Watch 85,000 Historic Newsreel Films from British Pathé Free Online (1910–2008)

The “piv­ot-to-video” moment of a few years back dev­as­tat­ed writ­ers every­where with mass lay­offs as com­pa­nies scram­bled to attract pro­ject­ed mil­lions of nonex­is­tent view­ers. It’s a sto­ry about preda­to­ry media monop­o­lies and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of news, doc­u­men­tary, and opin­ion video con­tent online. While the sheer amount of video can feel over­whelm­ing, we might remem­ber that peo­ple have been get­ting their news from screens for well over a hun­dred years.

First came the news­reels. Thou­sands were pro­duced from the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry into the 1960s, when TV became the dom­i­nant screen of choice. These were ephemer­al, often frag­men­tary films, not usu­al­ly pre­served in the way of great cin­e­ma.

But while “the news­reel may be his­to­ry,” notes the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties, “vast col­lec­tions of it remain, much of it unseen.” One such col­lec­tion resides at the archives of British Pathé, “a trea­sure trove of 85,000 films unri­valed in their his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance.”

British Pathé has dig­i­tized their col­lec­tion and made all of it—including more than 136,000 items from the Reuters his­tor­i­cal collection—freely avail­able online at their web­site and on YouTube. You’ll find there exact­ly the kind of vari­ety Richard Eder described in The New York Times in 1977, a year when peo­ple also felt “flood­ed” by news:

Most of the time [news­reels] were patchy views of a rather scat­ter­brained real­i­ty. Sneez­ing con­tests would alter­nate with politi­cians cut­ting rib­bons and South Amer­i­cans rioting.But once in a while there was some­thing unfor­get­table: the Hin­den­burg float­ed lofti­ly into sight and sud­den­ly set­tled on the ground like burn­ing tin­sel; a mid­dle-aged French­man wept at Toulon when the fleet was scut­tled. The news­reel cam­eras and the big screen pro­vid­ed an author­i­ty to these things that tele­vi­sion equip­ment could­n’t man­age. Also there was the effect of wait­ing a day or two to see a dis­as­ter you had read of. World events were dis­crete, indi­vid­ual, weighty. They did not flood us.

British Pathé pro­duced short doc­u­men­tary films on every pos­si­ble sub­ject around the world from 1910 to 2008 and might lay claim to cap­tur­ing more unfor­get­table his­tor­i­cal moments than most any oth­er news­reel ser­vice of the era. A tiny sam­pling of news­reels in their mas­sive dig­i­tal archive includes the Beat­nik makeover from 1963 at the top; a very brief film on Tol­stoy; a longer fea­turette on the Titan­ic, with inter­views from sur­vivors; and a short on the psy­che­del­ic Mel­lotron.

Among the many “British Pathé Unis­sued” videos, we find the filmed inter­view clip below with H.G. Wells in the 1930s, in which he pro­pos­es dis­ar­ma­ment, inter­na­tion­al coop­er­a­tion, full pub­lic employ­ment, and the nation­al­iza­tion of indus­try as anti­dotes to the ris­ing tides of World War and dev­as­tat­ing social inequal­i­ty. The inter­view was “unused by Pathé edi­tors and not screened in cin­e­mas,” explains a title added at the begin­ning. One sig­nif­i­cant shift from the news­reel to the dig­i­tal age is the unprece­dent­ed abil­i­ty to bypass the cen­sors.

“Before tele­vi­sion” and the inter­net, as the archive descrip­tion points out, “peo­ple came to movie the­atres to watch the news. British Pathé was at the fore­front of cin­e­mat­ic jour­nal­ism, blend­ing infor­ma­tion with enter­tain­ment to pop­u­lar effect.” If this blend sounds some­what akin to the mass media world we inhab­it today—one filled with pro­lif­er­at­ing video explain­ers, short doc­u­men­taries, talk­ing head con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists and every oth­er pos­si­ble use of the form—perhaps it’s use­ful to remem­ber that we’ve been liv­ing in that world a very long time. It has pro­duced many thou­sands of arti­facts that can tell us where we’ve been over the past 120 years or so, if not quite how we got to where we are now.

Enter the British Pathé col­lec­tion on YouTube or their web­site.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1,000,000 Min­utes of News­reel Footage by AP & British Movi­etone Released on YouTube

Down­load 6600 Free Films from The Prelinger Archives and Use Them How­ev­er You Like

A Trip Through New York City in 1911: Vin­tage Video of NYC Gets Col­orized & Revived with Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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