Early Film Pioneers: Alfred Clark and the Birth of the Historical Reconstruction Film

Alfred Clark

One of the most remarkable cinematic innovations (technically and artistically) effected by the Edison Manufacturing Company in 1895 seems to have come about more or less by happenstance and to have passed almost completely unnoticed in the U.S. itself. By August, Raff and Gammon, the firm primarily responsible for marketing Edison films and equipment in America, faced by Edison’s continued refusal to abandon the notion of the “peephole” viewer and investigate the possibilities of projection, were becoming increasingly alarmed at the continuing decline in sales and the resultant decline in film-production. They urged the development of new subjects and Edison assigned the task to one Alfred Clark. Clark (1873-1950) does not seem to have been, as Charles Musser suggests, a Raff and Gammon employee, but an employee of the Edison Phonograph Company. He had previously worked for Edison’s chief rival, the North American Phonograph Company, which Edison destroyed with his habitual dirty tricks and legal chicanery. His main interest was in sound recording, an area in which he was something of an expert.

      Imaginatively Clark made two films for Edison in August 1895, both based on dramatic historical scenes, Joan of Arc, showing the burning of the French heroine, and The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, which made a very early use of the stop-action technique to film the beheading of the queen (played, not as Charles Musser states, by a man, but by the wife of Robert Thomas, secretary and treasurer of the Kinetoscope Company). Presumably, however, it was not Clark himself, but the regular Edison cameraman, William Heise, who was actually responsible for the filming, but nothing in Heise’s previous or subsequent career, suggests that he would have had the imagination to conceive such films and it seems reasonable to suppose that, in this sense, Clark was the “director”. He and Heise also made Duel Between Two Historical Characters and three scenes from U.S. history, Rescue of Capt. John Smith by Pocahontas, Indian Scalping Scene, and A Frontier Scene (later retitled Lynching Scene). Of Clark’s films, only The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, filmed on August 28, 1895, appears to survive.


bbbClark’s experiments in historical reconstruction mark an interesting departure but seemingly met with little favor. Clark himself went to France in 1899 as an Edison representative, but left the company to found his own Compagnie de Gramophone Française. He subsequently settled in Britain where he became chairman of the newly-formed EMI and was, in his spare time, a celebrated collector of Chinese ceramics. His innovative concept of the historical film was never followed up but left, like so many other ideas, for the French and Italians to develop further.     

       The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots was seemingly a very popular film, particularly in the French fairgrounds. It (or a film of the same name) was shown in Arras on 8 July 1896 by an exhibitor purporting to be “Le Cinématographe” (almost certainly the ubiquitous Henri Joly). It was shown, again by Joly, in Saint Quentin on the 8 September (as La Décapitation d’une femme) and in Nîmes on 14 November. In 1897 it was even shown in Havana, Cuba. One French newspaper, L’Indpendant des Pyrrénées Orientales, found it a moving spectacle – “La hache se lève, le sang jaillit, la tête roule sur le sol et le bourreau la saisit aux cheveux pour la montrer à son entourage” (The axe is raised, blood spurts, the head rolls on the ground and the executioner seizes it by the hair to show to those around him). Good wholesome family entertainment, in other words. In the light of this, one has to be a little skeptical of Georges Méliès’ claim (or acceptance of the claim) to have invented the technique of “stop-motion” or to have stumbled across the idea accidentally. He may very well have known Clark’s film.


