This isn’t a gif from a fiction movie – it’s actual footage from the first world war which has been cleaned up, extra frames added to bring it up to 26 per second, and then colorised. It’s the kind of thing which sets new standards for how we can use original sources to bring the past to life, something which Centuries of Sound obviously is in favour of. The scenes towards the end with the worst effects of the war are so shocking and visceral that I can’t imagine I’ll ever forget them.
The film, directed by Peter Jackson, is not perfect. I liked very much how it operated entirely on the personal level of the soldiers, but inevitably this led to a nagging feeling that there was a lot being missed. This is something which cannot be helped, though, and as far as two-hour documentaries about the war go, it’s surely unsurpassable.
To stream on Prime Video
For sale on Blu Ray or DVD
The 1964 BBC TV Series The Great War may sometimes feel a bit hokey and outdated in its narrative style, but with the centenary over and done with, it looks like its position is still unchallenged as the definitive documentary of the conflict. Beyond anything else, it’s priceless in its collection of original accounts from men who were then barely of pensionable age, and therefore still are able to vividly recount their experiences. You can’t help but wonder what they made of the rest of the 60s.
The whole thing is available now on Youtube. Here is the first episode.
The entire playlist of 26 episodes plus bonus features is here.
In my day job I sometimes take groups of kids to this place, the Scott Polar Museum in Cambridge.
Before we go on trips there we do an activity which involves making a list of what you would take with you on a trip to the Antarctic. This is an odd task to give them, because the big reveal (you wouldn’t take ponies instead of dogs or dress in tweed instead of furs, but guess who did!) is never made. Not a huge surprise as the Scott Polar Museum was founded in memoriam of Robert Falcon Scott, by one of his associates, using funds raised in response to his (heroically?) disastrous trip.
The “was Scott a tragic hero or a tragic idiot?” pendulum has swung forwards and backwards a few times in the last few decades, and it’s probably beyond the scope of this site to come down on one side or the other, except to say that flawed human beings are the kind interesting stories are written about, so we shouldn’t be surprised that more attention is paid to Scott’s doomed trip than to the success of Roald Amundsen, the supposedly cold, professional Norwegian polar explorer who soundly beat him to the South Pole and lived to tell the tale.
As with many old stories, the tale of the trip has acted as tea leaves, in which we see what we want to see. Was he a hero, showing the pluck and courage of boarding school and the army? Was he an egotist, refusing all intelligent input and taking his men to their doom? Was he a hero of science, losing his life to bring back 35lbs of geological specimens? Was he a typical man of the British Empire, brought up to believe that confidence in yourself and your country should be the be all and end all, with a legacy of encouraging the same type, these “heroes” whose blustering incompetence won short-term plaudits, but sowed the seeds of many of the problems of the modern world?
These debates are (IMO!) ultimately more interesting than the story of the expedition, but that’s what we’re here for anyway, so here are some resources on Robert Falcon Scott and the Terra Nova Expedition of 1910–1913
Today is the 107th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The story of the “unsinkable” liner hitting the iceberg is so famous it hardly seems worth retelling for the umpteenth time, except perhaps for the producers of Entertainment Tonight, who reported on the sinking of the Costa Concordia with this headline
So, here’s a pack of materials suitable for immersing yourself in Titanic lore for a day or so, if such a mood has taken you.
Stuff You Missed In History – How The Titanic Worked
A good primer on the facts of the story, with the usual provisos about “why so many adverts?” etc.
National Archives – Titanic: the official story
A more comprehensive, if less flashy, recounting of the story, with some surprising twists in the days after the ship sunk.
Titanic – The New Evidence
A BBC documentary from a couple of years ago which puts forward a very different theory about the causes of the sinking.
National Archives – Titanic Lives
Another angle on the story (an often neglected one) is the stories of some of the people aboard.
The History Chicks – Molly Brown
A podcast about one of the most interesting Titanic survivors, Molly Brown’s life story is absolutely stranger than fiction.
Thomas Hardy – The Convergence of The Twain
A contemporary poem by Thomas Hardy, expressing the fairly original idea that the ship and the iceberg were destined to meet each-other and foolish humans could do nothing to prevent it.
