British Pathé shares Holy Land history via YouTube

Newsreel company’s entire archive of 85,000 clips, many filmed before and during Israel’s formative years, now available

Israeli young women are trained to defend the fledgeling country. (courtesy)
Israeli young women are trained to defend the fledgeling country. (courtesy)

Newsreel company British Pathé recently announced it is uploading its entire archive, some 85,000 short film clips and newsreels spanning 1896-1976, onto YouTube. The archive is comprised of film footage offering something of a panoramic view of the twentieth century, replete with moments of interest of international Jewry.

Among footage of some of the century’s most pivotal historical moments are several hundred film-clips and newsreels shot in British Mandate Palestine and what were to be the formative years of the Israeli state. A thorough search of the archive turns up interviews and speeches given by notable Jewish cultural and political figures.

British Pathé general manager Alastair White told The Times of Israel, “We wanted to make the archive available for film and documentary researchers. It’s a wonderful historical and personal resource with something of interest for everyone. It’s one thing to see a photograph of a city or town you lived in, but quite another to see it in moving form. It really brings history alive,” he said.

British Pathé’s hope is that everyone with access to a computer will see and enjoy the films. To the company, uploading the films to YouTube is the best way to make sure their historical significance is not lost.

British Pathé was founded in Paris in 1896  and established in Britain some fourteen years later. The short, informative and often entertaining newsreels they made became a staple part of the cinema-going experience for the British public and are credited with laying the foundation for the modern-day television news format.

The archive, previously available on the company website, is best known for its footage of significant historical, social and cultural events, recording moments such as the Wright Brothers’ first flight, Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon and extensive coverage of the two World Wars. There are also clips of personalities such as Albert Einstein, Muhammad Ali, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. And for those of a more esoteric bent, there is an enormous amount of ephemera and some wonderfully offbeat and quirky material.

Tel Aviv in pre-state British Mandate Palestine (courtesy)
Tel Aviv in pre-state British Mandate Palestine (courtesy)

The footage from Palestine, most of which is in black and white, has the grittiness still apparent in today’s Israel. The street scenes, many of which show the presence of British troops, have an air of familiarity, enhanced by the newsreader’s narration of tension and strife between Jews and Muslims. Despite, or maybe because of these tensions, the newsreels have an air of excitement and are still relevant to a modern audience.

Pathé newsreaders were known for their unique and often lively delivery. In many of the newsreels and films the tone can vary from business-like to casual and from solemn to humorous.

In one film clip, “In Palestine Today,” from 1938, the newsreader is at pains to convey the first-rate job being done by the British army then governing the country. Somewhat overstating the case he recounts, “Britain shows she is master of the situation… The army cleans out the city and restores order… In two days of continuous skirmishing only nine people have been killed!”

A short film about Jerusalem emphasizes the divisions within the city and its centrality and importance to the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths. The camera pans over the walls of the Old City, shows scenes of market-life, some of the city’s holy sites and brings viewers inside a beautifully decorated church. The newsreader propels the viewer along with his fractious tale. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he intones.

Elsewhere there is silent, but striking footage of Israelis building a kibbutz and new immigrants arriving on ships to the Holy Land. A newsreel titled “Israel — Girls Train To Defend” shows women performing vigorous physical exercises while training for the army.

Many of the film clips will be particularly resonant and nostalgic for Israelis, with some scenes evoking bittersweet memories. Despite the best intentions of the Zionist project, many of the ideals for which the new immigrants strived for have not been realized, the majority of kibbutzim have been privatized, and Jerusalem is a de facto divided city.

“What really sets the archive apart is its completeness, as well its quality and style. We get emails from people every day who write us that they have seen people and streets they are familiar with. It’s the small incidents that seem to win people over,” said White.

Previous to the archive’s new YouTube channel anybody wanting use of the company’s footage had to seek copyright permission.

“Most archives are protective,” said White. “Our idea was to put all these films out there for the general public to view.”

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