Gabriel Veyre

Gabriel Veyre is exceptional amongst the Lumière cameramen abroad in that, from the outset, he experimented with films that are “fictional” in the sense of being staged reconstructions. The most famous, Duel au pistolet (1896), a reconstruction of a duel between two Mexican deputies, must have been amongst the very first batch of films made by Veyre since it was already on show in France in September. The film, when it was shown in Mexico, caused some outcry in the press there, not, as is so often foolishly repeated, because people could not tell the difference between the real and the fictional but, on the contrary, precisely because they could tell the difference and were uneasy at the ethical implications of a non-explicit blurring of the two. Veyre also filmed the reconstruction of a military trial and execution by firing-squad, Proceso del soldado Antonio Navarro(1896) which, in the context of Veyre’s closeness to President Porfirio Diaz, very justly gives grounds for qualms. There is something distinctly exploitative about Veyre’s film-making which is similarly apparent in the very marked “orientalism” of his films later shot in the Far East. Un duel au pistolet was a popular film as witness a second duel scene (Un duel au pistolet II) which was shot back in France by another Lumière operator probably later the same year or early in 1897. A dueling scene, Duel Between Two Historical Characters had been made by Alfred Clark and William Heise for Edison in 1895 and Veyre’s Proceso del soldado Antonio Navarro also puts one in mind of a whole series of historical execution scenes made shortly afterwards for Lumière by Georges Hatot and Gaston Breteau [Exécution de Jeanne d’Arc (1898), La mort de Robespierre (1897), and Mort de Charles Ier (1897)].


Author David Bond is a historian who specializes in the study of cultural history. Subjects of interest, past and present, include late seventeenth-century English drama, early English paperback publishing, the French graphic novel (bande dessinnée), Jamaican popular music (not just the “r” word) and cinema – of all periods and all traditions but with a special interest in the period prior to the (mitigated) disaster of what is popularly known as “sound”.

The Unbeliever (1918)


the unbeliever 1918 film review

My viewing of this film coincided with finishing film historian Charles Musser’s Before the Nickelodeon – Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. It’s one of the last films released by the Edison company before Edison, who once dominated the American film industry, washed his hands of the movie business. The book details how competitive the business was from the very beginning and the often unscrupulous business tactics employed by Edison and his legal team. It also traces Porter’s life and career with an emphasis on his years with Edison. His 1903 film The Great Train Robbery was one of the most groundbreaking and popular films of its time but by 1908 his films were harshly criticized for being difficult to understand and not adopting the editing techniques employed by D.W. Griffith, who worked for Edison’s chief rival amongst American film producers, the Biograph company. Porter and Edison parted ways in 1909 but that wasn’t the end of Porter’s career. His success with the Rex Motion Picture Manufacturing Company, which he co-founded, restored his reputation. It eventually became the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. While still at Rex, Porter formed the Famous Players Film Company, which became the first studio to regularly release feature length films and Porter even directed Mary Pickford’s first feature length film, A Good Little Devil (1914). The Edison company, on the other hand, was more concerned about cutting costs than box office success. By the time they got around to making feature films, like The Unbeliever, Edison felt it would be too expensive to reorganize the company in order to keep up with the competition.

The Unbeliever was directed by Alan Crosland, who is best known as the director of The Jazz Singer (1927) and its cast includes Erich von Stroheim playing, you guessed it, a sadistic German officer. In the 1910’s there was a backlash against the American film industry led by religious and moral groups. Since that time, Edison, concerned about his legacy, made it a policy that the films he produced should be wholesome and moralizing. Thus this film, though it is a typical WWI American propaganda film with some exciting battle scenes, really uses the war as a backdrop for the story of a wealthy young atheist who finds God, love, and loses his sense of class distinction. In addition to YouTube, this film is available on disc four of the DVD set Edison – The Invention of the Movies: 1891-1918 with a piano score and a few comments from film scholars which precede the film.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

The Unbeliever at imdb.com

Visages d’enfants (1925) Faces of Children

visages d'enfants (faces of children) film review

A few French filmmakers in the early twenties utilized rapid-fire editing montage techniques that would later be taken up by Russian filmmakers, most notably Sergei Eisenstein. The earliest example I’ve yet to see is Marcel L’Herbier’s El Dorado (1921). Abel Gance’s La roue (1923) took the technique even further. Jacques Feyder’s Visages d’enfants, which was begun in 1923 but not released until 1925 due to a conflict with a distribution company, also opens with a visually arresting montage sequence before settling, like the other films mentioned, into a more conventional storytelling style. The story is about a young boy who has a difficult time adjusting to to his father’s remarriage after the death of his mother. His father and new stepmother are insensitive to the boy’s profound and unresolved grief. His resentment grows when he is moved to a shabby back room in the house while his new sister is given a nicely decorated room. He breaks down crying when he sees his stepmother wearing his mother’s brooch and spitefully destroys one of his mother’s old dresses when the stepmother decides she’ll make new dresses for her daughter with the material. Eventually the boy’s resentment leads to near-tragic consequences. The film is beautifully photographed in the Swiss Alps and its realism and naturalistic acting, especially by Jean Forest, who played the boy, make the film feel more modern than other films from the era. The DVD is one of a set of three from Image Entertainment featuring outstanding restorations of films by Jacques Feyder and includes an exquisite newly commissioned score which complements the story and atmosphere perfectly.  

