Motion picture film provides a record of passing time, rendered as a series of still pictures on a length of film stock. After the advent of sound, commercial movies ran at a constant speed, dividing a second of movement into exactly 24 frames. But this was not always the case. In the silent film era, cinematographers hand-cranked their cameras in a personal rhythm, often cranking slower or faster to adjust for lighting conditions. When these films are shown at sound speed today, the speed mismatch often produces the inadvertently comic “jerkiness” that many viewers associate with old movies. The “correct” speed for such footage has to be determined through trial and error.
Film is also an artifact of time — often a fragile one, whose blemishes, splices, technical imperfections and signs of wear reflect its age and history of use. The first scenes in the clip featured below show the ravages of nitrate decomposition: a chemical process that affects the nitrocellulose base of the film stock, damaging and eventually destroying the image itself. In another shot from the clip (at 2:29 – 2:39), static electricity (acting on the film stock before it was processed) has left dancing white lines within the image, creating an effect that looks like rainfall.
The renowned film historian Kevin Brownlow has written that documentary films “can be transformed by the passage of time into priceless relics that recapture our past in an astonishingly vivid manner.” That is certainly the case with the footage shown here.
The above clip is a video montage, compiled from film footage shot almost a century ago. It is one of four such montages in the video presentation Answering the Call, now screening as part of a Royal BC Museum display commemorating the Great War. The presentation draws on almost an hour of rare film footage shot in BC during the First World War. This material shows troops in training at Victoria, Vancouver and Comox, before their departure for eastern Canada, England, and the battlefields of Europe.
Eight of the ten source reels used in the presentation depict events in Victoria. This material exists as raw, unedited footage, with few details about dates, events or units depicted. It owes its survival to Allan D. Taylor (1916-1999), a Victoria film enthusiast, who donated his unique collection of BC footage to Library and Archives Canada in 1973.
More details are known about the other two source reels. Both the Comox and Vancouver items were shot by pioneering BC filmmaker A.D. “Cowboy” Kean (1882-1961). Kean attempted to document every unit that left the province to serve in the Great War. In February 1916, he screened a four-reel compilation of this material in Vancouver, under the title B.C. for the Empire. Like most of Kean’s film productions, however, this early documentary has vanished. The extant examples of his military newsreels show two specific BC units: the 102nd (North British Columbians) Battalion at Goose Spit near Comox, and “D” Company of the 196th (Western Universities) Battalion in Vancouver.
One problem with the Victoria films is that they have no particular order or structure. Some shots are much too brief, and some run on at great length; some are repeated, and some are truncated before the action shown is completed. In creating the video presentation, the challenge has been to emphasize the most interesting footage, and to construct a meaningful visual story. Where possible, image flaws were edited out or adjusted, and obvious speed issues were corrected.
The selected images have a remarkable quality of immediacy — even more so than still photographs. We watch these BC recruits as they prepare to go to war; we see them marching, drilling, standing at attention, and relaxing in camp. They come to life on the screen.
This footage provides valuable visual evidence of a critical time in BC history. It is also a poignant record of young men who saw the Great War as a great adventure. Their moving forms are an eloquent reminder of their youth, service and sacrifice. Waving their hats jubilantly, a group of recruits offers up three cheers. In a column of men marching down Victoria’s Belleville Street, one figure has a small child clinging to his hand. On the pier, a soldier pauses to shake hands with the military cadets standing guard. A steamship eases out into the harbour, and its deck and rigging are full of uniformed men, all waving good-bye to the crowd on the dock. The footage may be silent, but their faces, turned towards the camera, still speak volumes — even a century later.
Archival descriptions of the source films can be viewed online via the following links: