Both Faulkner and the physicists may be right: the passage of time is an illusion. And yet, for as long as we’ve been keeping score, it’s seemed that history really exists, in increasingly distant forms the further back we look. As Jonathan Crow wrote in a recent post on news service British Pathé’s release of 85,000 pieces of archival film on YouTube, seeing documentary evidence of just the last century “really makes the past feel like a foreign country—the weird hairstyles, the way a city street looked, the breathtakingly casual sexism and racism.” (Of course there’s more than enough reason to think future generations will say the same of us.) British Pathé’s archive seems exhaustive—until you see the latest digitized collection on YouTube from AP (Associated Press) and British Movietone, which spans from 1895 to the present and brings us thousands more past tragedies, triumphs, and hairstyles
This release of “more than 1 million minutes” of news, writes Variety, includes archival footage of “major world events such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, exclusive footage of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S.” And so much more, such as the newsreel above, which depicts Berlin in 1945, eventually getting around to documenting the Potsdam Conference (at 3:55), where Churchill, Stalin, and Truman created the 17th parallel in Vietnam, dictated the terms of the German occupation, and planned the coming Japanese surrender. No one at the time could have accurately foreseen the historical reverberations of these actions.
Another strange, even uncanny piece of film shows us the English football team giving the Nazi salute in 1938 at the commencement of a game against Germany. “That’s shocking now,” says Alwyn Lindsay, the director of AP’s international archive, “but it wasn’t at the time.” Films like these have become of much more interest since The Sun published photographs of the royal family—including a young Queen Elizabeth II and her uncle Prince (later King, then Duke) Edward VIII—giving Nazi salutes in 1933. Though it was not particularly controversial, and the children of course had little idea what it signified, it did turn out that Edward (seen here) was a would-be Nazi collaborator and remained an unapologetic sympathizer.
This huge video trove doesn’t just document the grim history of the Second World War, of course. As you can see in the AP’s introductory montage at the top of the post, there is “a world of history at your fingertips”—from triumphant video like Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, above, to the below film of “Crazy 60s Hats in Glorious Colour.” And more or less every other major world event, disaster, discovery, or widespread trend you might name from the last 120 or so years.
The archive splits into two YouTube channels: AP offers both historical and up-to-the-minute political, sports, celebrity, science, and “weird and wacky” videos (with “new content every day”). The British Movietone channel is solely historical, with much of its content coming from the 1960s (like those hats, and this video of the Beatles receiving their MBE’s, and other “Beatlemania scenes.”)
Movietone’s one nod to the present takes the form of “The Archivist Presents,” in which a historian offers quirky context on some bit of archival footage, like that above of the Kinks getting their hair curled. The completely unironic lounge music and casually sexist narration will make you both smile and wince, as do Ray Davies and company when they see their new hair. Most of the films in this million minutes of news footage (and counting) tend to elicit either or both of these two emotional reactions—joy (or amusement) or mild to intense horror, and watching them makes the past they show us feel paradoxically more strange and more immediate at once.