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

Visages d’enfants at imdb.com

As of December, 2016 Visages d’enfants is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.com.

La roue (1923)

la roue film review

Akira Kurosawa: “The first film that really impressed me was La roue.”

Jean Cocteau: “There is the cinema before and after La roue as there is painting before and after Picasso.”

French director Abel Gance is probably best known for his epic 1927 film Napoleon. After the international success of his 1919 anti-war film J’accuse, Gance was considered one of the finest and most innovative directors in France and possibly in the world. With the financial backing of the Pathé studio he embarked on La roue (The Wheel), which took three years to complete and in its original form ran for seven and a half to nine hours (sources disagree). During the production Gance was deeply affected by the fact that his companion Ida Danis was dying of tuberculosis and his friend and lead actor in the film, Séverin-Mars, was also severely ill. Both died shortly after shooting completed. Like Erich von Stroheim, Gance insisted on authenticity which meant sets were built on location; railroad yards for the first half of the film and on Mount Blanc in the French Alps for the second half though the decision to shoot in the Alps has been attributed to Ida’s need for alpine air.

The film is notable for its groundbreaking cinematic techniques, especially the use of of rapid montage which was studied and implemented by Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Pudovkin et al at the Moscow Academy. It appears that Gance was the first filmmaker to utilize this technique in order to represent an extreme state of mind or build tension though the opening Marcel L’Herbier’s 1921 film El Dorado makes similar use of rapid cutting but not to the same degree. The story, however, is a rather maudlin melodrama about a widower railroad engineer, Sisif, who rescues a little girl from a train wreck and finding she has no parents, adopts her as his own. Flash forward fifteen years and the little girl, Norma (played by English actress Ivy Close), is a stunning beauty with whom everyone is in love with including Sisif and his son Elie, who thinks Norma is his sister. Even the four and a half hour version available on the Flicker Alley DVD is a bit of an ordeal to sit through and seems repetitious at times so it’s difficult to imagine how Gance managed to stretch the story into a film almost twice that length in the original cut.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

La roue  at imdb.com

As of October, 2016 La roue is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.

Unseen Forces (1920)

unseen forces film review

The Mayflower Photoplay Company was a small independent production company that produced twelve films, including Unseen Forces, in the three years of its existence from 1919 – 1922. It employed a few directors who would go on to bigger and better things such as Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh, and the director of Unseen Forces, Sidney Franklin. The story is based on the novel Athalie by Robert W. Chambers, whose collection of short stories The King in Yellow is considered by some to be one of the most important works of American supernatural fiction. Unseen Forces is the story of Miriam, a woman born with psychic abilities which enable her to see the future, the past, and the spirit bodies of those who have passed on. Her father owns a tavern near New York where wealthy businessmen come to stay for vacations. One of the businessmen, Robert Brunton, brings his young son, Clyde, to the tavern one summer where he forms a bond with Miriam. The next time they meet they have grown up and they fall in love but due to a misunderstanding, Clyde gets the impression that Miriam is in love with someone else so he leaves on an expedition to Africa in order to forget her. Upon returning he enters into a loveless marriage with a social climber. In the meantime, after her father’s death, Miriam moves to New York City to begin using her abilities to help others though it takes a toll on her health. By coincidence she meets Clyde again and her psychic powers reveal a connection between Clyde’s wife and a man who has been making unwelcome advances towards Miriam. Despite the supernatural element, the story is basically a romance, the genre that Chambers turned to when his supernatural tales ceased to generate sufficient income. Miriam was played by Sylvia Breamer, an Australian stage actress who retired at the beginning of the sound era at the age of 33. Conrad Nagel, who played Clyde, enjoyed a long career in Hollywood, appearing in The Divorcee (1930), and All That Heaven Allows (1955) among many other films.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