As Hurricane Florence bears down on the East coast of the USA, it would be amiss not to mention what happened across on the other side of the continent 112 years ago. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 remains vivid in a culture that has built (and built fairly high) on the ruins left behind after the 7.9 magnitude quake and (more importantly) the subsequent fires which killed up to 7000 people.
This clip shows quite what level of devastation the city suffered
…and this is perhaps the best documentary about the event, from PBS.
Even if it isn’t the most well-known war in the west, overshadowed by the events of a decade later, the Russo-Japanese war nevertheless led to the abortive 1905 revolution in Russia, the takeover of Korea by Japan, gave Theodore Roosevelt a Nobel Peace Prize, and laid some of the groundwork for the worldwide complications of WW1. I only wish there were a decent documentary about it on Youtube – aside from this short, stuffy clip, all I can find are insufferable animated explainers.
In 1905 the tail-end of the Belle Époque in Paris, home to Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. denis found a new star – a Javanese princess, of princely Hindu birth, immersed in the traditions of sacred Indian dance since childhood, newly arrived in France to demonstrate exotic stripteases where she removed a series of veils until she was only wearing a bejeweled bra and headdress. The newspapers went wild – she was was “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair,” her face “makes a strange foreign impression” and her dance was “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.”
Of course Mata Hari was actually Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod, a divorced mother of two from Leeuwarden in The Netherlands. In her very unhappy marriage to Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod, Mata Hari had spent a few years in Java, and escaping her husband’s alcoholism, violence and keeping of a concubine, she had immersed herself in local culture, adopting an artistic name which meant “sun” in Malay.
The most famous part of Mata Hari’s story is its tragic ending. Her execution for treason by firing squad in 1917 has left her a reputation as a double-crossing femme fatale, which in truth she probably did very little to earn. A number of films have been made of this latter part of her life, mostly benefiting from the fact that you cannot libel the dead. Perhaps she would have enjoyed her notoriety still lingering a hundred years after her death, or perhaps she would have said this unfairly negates her life of self-creation and struggle.
This documentary is the best I can find currently available on her life.
He hadn’t made his rubber quota for the day so the Belgian-appointed overseers had cut off his daughter’s hand and foot. Her name was Boali. She was five years old. Then they killed her. But they weren’t finished. Then they killed his wife too. And because that didn’t seem quite cruel enough, quite strong enough to make their case, they cannibalized both Boali and her mother. And they presented Nsala with the tokens, the leftovers from the once living body of his darling child whom he so loved. His life was destroyed. They had partially destroyed it anyway by forcing his servitude but this act finished it for him. All of this filth had occurred because one man, one man who lived thousands of miles across the sea, one man who couldn’t get rich enough, had decreed that this land was his and that these people should serve his own greed. Leopold had not given any thought to the idea that these African children, these men and women, were our fully human brothers, created equally by the same Hand that had created his own lineage of European Royalty.
Of all the unfathomable atrocities of the 20th century, there are but a few that feel entirely separate from the tides of history and ideology. The genocide perpetrated on the orders of Leopold II of Belgium for his own personal profit is surely one of the most relentlessly bleak stories of all time, but still one that should be more widely known. Here is a brief article about the genocide:
Father stares at the hand and foot of his five-year-old, severed as a punishment for failing to make the daily rubber quota, Belgian Congo, 1904
…and here is a clip from a documentary about the genocide.
It goes without saying that none of this is easy to read or watch.
A man, a plan, a canal; Panama! Not just a palindrome, but a rejected heading for this blog post. 1904 saw the apex of Theodore Roosevelt’s super-sized presidency with work finally beginning on the digging of a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – a project whose scale remains impressive in 2018.
Here is a History Channel documentary on the building of the thing
…and here’s Teddy hanging out at the site, having dug the entire thing himself without catching malaria or yellow fever or even getting a smudge on his snappy suit.
1903 is a marquee year for aviation, mainly because “first flight” sounds much snappier than “first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft” – and balloon pioneers are too far back in history to fit in with the age of innovation. All the same, the Wright brothers retain their fascination, their first flight at Kitty Hawk leading inexorably to the air battles of the First World War, just over a decade later.
Here is a BBC documentary on the first days of flight
And here is an American documentary on the first powered flight