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The Launch of H.M.S. Albion (1898)

 |  Short, News  |  1898 (UK)
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Real-Life Disaster Film
16 January 2008 | by See all my reviews

This is a remarkable film. In it, Robert W. Paul captured a genuine tragedy--one of the earliest such instances in the history of news film. Originally, Paul planned to film an ordinary news, or actuality, film of the launch of a battleship, the H.M.S. Albion, which the Duchess of York christened. The majority of films at this time were such actualitiés--motion pictures were mainly a news source, or, rather, a visual elaboration to the print media. Indeed, at least two other film crews joined Paul in filming this event. During the launch of the ship, a stage holding sightseers collapsed, which dropped hundreds into the Thames River and ended 34 lives.

Paul's film, "The Launch of H.M.S. Albion" (otherwise known as "Disaster"), doesn't capture the instant of the stage collapse, nor even a very good shot of the launch of the battleship. One of the other filmmakers there that day E.P. Prestwich, for the Prestwich Manufacturing Company, did, however, capture an outstanding view of the launch, from an altitude of 150 feet and a considerable distance to encompass the entire ship within the frame as it slid into the river. John Barnes has reprinted several frames from this film in his third volume of "The Beginnings of the Cinema in England 1894-1901". (EDIT: The BFI has now put Prestwich's film on the web, including at Youtube.) The catastrophe barely escaped the camera's view, though. The other film producer known to have been at Blackwall that day was Birt Acres, who is said to have had two cameras to cover the event.

Paul's film includes four shots, which makes it one of the earliest multi-shot films. Although not the first multi-shot film, as James White, for instance, had already experimented with multi-shot actualitiés, and Paul had produced what has been credited as the earliest multi-shot fiction film the same year as this film with "Come Along Do!", "The Launch of H.M.S. Albion" is nevertheless an elaborately constructed film for its time. As Stephen Bottomore pointed out in "Shots in the Dark – The Real Origins of Film Editing", some of the earliest edited films were nonfiction actualitiés, which would require the filmmaker to momentarily stop filming and, perhaps, change camera positions in order to keep their non-staged (that is, at least, not primarily staged for the camera) subjects interesting and within frame. Additionally, these longer actuality films were generally available to exhibitors in segments, which allowed them to edit their own programs, as well as to keep costs down. Indeed, the Warwick Trading Company made this 80-feet long film available to exhibitors in 40-feet halves.

The film begins with a moving shot from a motorboat of the battleship. The second shot is of a woman on the boat, who may be Paul's wife and who probably appeared in many of Paul's films, although this is uncertain. The third shot is of rescue efforts. The final shot shows a man pointing at the camera, and it seems that someone else is waving their hand in front of the camera. It seems these people, who are trying to save people from the waters, are agitated by the camera's presence.

The last shot of the film points to an interesting controversy over the ethics of filming such a tragedy. In today's media, we are accustomed to such coverage and generally accept it as ethical and desired. Television news is based on such coverage. The coverage of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 has been the most poignant example, but also such events as the Hindenburg disaster. Additionally, we are used to television coverage of natural disasters, wars and other tragic events, which often are not so much of a surprise. This type of coverage has its beginnings in the fire genre of early films, most of which were actuality films covering or even chasing firemen as they chased down and put out blazing buildings.

In 1898, the filming and especially the exhibition of disaster footage were unprecedented. Thus, it was that Paul's film met with some controversy. The main attacker of Paul's role was Acres, who, as aforementioned, was one of the three producers known to be at the event. Underneath the attacks was Acres history with Paul, as he had invented a camera with Paul, and together they were England's earliest native filmmakers and producers--making such films as the popular "Rough Sea at Dover" (1895). Their relationship ended acrimoniously, though, and the controversy here wasn't the first time the two had a public spat.

In a letter to the "Daily Chronicle" (reprinted by Barnes), Acres wrote: "Having come to my knowledge that someone had taken an animated photograph of the poor sufferers struggling in the water, I wish to dissociate myself in the most emphatic manner from the producers of these photographs; and further, I have decided to suppress my films of the launch." Paul responded by claiming that he assisted in the rescue of 25 submerged persons, and that his filming didn't interfere with the rescue efforts. He also said that a collection was made for the sufferers of the disaster at the film's exhibition on June 22, the day after the disaster, and that he hoped similar donations would result from his sending the film to local exhibitors.

On a final note, this film has only recently resurfaced; when Barnes wrote about the film in 1983, it was presumed lost. More than a decade after making the film, when Paul ceased film production, he destroyed the negatives to his films. Since then, the British Film Institute, presumably with a print handed down from one of those local exhibitors, has released this film on DVD as part of a collection of Paul's surviving films.


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