Unseen Forces at imdb.com

As of June, 2016, Unseen Forces is available to stream at filmpreservation.org.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola (1913)

the extraordinary adventures of saturnino farandola film review

Marcel Fernández Peréz (1884-1929) was born in Madrid and began his career as a circus clown in Paris. After appearing in a few French comedy films he signed up with Ambrosio Films, an Italian production company, starring in and directing several films. For these films he was known as Robinet but he had many other aliases including Marcel Fabre, Michel Fabre, Fernandea Perez, Tweedy, Tweedledum, and Twede-Dan. Ten of his films, five made in Italy and five in America, were released on DVD in 2015 as The Marcel Perez Collection. In 1913, while still working for Ambrosio Films and according to some sources, Perez released a series of 18 films in serial form based on the 1879 novel The Extraordinary Voyages of Saturnino Farandola, in the Five or Six Parts of the World and in All Countries Known and Unknown to Mr. Jules Verne. Other sources indicate that the work originally appeared as four featurettes. It tells the story of Saturnino Farandola, who as an infant was the only survivor of a shipwreck and drifted to an island where he was raised by monkeys. Eventually he is rescued and has a series of outlandish adventures around the world which include escapades under the ocean and an aerial battle involving hot air balloons. The imaginative way in which these scenes are rendered certainly owes much to the films of Georges Méliès, who made his final film the year previous. Lobster Films restored the surviving material for a 1997 DVD release, editing it into a single 100 minute feature though I’ve read that one of the sections was abridged. As far as I can tell the DVD is no longer available but has been uploaded to YouTube and includes the excellent score. There’s no English translation of the Italian intertitles but the film is still enjoyable even if you don’t always understand what’s going on.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola at imdb.com


Gipsy Anne (1920)

gipsy anne 1920 film review

Gipsy Anne (Norwegian title: Fante-Anne) is a landmark in Norwegian cinema because it was the first Norwegian film to utilize a professional Norwegian cast and crew. Previously, Norwegian films had been made by Danish and Swedish filmmakers and professional Norwegian stage actors had been prohibited from working in films by theatre companies. It was also the directorial debut of Rasmus Breistein who is considered the most important Norwegian director from the silent era.

Breistein also wrote the screenplay, his first, which is based on a story by Norwegian writer Kristofer Janson. The story concerns an orphan girl, Anne, who grows up on a farm where she is taken in after the death of her transient mother when she was still a baby. When she grows up a love triangle forms with her stepbrother, Haldor, and Jon, the farmhand who found her when she was an infant. Haldor proposes to Anne but his mother objects due to Anne’s being a girl of “unknown origin” which makes for a compelling drama with performances that are surprisingly naturalistic considering the era. The ending, however, is a bit too pat and seems uncharacteristic for Scandinavian cinema. Anne as a woman is played by Norwegian actress Asta Nielsen who is not the internationally famous Danish actress who shared the same name.

The film features beautiful Norwegian landscapes and carefully composed, painterly scenes.  The camera work is years ahead of most films made in 1920. A series of romantic melodramas utilizing natural landscapes ensued, mostly directed by Breistein,  which came to typify Norwegian silent cinema. The new restoration by the Norwegian Film Institute available on Blu-Ray is immaculate and the orchestral score composed for this edition enhances the film immensely.

★★★★★★★★☆☆ (8/10)

Gipsy Anne at imdb.com

As of April, 2016 Gipsy Anne is available on Blu-Ray from Amazon.com

Lāčplēsis (1930)

