The hunt for a lost Anzac film

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Much of our knowledge of the conflict in World War I is based on images captured by early filmmakers such as Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, who was portrayed by James Callis in the TV miniseries Gallipoli.More Big Picture columnsMovie session timesFull movies coverage

A middle-aged woman stands on the deck of a ship, holding a bunch of flowers, unsmiling and implacable. She has a wide black hat, matching her black dress. It is a mourning outfit. She is one of a group who took part in the St Barnabas pilgrimage voyages to Gallipoli in 1926 and 1927. We don’t know which year these images are from. Until recently, we didn’t even know what film this was from, but it has a striking power to evoke the grief that engulfed Australia after World War I.

The Armistice had been in place for 10 years when  this unidentified woman went halfway around the world to remember her loved one, at great expense. He may have been her husband or her son. The now famous words “We will remember them” could hardly be more potently evoked.

I came across this woman, a few seconds of footage, six years ago when researching the World War I films held by the Australian War Memorial. I spent a year delving into the dozen or so films, about which little is known. All of that work – practically a book –  appears on a government-funded website for schools, Australian Screen Online, with detailed notes and clips of the films (aso.gov419论坛). I solved a few questions but one that held out was the origin of the so-called “AH Noad film”, a silent compilation running 64 minutes, sold to the war memorial in 1939 by a Mr A. H. Noad, a film technician. No-one knew the origin of this compilation beyond the obvious: there was a lot of World War I footage, including images from Gallipoli after the war, the first Anzac marches, the St Barnabas pilgrimages and some of Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett’s footage, shot during the Gallipoli campaign, from July to October 1915.

Bartlett was a high-flying British war correspondent who was commissioned by London impresario Sir Alfred Butt to shoot images of the campaign for use in Britain. That footage was shown there in January 1916 and later in Australia. It is often described as the only motion picture footage taken during the battle, but that’s probably wrong, for reasons I will explain.

I was looking into a feature film called Spirit of Gallipoli, made in 1928. Using Trove, the digital database that allows you to search Australian newspapers, I came across references to another film from 1928 called Gallipoli. This was a compilation by an Australian film-maker named Arthur Tinsdale, who went to England in 1923 and had some success there with Australian films, including footage of cricket tests. Tinsdale’s Gallipoli was shown around Australia in the winter of 1928, but it appeared to be lost. The National Film and Sound Archive held a fragment, which includes titles and 10 minutes of footage, but this was a feature-length documentary about the conflict. In fact, it was the first long-form attempt at telling the story in factual terms, even though the term documentary barely existed. Surely this would be preserved somewhere: how could it not be?

The newspaper reviews on Trove sounded familiar. Some descriptions matched footage in the Noad film. The conclusion was obvious: Noad might be Tinsdale’s Gallipoli, minus the name title. About this time, I had a call from Michael Kosmider, then a film preservation officer at the War Memorial. He was researching the Ashmead-Bartlett film himself. In fact, he had already found several new fragments from that film, and some were in Noad. I mentioned my theory that Noad was actually Tinsdale’s Gallipoli. A few days later, he came back after looking up correspondence files at the AWM. This is where it got really interesting.

There were more than 400 pages of correspondence, dating mostly from 1926 to 1929, in which Tinsdale tried to get the War Memorial to help him with his proposed film, without success. Crucially, the papers included a detailed plan for the film with titles. The first two titles on that list corresponded word for word with the first two titles on the Noad film. Other references took it beyond doubt. Noad is Tinsdale’s Gallipoli, or a version of same.

I was chuffed, but where did that get us? Well, in the three years since we made that discovery, Kosmider has gone further. He believes he has found another four to six minutes of previously unacknowledged Ashmead-Bartlett footage. That isn’t just significant. If he’s right, he has extended our knowledge of one of the most culturally significant pieces of film the nation possesses. What’s more, he believes there is also Turkish and French footage.

The original 1916 cinema compilation of Ashmead-Bartlett’s footage was re-edited in 1919 by the founder of the war memorial, Charles Bean, who wrote new titles, some of them wrong. Military historians have long argued about what this edited footage shows. Tinsdale probably worked from a copy of the same 1916 assembly that Bean did, but he chose different bits to leave in or out. That 1916 cut is now lost; what we have left is Bean’s re-edit. Now, Kosmider believes he has found a lot more of Ashmead-Bartlett’s original – a startling discovery.  And by identifying the Tinsdale Gallipoli, we can start to think about reconstructing the first feature-length Australian documentary about Gallipoli and trying to find out what it shows – like the identity of the woman in black.

Tinsdale is largely forgotten in Australian film history. Having reached Gallipoli’s 100-year anniversary, it’s time we changed that.

Twitter: @ptbyrnes


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