The Camera in the Crowd: The opening reels of NZ's film history

by Russell Baillie / 12 February, 2018
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Christopher Pugsley's The Camera in the Crowd is a definitive history of how moving pictures arrived in Aotearoa.

There wasn’t a lot of comedy in New Zealand film’s first 25 years. Back then, it seems, the dominant movie genres were marching, waving and, on the bigger productions, marching and waving.

But historian Christopher Pugsley’s The Camera in the Crowd, a daunting, definitive and interactive history of how moving pictures first arrived in Aotearoa – before heading off to war – does manage occasional amusements.

The episode titled “Germans sabotage McDonald’s Masterton filming?” tells of when official government cameraman James McDonald headed to a patriotic carnival in the Wairarapa town in 1916. As he began to shoot, the film in his movie camera jammed. By the time he cleared the jam, the parade had passed. No worries, said the local officials. They made the parade do another lap. His camera jammed again. He fixed it. Off they paraded. And on it went.

Eventually, filming was abandoned and McDonald went home to Wellington. He complained to the local Kodak agent about the faulty film. The official explanation? The stock had probably been tampered with by American factory workers with German sympathies. Their apparent sabotage denied Masterton’s day in the celluloid sun.

Had McDonald’s camera worked, there would have been another undoubtedly great local marching-and-waving flick to drag folks into the picture theatres, which were a booming business during World War I. But as with so many films of that era, the chances of its survival in the decades after would have been slim.

As the book explains, it was McDonald’s eventual job at the Dominion Museum to catalogue and store the small mountain of films made about New Zealand’s efforts during WWI. It was a task he had little time to do, and there were no German saboteurs to blame for his failings. In the 1920s, the films were transferred to the care of the then Publicity Department – and lost forever.

The New Zealand-related films of WWI now at the national film archive, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision, have been largely drawn from overseas collections, including Gallipoli footage Pugsley himself discovered in English and French archives.

At first glance, this book, produced in association with Ngā Taonga and a threat to flimsier coffee tables, may seem more like a catalogue than a popular history. Its 509 pages, including a foreword by well-known local-film history buff Sir Peter Jackson, are divided into 22 chapters, a third of which deal with the Great War.

But there’s an extra element. Most of the films described come with search codes to enable readers to view them online at Ngā Taonga. A few codes link to other archives, such as the Australian War Memorial, and Pathé or YouTube.

The combination makes for a rewarding experience, a desktop museum visit of sorts. It’s quietly addictive watching the clips after reading Pugsley’s meticulous accounts of what they show, who shot what and, in the case of the WWI films, what the blokes in the lemon-squeezers were actually thinking that day when they were smiling for the camera.

The writer’s many books suggest he’s most in his element during the war years, especially at Gallipoli. Here, Pugsley recounts how the campaign was reported on, including the story of official New Zealand war correspondent Malcolm Ross, whose dispatches the Massey Government wouldn’t cover the cost of cabling home, even though he was embedded with Kiwi troops.

Elsewhere, though, Pugsley delivers many intriguing stories of how the movies first took hold in pre-war New Zealand and of the pioneers of making and exhibiting them here. They include those showbiz hustlers the Salvation Army, whose Perry’s Biorama Limelight programme dominated the growing market until 1905 with a mix of newsreels and dramas such as Edwin S Porter’s early western The Great Train Robbery.

Inevitably, his accounts of early films made here include ones capturing our scenic wonders, though Masterton misses out again. But there are reels of fishing adventures (including whaling in Cook Strait), early aviation, sports and visits by royals.

Illustrated with a mix of stills and film frame grabs, The Camera in the Crowd is a mostly monotone volume of crisp design. Throughout the pages, the right-hand margin carries a flip-book of images of a WWI military march-past, though the natural inclination to flip from the back of the heavy tome has the troops beating a hasty retreat.

But that’s a minor flaw in a book that, though it’s about many small, mostly forgotten films, adds up to an impressive historical epic that trains a long lens on our past.

The Camera in the Crowd: Filming New Zealand in Peace and War 1895-1920, by Christopher Pugsley (Oratia Books $80) 

Christopher Pugsley is appearing at the Writers & Readers section of the New Zealand Festival, Wellington, March 8-11.

This article was first published in the January 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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