a talk to the Sailors’ and Airmen’s Families Association, on the problems of life. She may be the same Jessica Borthwick who is occasionally referred to as a sculptress. We have no record of her death. Her films, alas, are not known to survive. Because they were never commercially released, there does not even seem to be a review of them, or any stills. Nor does it seem that her photographs exist. Perhaps this post will have brought together sufficient information for someone else to go in pursuit of her and discover more. It would be a worthwhile investigation.

By the way, the interview with her from The Bioscope is reproduced in full in Red Velvet Seat, while a lengthy abstract is given in Kevin Brownlow’s The War The West and the Wilderness.