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These Newsreels Tell the History of the 20th Century

British Pathe/Youtube

"Newsreel” is an odd word. Once upon a time it was like the smell of napalm in the morning; yet now it stinks of the past and so many old-fashioned attitudes. It was part of the hope that in modern times we the people could be made more aware of what was happening to us. In Soviet film, especially the work of Dziga Vertov, it was the medium that would make us intelligent citizens, and in his great trilogy of novels, U.S.A., Dos Passos saw it as our glue. 

In Britain, in 1945, when cinema-going had never before held sway over so great a portion of the population, the newsreel was giddy with the thought of a global village. There was no television news yet, and newspapers labored after the visual. So in the newsreels you saw Goering at Nuremberg, puppies taking a bath, and an item on a bomb (correction, the Bomb) being dropped on Japan. There were herky-jerky aerial shots of the blasted landscape of Hiroshima, with told-you-so commentary about 60,000 dead and President Truman’s flat, warning voice.

But if the news was often grim, newsreel was determined to stay positive. Looking at that newsreel now, you realize no one dared to offer a glimpse of what Japanese survivors looked like as their burned skin peeled away. Maybe the camera crews were nervous about hitting the contaminated ground. So the newsreel became a song of power and victory. Somehow the newsreels always felt like singalong moments.

Such thoughts are prompted by the release of great bounty. In Britain, the Pathé News ran in cinemas from 1910 until 1970—a ten-minute medley ranging from the Bomb to cute puppy tricks that played before a film. Now that collection has been released to YouTube. It amounts to 85,000 filmed items, which can seem like our past being free for inspection. The truth is not quite that exciting. Many of these items have been available for years, and the whole collection has been organized for modern consumption with bland present-day commentary laud over past events. So raw footage—using the word raw to mean both untreated and a source of pain—has been dressed up as history that we can read as trouble-free.

Newsreel is a predator, hungry for mishaps. There’s a way in which the ideal newsreel camera prowls the world looking for disaster, but is always a few seconds too late. So the Pathé Collection has rapt footage of the Hindenburg coming in to moor at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in May 1937. We see ballast being jettisoned, and lines dropped; we feel the dainty yet ponderous drift of the great whale. But key seconds—the instant a fire breaks out—are missing. So we cannot judge whether the fire began inside the zeppelin or outside in a gas escape. We cut to the dirigible already prostrate on the ground, its frame a nervous system of fire, scarier than any of the shots from Hiroshima. This is newsreel as it was meant to be, but still it’s less dramatic than commentator Herbert Morrison on his radio broadcast to Chicago.

Fires are the stuff of movies. Take the burning of the Reichstag in 1933. The Pathé collection has a piece on Hitler becoming Chancellor of Germany that includes footage of the fire a few weeks later. But the commentary doesn’t know whether the fire was the work of communists, or a Nazi trick that would be blamed on communists. The best modern intelligence on the Reichstag is still uncertain. But here’s where the item is deceptive. The pieces of newsreel have been used to make a modern capsule with a new commentary (done by John Humphrys, a BBC newscaster) that concludes, ”at last, Hitler had grasped the dictatorial powers he always wanted.” 

That’s not unfair as an historical verdict. But the original commentary from 1933 would be so much more interesting (and historically valuable). That voice-over would not have been as confident about Herr Hitler’s design, or nature. I suspect it would help illustrate the wish for appeasement that afflicted the German-watching Europe. History is what happened (whatever it was), but it’s also what contemporaries believe had happened.

There’s an item on the General Strike of 1926 in Britain when aggrieved miners called out other unions. It only lasted ten days before—as that voice reassures us—the middle-class longing for order prevailed. Smart schoolboys drove the buses and their uncles handled the trains until those silly workers saw sense and played the game. Of course, in 1926 there would have been no sound, just titles, but the newsreels were always brimming with the good humor of positivism. It was a voice that had its home in used-car ads, and for Pathé it was often a booming baritone that belonged to Bob Danvers-Walker. The American newsreels “March of Time” and “Movietone News” had the same buoyant approach, and that’s one reason why small disasters (the battle of the Somme) were more manageable than recurring wounds in society (like class obedience and the cult of stupidity).

But sometimes an issue and a moment come together. In the summer of 1913, at the Epsom Derby, the king, George V, had a horse running, Anmer. As the field made a downhill turn, a woman stepped out from the packed railings and stood on the course to collide with the king’s horse. Her name was Emily Davison and she was a suffragette who had spent periods in prison already and who had suffered physical damage while being force-fed. The camera is in a perfect position to catch this unexpected event—did Davison know that and place herself accordingly? We feel the impact. Her skull was crushed. There’s a true sense of horror.

It may be that in 1913 the most serious worries were for the horse and jockey (both survived). The snatches of film say a lot: the policemen with royal mustaches, the ladies in full-length dresses and sweeping hats, the ease with which a bystander could enter the action. The new commentary sighs and says well, it was all part of that struggle to gain the vote for women. But the image tells you about the courage of women who had been driven to distraction by male superiority. There’s still dispute as to whether Ms Davison knew enough to pick out Anmer, or was it coincidence that she found that horse? That’s the beauty of newsreel: the quality of chance that exceeds explanation. Seeing can be believing.

There’s another whimsical entry: “the world’s youngest giant.” His name was Robert Wadlow, and he had hyperphasia of the pituitary gland—he could not stop growing. He was 8 feet 11 and 439 pounds and still growing when he died at the age of 22 in 1940. Here he is towering over his father and several young women, belles he could not ring. And when he walks he is like a beginner on stilts. He is a pained life force that cannot stop and the cheery, believe-it-or-not commentary does not hide the realization that we are witnessing a metamorphosis. All of a sudden a newsreel is art.