Film and the Historian

IUHFC: A Short History

To understand the Inter-University History Film Consortium we must consider the contexts in which the organization emerged. In the late 1960s the teaching of film in British universities was in its infancy. In 1960 Thorold Dickinson, the acclaimed director of such feature films as Gaslight (1940), Men of Two Worlds (1946) and Queen of Spades (1948), took up appointment as Britain’s first Professor of Film at the Slade School of Fine Art where he taught courses on film and set up the Slade Film History Register. This was intended as a central record of film material likely to be of interest to historians in the same way as the National Register of Archives had done for manuscript and printed sources. Around the same time there were the first signs that professional historians were starting to take an interest in film.

The year 1968 was something of an annus mirabilis for the study of film and history in Britain. This year witnessed the founding of the Inter-University History Film Consortium by J.A.S. Grenville and Nicholas Pronay at the University of Leeds; the re-launch of the British Universities Film Council’s journal under the new title University Vision, with the first issue dedicated to the use of film for teaching and research in modern history; and the landmark conference on ‘Film and the Historian’ held at University College, London, in April 1968. This conference brought together for the first time professional groups including historians (including A.J.P. Taylor, Grenville, Pronay and Paul Smith), film makers (Thorold Dickinson, Sir Arthur Elton, Andrew Mollo) and archivists (Ernest Lindgren of the National Film Archive). The outcome of the conference was the establishment of the University Historians’ Film Committee ‘with the aim of co-ordinating and promoting activities relating to the use of film (together with still photographs and sound recordings) for historical research and teaching’.

The late 1960s, then, was a moment of critical mass in the emergence of what became known as the ‘film and history’ movement in Britain. The UCL conference was followed by others in a similar vein including ‘Archive Film in the Study and Teaching of Twentieth Century History’ at the Imperial War Museum (June 1972) and ‘Film Study’ at the University of Warwick (December 1976). These conferences were followed by a number of publications engaging with the methodological issues of using film in teaching and research, particularly Paul Smith’s The Historian and Film (1976). By the late 1970s the film and history movement had become international as scholars from the United States and Europe came together to form the International Association for Media and History (IAMHIST) in 1977. In 1981 IAMHIST launched the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, which is recognized as the leading scholarly forum for the publication of research in this field. By this stage film history had become established as an academic discipline and the intellectual agenda had shifted from understanding the nature of film as a primary source to researching the history of the institution of cinema in its own right. This was also marked by a shift of interest from actuality film, newsreels and documentaries, to the commercial feature film, exemplified by such publications as K.R.M. Short’s Feature Films as History (1981) and Pierre Sorlin’s The Film in History (1979).

So what contribution did the IUFHC make to the study of film and history? It was one of two organizations - the second being The Open University, founded in 1969 - that did most to legitimate and popularize the use of film and other audio-visual material in the classroom. This took the form principally of archive film compilations, drawing especially upon the resources of the commercial newsreel libraries. The IUFHC’s membership comprized the history departments of several universities including Leeds, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Reading, London (Queen Mary College), Wales (University College Swansea) and the London School of Economics. Each member of the consortium made a financial contribution and provided varying levels of technical resource. Each member university nominated two historians to the executive committee of the consortium from whom a chairman was elected. The committee decided on which films should be produced and agreed the budget. This arrangement resulted in the production of nine ‘Historical Studies in Film’ - The Munich Crisis (University of Leeds, 1968); The End of Illusions: From Munich to Dunkirk (University of Leeds, 1970); The Spanish Civil War (University of Edinburgh, 1973); The Winter War in its European Context (Universities of Nottingham and Bristol, 1974); The Great Depression (University College, Swansea, 1975); Fascism (London School of Economics and Political Science, ); A Call to Arms (University of Leeds, 1985); Images of the Soviet Union at War 1941-1945 (University of Liverpool, 1990); The Collectivisation of Soviet Agriculture 1927-1935 (University of Birmingham, 1996) - and seven ‘Archive Series’ on Neville Chamberlain (University of Leeds, 1975); The Origins of the Cold War (University of Nottingham, 1977); Stanley Baldwin (Queen Mary College, London, 1979); Our Great Ally France 1938-1940 (University of Liverpool, 1985); The Korean War 1950-1953 (University of Birmingham, 1992); Images of America 1937-1939 (College of Ripon and York St John, 1996) and The Labour Party 1918-1945 (Edge Hill University College, 1999). The subjects reflected both the availability of archive materials at the time and the interests of historians in the key geopolitical events of the mid-twentieth century. The films on Munich and Chamberlain, for example, exemplified the emergence of a revisionist historical perspective on the foreign policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany.

The IUFHC’s ‘Historical Studies in Film’ represented one of three main types of historical film for the teaching of history: the continuous narrative archive compilation film. They might be compared to long newsreels, with the important caveat that the commentary served to draw attention to the nature of the images themselves and to prompt viewers to consider their provenance and ideological intent. A second type of film, exemplified by the compilations produced for the Open University’s twentieth century history courses such as ‘War and Society’, were those made without a linking commentary and serving the same purpose as collections of printed documents. The third type of film, and the one that will be more familiar to most viewers, is the combination of archive film and on-camera interviews with participants exemplified by television series such as the BBC’s The Great War (1964) and Thames Television’s The World at War (1973). These are made for the general television audience rather than for the classroom, of course, though the production team of The World at War under Jeremy Isaacs undertook extensive research in the archives, preferring actuality footage to newsreel compilations wherever possible. The technique popularized by series like The World at War has become the dominant form of historical programming for television. Today, the ready availability of much documentary and newsreel material on DVD and the World Wide Web has made the type of compilation films produced by the IUHFC redundant as teaching tools. In a sense they have themselves become historical documents - documents that can tell us a great deal about how historians have interpreted the visual image and that provide insights into a period before home video and the Internet made the audio visual archive accessible to the general public.

Prof. James Chapman
University of Leicester


Further reading

Aldgate, Anthony, ‘Film as a Primary Source’, introduction to Cinema and History: British Newsreels and the Spanish Civil War (London: Scolar Press, 1979), pp.1-16. Film and the Historian (London: British Universities Film Council in association with the University Historians’ Film Committee, 1968)

  • Grenville, J.A.S., Film as History (Birmingham: University of Birmingham, 1971)
  • Houston, Penelope, Keepers of the Frame: The Film Archives (London: British Film Institute, 1994)
  • Richards, Jeffrey, Thorold Dickinson: The Man and His Films (London: Croom Helm, 1986)
  • Smith, Paul (ed.), The Historian and Film (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976)
  • Short, K.R.M. (ed.), Feature Films as History (London: Croom Helm, 1981)
  • Sorlin, Pierre, The Film in History: Restaging the Past (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980)