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.