Lāčplēsis film review

Latvia is a European country on the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Estonia. This film was made to commemorate the Latvian victory over the German-White Russian army on November 11, 1919. To this day Latvians celebrate November 11th as Lāčplēsis Day. The film begins with a dramatization of Lāčplēsis, a Latvian epic poem written in the 19th Century based on local legends depicting the struggle of the hero Lāčplēsis to free heroine Laimdota from the evil Black Knight. In the poem both the hero and villain drown in a river and it is said they would continue to  fight one another until Lāčplēsis defeats the Black Knight at which time Latvia will be a free nation.  The film then jumps to the 20th Century and Latvia’s struggle against occupying Russian and German forces from 1905 to 1919. The same actors who played the characters in opening section also play their character’s reincarnations in the modern story. For instance, the Black Knight becomes an evil German officer. A struggle over the possession of a magical brooch that began in the medieval story also plays a part in the modern story. Interestingly, the brooch is decorated with swastikas though this had nothing to do with Nazism as it is a symbol used by many ancient cultures. The film is silent and utilizes lighting techniques from German Expressionist cinema and editing techniques from Eisenstein. The fluid camera work and artistic compositions make this film much more visually appealing than most early sound films. However, the extreme vilification of Germans and glorification of Latvians lends a somewhat cartoonish aspect.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

Lāčplēsis at imdb

As of December, 2015, Lāčplēsis is available on YouTube but there are no English subtitles. However, a good synopsis of the plot is available at LatvianHistory.com. I found the score rather annoying and ended up turning it off and listening to other music.

Traffic in Souls (1913)

traffic in souls film review

Released at the height of the “White Slavery” panic, Traffic in Souls was the first in a series of films to capitalize on the sensationalism caused by reformers’ exaggerated claims that tens of thousands of young girls were being forced into a life of prostitution by criminal organizations. The real reasons women turned to prostitution had more to do with low wages, high housing costs, and a lack of educational and job training opportunities for young women in the early 20th Century. The reformers were also concerned by the upward mobility of young women who were living on their own without parental guidance and the rise of a dating culture where men and women mixed freely unchaperoned. They warned that sex traffickers lurked around dance halls, cinemas, etc. waiting for an opportunity to kidnap young girls and imprison them in a brothel. The film shows how this was supposedly done and like the reformers, suggests that the solution is to catch the crooks and send them to jail. Besides being extremely popular, the film was also very controversial and banned in many cities. The film industry was concerned about its image and had formed the National Board of Review in 1909 in response to the revocation of moving-picture exhibition licenses by New York City Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. who believed films were morally degrading. By self-regulation the industry sought to avoid governmental censorship. Though the Board passed Traffic in Souls after eliminations were made and citing its “educational” purposes by 1916 they refused to pass any films concerned with the theme of white slavery. This ban was continued by the Motion Picture Production Code which remained in effect until 1968.

Traffic in Souls is one of the first American feature length films and the first American feature film not based on a preextisting literary or dramatic work. It can also probably be considered the first feature length police procedural and exploitation film. In regards to the filmmaking style for the most part the camera is stationary and all scenes shot from the same angle. The acting is relatively naturalistic for 1913 though the female leads tend to be over the top while attempting to convey distress. Director George Loane Tucker adopts D.W. Griffith’s cross-cutting technique to keep things lively and build suspense. Many scenes were shot on location in New York City including Ellis Island.  The film’s commercial success wasn’t lost on Cecil B. DeMille who made a fortune directing titillating films about immoral behavior that were cloaked in the guise of moral edification.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

Traffic in Souls at imdb

As of December, 2015 Traffic in Souls is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.

Rojo no reikion (1921)

Rojo no reikion film review

Considered a landmark in Japanese cinema, Rojô no reikion or Souls on the Road, as it is referred to in English, is based on Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths (which was also adapted by Akira Kurosawa in his 1957 film Donzoko) and Mutter Landstrasse, das Ende einer Jugend by Wilhelm August Schmidtbonn. It is a combination of three stories: a failed violinist with his wife and daughter returning on foot from Tokyo to their village, two ex-convicts also traveling to the same village, and a young rich girl of the village who falls in love with the servant of the violinist’s father. Director Minoru Murata seems to have been influenced by D.W. Griffith’s cross cutting technique as the narrative jumps quickly from story to story. He also makes frequent use of flashback sequences and scenes that depict what a character is imagining. The main focus is on the violinist and his father’s refusal to forgive him for leaving home which is perhaps drawn out a little too long. In the end the three stories converge, one of them ending in tragedy and the other two more happily. Murata, who plays the young girl’s love interest in the film, would direct 36 films in his career. He died in 1937, age 43.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

Rojô no reikion at imdb.

As of November, 2015 Rojô no reikion is available on YouTube with English subtitles.