Documentary: The beginning-of-the-century news

Turning to escapism was the newsreel's fatal error. By Godfrey Hodgson
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In 1894, Thomas Alva Edison, perhaps the greatest inventor of all time, made the sort of silly mistake that lesser mortals make. He had come close to inventing the cinema. What he had invented, to be precise, was a peepshow in which one person could view a moving image. He discouraged those who wanted him to persevere, and even wanted to invest money in developing the moving picture. Disastrously, he failed even to patent his invention in France.

As a result, the honour, and profit, of inventing cinema films went to two manufacturers of photographic equipment, the brothers Louis and Auguste Lumiere. Their key breakthrough was the idea of driving film through a camera, stopping it at intervals when a frame of film was in the "gate". The mechanism that allowed them to do this was borrowed from the "presser foot", which moves cloth through a sewing machine.

On 28 December 1895, in the basement of the Grand Cafe in rue Scribe in Paris, they showed the first 10 short films: recognisably the precursors of modern film. Now the BBC, in a co-production with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, has compiled Shooting the Century, a wonderful history of just one of the genres that descend from the Lumieres' ur-films: newsreel.

Like a lot of the inventions we think of as typically "modern", the newsreel is older than most people would think. Quite quickly, black-and-white newsreel film of acceptable quality was available for the sort of events that television news would cover today: the coronation of the Tsar of All the Russias in 1896, the Derby of the same year, a shipwreck in the North Sea and an eruption of Vesuvius.

The BBC/ CBC film made a number of subtle and intriguing points, however, about the relationships between fact and fiction, newsreel, news and documentary.

At first, it was actuality itself that was the attraction. For the first 10 or 15 years after the Lumieres showed a train coming into a station, a man squirting people with a garden hose, or girls pouring out of their factory, audiences were content to see events. To sit in a cinema, called from the beginning in the United States a "theater", and to see a shipwreck, a hanging, or a battle, was fascinating.

Quite early, however, it dawned on film-makers that fiction, if not stranger than truth, was more compelling viewing. As early as 1898, at the time of the Spanish-American war, footage of Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders was available. But the naval battle of Manila Bay, as staged with toy battleships in a pond by Albert Smith and Stuart Blackton, was far more exciting.

There were real cameramen covering the Boer War live, but some of the most exciting footage was shot in quiet woods in Lancashire or New Jersey. When the First World War came along, it was plain that in a real battle, all the camera was likely to catch would be little dots of men and little puffs of smoke. The Mutual Film Corporation, having bought exclusive rights to a civil war in Mexico for $25,000 plus 50 per cent of the secondary rights, did not hesitate to stage executions and restage battles.

The film of the battle of the Somme in 1916 was seen by half the British population. It was the most authentic film of war ever seen, and had an indelible impact on its audiences. Yet much of it, including some of the most dramatic shots of men going over the top, was staged.

Responses to later war films were dulled. So Lord Beaverbrook, in charge of British government propaganda, hired D W Griffith, the director of Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, to make a propaganda film. His contract said he could have 20-40,000 troops for 30 days. But the results even of combining a great talent with great resources were disappointing. Griffith hid the killing and the wounds away in the trenches, and used his private army as the backdrop to a banal love story called Hearts of the World.

It was Charles Pathe who first updated films regularly, turning documentary into newsreel. And until the First World War newsreel was French as much as it was American, although London was at the centre of the industry, simply because London was at the hub of the network of international underwater telegraphic cables. But the war destroyed the European newsreel industry. After the Armistice, the British industry was controlled by American companies or by companies with strong US connections.

By the end of the 1920s, the newsreel business was dominated by half a dozen big Hollywood distributors, who used newsreels as mere teasers for feature films. The newsreels died because they lost journalistic instincts and journalistic integrity. There were brave and honest documentary film- makers, like Leo Seltzer who filmed the massacre of strikers by Ford's security men. But when police killed 10 demonstrators in Chicago in 1937, the film was suppressed as "too gruesome".

The newsreels never minded footage being gruesome. They revelled in the fiery end of the Hindenburg airship, the assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia and the lynching of the assassin, or the Lindbergh kidnapping trial. What they couldn't accept was social reality, especially if it contradicted the essentially complacent businessman's view of the world.

Newsreels were just entertainment, and for them the great Depression never happened.

In 1935 Roy Larson at Time Inc did try to put some journalistic energy into a new, more challenging newsreel series, The March of Time, with voice-overs by the young Alistair Cooke, among others. But when The March of Time tried to alert the world to the evils of Nazi Germany, they filmed pogroms in Hoboken, New Jersey, and Hitler was played by an actor.

The progression is remarkable. At first, it was actuality itself that drew the crowds. Then it was discovered that fiction (in the sense of faking, of artificially reproducing what the film-maker knew something ought to look like) was more effective at attracting audiences than actuality unvarnished. Only then did fiction in the other sense, fiction as drama, with reality simulated by actors and actresses, come into its own.

Then actuality, in the shape of the newsreels, became subordinated to entertainment. And the values of the entertainment industry leached back into the newsreels, which were not allowed to interfere with the Great Escape provided by Hollywood in the Depression years.

The Second World War changed that. Cameramen in the main belligerent countries, in Germany and the Soviet Union as well as in the United States and Britain, got as close to the action as they could. The US army ran schools that turned out cameramen as fast as flying schools were turning out pilots.

Newsreel came into its own again in Britain during the Blitz, when it reached the people whose resolution was to be decisive. Film of indomitable Cockneys, with grimy faces under tin hats, behaving as if nothing had happened after the bombs came down, gave the British a new image of themselves for a while. In every country, the authorities used it to give their people the version of how the war was going that would keep up their morale.

Sometimes, even as late as the Second World War, the footage was faked. Cameramen found that you could create more exciting images of war by persuading a few soldiers to charge around in a quarry than by filming the battle of El Alamein. "You really had to fake it," said the great British newsreel cameraman Ronnie Noble, "because the real thing looked like nothing".

More often it was not faked. Cameramen took risks - almost as great as fighting soldiers did - to get their pictures. In the United States and in the Soviet Union, they actually were servicemen. Newsreels brought the successive stages of the war, from the phoney war and the Blitz to Pearl Harbor, D-Day and the Japanese surrender, to a screen near you. A Canadian cameraman shot authentic film of the D-Day landings not unworthy of Saving Private Ryan.

But then, once the war was over, the newsreels went back to their old escapist agenda. Absurd Paris hats, the Grand National, Wimbledon and royal occasions.

It was not until television news came along in the 1950s that the incomparable power of film to communicate was married to basic journalistic standards.

The moral of the rise and fall of the newsreel does not need to be rubbed in. All journalism depends on a compromise between economic realities and professional standards. But if journalism falls into the hands of businessmen who are more interested in entertainment than in actuality, the danger is that they will be terrified of scaring off the customers.

If that happens, journalism first ceases to be journalism, and eventually ceases to make enough money even to interest the businessmen. In the present climate, something like what happened to newsreel could happen all over again with television news.