Joining Up: Scotland, Cinema and the First World War

Curator's Note

The genesis of this video essay lies in an article that we co-authored on Scotland, cinema and the First World War for NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies. The article analysed a series of extant local topical films of the period from the Scottish Screen Archive, and argued that their shifting modes of address are indicative of a strategic alignment which took place between the early cinema trade and the state at a time when they were both involved in projects of market expansion. In drawing attention to this often overlooked group of films, we also suggested that their local and ephemeral logic affords today’s viewer an experience of historical contingency as a counterpoint to hegemonic discourses. 

There were two reasons for making a video essay on this topic. Firstly, as the First World War is the subject of significant attention in Scotland and the UK, we anticipated that a film on cinema’s role in the period might generate some interest beyond the academy. Secondly, this public interest offered us an opportunity to revisit an under-appreciated body of films, the legacy of an alternative mode of production that coexisted with the emergence of institutional cinema. At a time when the well-known newsreel footage and iconic re-enactments of trench warfare were bound to occupy our screens, these local films served to challenge this canon and make us think again about cinema's relationship with historical events.

The essay is not an audio-visual version of the article. Although the central thesis remains, some of its arguments are communicated much more strongly by the video-essay. In particular, the ability of the returned gaze to pierce through time and short-circuit history is a rhetorical flourish on paper, but an unsettling experience on video. In consequence, there is less descriptive historical detail and more ambiguity in the video than in the article. As co-authors from different sub-fields in film studies, we had already negotiated the tension between contextual cinema history and textual analysis. The challenge was to keep the video-essay grounded without weighing it down with trivia, or foreclosing interpretation.

The film, thus, does not feature all of the texts that we covered in the article, and includes one – from 1899 – which was not mentioned, but which allowed us to demonstrate visually the antecedents of a particular form of representation (the parade film). We also decided to use sound and music recorded during the war years, with one exception – the popular song 'A Gordon for Me', which is laid over the 1899 film and speaks of an enduring fascination with the kilted battalions.

While we did not want to falsify the historical specificity of the footage by adding decorative sound or visual effects, we tried not to be precious – after all, the original exhibitors and audiences saw films as inputs for a show, to be played with rather than revered. Engaging the viewer is as important as retaining scholarly accountability. Our editing kept to that ethos. While shots have been trimmed and re-ordered, we strove to avoid 'correcting' in-camera edits or creating false continuities.

We emphasised in the film what was missing in the archive, that is images of the protests that took place during the war years, although focused on possible traces of dissent that emerge in some of the propagandist footage. At some points we asked ourselves whether we were reading too much into certain images, projecting onto them our politics and our knowledge of the radical history that was unfolding in Clydeside at the time. We hope to have retained a hopeful scepticism about these films, which cannot in any case make up for the missing visual record of dissent and resistance.

We cannot know what the people in these films were thinking, and we can only make conjectures about the way their lives turned out. For a fleeting moment, they were in front of a camera, and that instant of their existences has somehow survived. Each image speaks of an unlikely conjunction, under-determined and fragile. These hastily made films capture this accident, and in so doing give us a glimpse of history as it unfolds: messy, aimless, contingent – and still open to be transformed.