We all know the internet is a treasure trove of information (some of it even accurate!), resources, and media. But increasingly it’s become an even more amazing educational tool which brings history alive.
In the age long before reality TV, and even before the term “cinéma vérité” was bandied about more commonly in documentary circles, newsreels and educational films were in large part how people were given glimpses of real life —including real life well outside of their own comfy circles.
Those wanting to learn more both about history, particularly the history of documentary film, will want to bookmark these invaluable resources, starting with “the nation’s record keeper”:
The True Glory, 1945
Certainly we’ve seen many WWII propaganda films [like this one, The World at War] and documentaries, but this find is pretty remarkable. Created by the US Army after WWII, it’s a surprisingly coherent and even moving post-war tribute to the broad war effort critical to helping the Allies to victory. Narrated, appropriately, as a team effort, by various American, British, and Australian voices. War history buffs should also enjoy The Role of the Combat Cameraman, which is from the Korean War era.
More from the National Archives:
Gives you a sense of what it was like to watch the live broadcast on TV of the moon landing.
British Pathé was famous for its newsreels in the early to mid-20th century, but also produced many historical documentaries. With origins tracing back to the late 1890s, into the 1970s, the Pathé collection is a most valuable resource for major events, famous faces, fashion trends, travel, science, and culture over that time, and so the fact that they’ve put their entire archive online for free is quite remarkable. Just a sampling:
If you are — like we certainly are here at IL — going through World Cup withdrawal, the World Cup section of Pathé is a great place to see how the world’s most popular sport has changed a bit in style (not to mention in the technology of media coverage) and yet maybe not as much as you think.
Those with especially eclectic tastes will dig the ephemeral gems to be found in Pathé’s “Weird Newsreels” section. Remember those old cartoons that used to joke about “flea circuses”? Well apparently they really existed, and Pathé unearthed a newsreel clip about one in France, 1949. Caution: Watching this may make your arms start itching. Just keep them away from this dog wedding party.
Speaking of cartoon references, yes there really were boxing kangaroos:
The Prelinger Archives is full of more treasure, including rare films that could be argued have more artistic importance and interest than most of the ones linked above. From their site: “Prelinger Archives was founded in 1983 by Rick Prelinger in New York City. Over the next twenty years, it grew into a collection of over 60,000 ‘ephemeral’ (advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur) films. In 2002, the film collection was acquired by the Library of Congress, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.”
Some of the educational films were produced by Encyclopedia Britannica; some are goofy and dated enough to have been spoofed by Mystery Science Theater 3000, but others hold an ephemeral fascination.
Czech filmmaker and photographer Alexander Hammid, who married and was inspired by experimental filmmaker Maya Deren, has several fascinating short documentaries on their site, including (Cat Lovers Alert!) The Private Life of a Cat, an ahead-of-its-time look at the daily lives of cats, including a pregnant female who gives birth to kittens in the film (warning: graphic kitten birthing!) The film is important enough to have inspired an article in The Atlantic about it.
These are but just a smattering of the archival documentary gems to be found on the internet of course, but the resources mentioned above are a great place to start. Our only regret is that we may have set you on a path of tangential procrastination, but at least it’s educational!