If You Revere Film Pioneers, You’ll Revere the Film Pioneers of ‘Secrets of Nature’

[27 July 2010]

By Scott Jordan Harris

Secrets of Nature collects the 19 films released under that title by Harry Bruce Woolfe’s British Instructional Films between 1922 and 1933. Animal, plant and insect life from air, sea and sky are all examined and explained in a series of succinct and painstakingly composed short films (of between nine and 17-minutes in length) that were, as the subtitle of this DVD suggests, pioneering works of natural history filmmaking.

As Tim Booth notes in his excellent introductory essay in the excellent introductory booklet that is this DVD’s only real extra, these were not the first British natural history films. The science films funded by Charles Urban (which included Francis Marin Duncan’s Cheese Mites, a film that famously amazed and disturbed London audiences soon after the turn of the century) essentially created the genre 20 years before the first in Woolfe’s Secrets of Nature series.

What the Secrets of Nature series did was to take natural history films further than before, extending their scope and capabilities, and—through regular appearances on theatrical schedules – making them part of what British audiences of the time expected to see in cinemas.

They therefore did much to establish in the UK the tradition of high-profile, high-quality natural history filmmaking that Sir David Attenborough – one of modern Britain’s greatest gifts to the world – would take to such awesome heights in the second half of the 20th Century and into the 21st. The insurmountable hurdle for Secrets of Nature is that we are now too accustomed to those awesome films by Attenborough et al, to take anything but detached historical interest in Harry Bruce Woolfe’s films.

One of the first phrases I noted down for use in this review was ‘that are… pioneering works of natural history filmmaking’. I changed that ‘are’ to ‘were’, and the alteration is significant. These were pioneering films made by pioneering filmmakers who, like all pioneers of the past, deserve respect and recognition, and perhaps even reverence. Equally, the BFI’s efforts to restore and release these films are admirable, and similar projects are to be encouraged. However, the films are of limited appeal today.

Viewers of natural history films generally want, as the cliché has it, ‘to see Mother Nature in all her glory’. The unavoidable downside to the Secrets of Nature films is that, in them, Mother Nature’s glory is drastically diminished. They do not show all of it; in fact, they are often incapable of showing most of it. Many of these films are silent, which prevents them capturing a significant portion of their subjects’ glory, and all of them are black and white, which prevents them capturing even more of it.

If the viewer watches these films in the order they appear on the DVD, the first to be seen is 1922’s Fathoms Deep Beneath the Sea. An intertitle announces ‘In the thickets of Sea Weed the gaily coloured Wrasse conceals himself’. In the few seconds of footage that follow, the Wrasse is naturally not seen to be gaily coloured; he’s scarcely seen at all. He is only a grey and black oblong beneath a block of black leaves. Added to this is (what to modern viewers feels like) the ‘falseness’ of the image: it is obviously shot from outside a fish tank. As a passionately committed fan of silent film, and a partially committed technophobe, it is painful for me to admit it, but a better nature film would result from somebody holding an iPhone up to an aquarium. 

When we revisit, for example, the Charlie Chaplin films that are contemporaneous to Secrets of Nature it is because, though they are now technologically primitive, their chief attraction—the quality of the comedy and the entertainment it provides—is undimmed. Chaplin’s films are undiminished by the rapid technological development that followed them. (Indeed, his comedy is superior to all that made by contemporary talents, regardless of the immense technology they can employ.)  We turn to comedy films when we want to laugh, and The Little Tramp still amuses.

We turn to natural history films when we want to be amazed, informed and overwhelmed by the beauty of the living world. The Secrets of Nature films no longer satisfy in that way. Dependent as they are upon cutting-edge technologies and techniques, they look now irreparably outdated. Their appeal exists only as that of historical curios. It is like the quaintness and admirableness of a long-outdated map. I have great enthusiasm for old maps, but I wouldn’t use one to navigate by.

These are difficult films to rate numerically. Considered by the most narrow definition of what they are—very early and therefore very limited black and white science shorts from the ‘20s and ’30s—they are as good as they could be. Indeed, they are a great deal better than anyone viewing their first runs could ever have expected. So, by that measure, they deserve full marks.

Considered by a slightly broader definition, as simply natural history films, it is only residual affection for their significance to the development of their genre that would today push their score as high as three or four out of ten. Considered solely in the even broader category of DVDs that many people will want to buy and find rewarding to watch and re-watch, this release would score even lower than that.
 
Ultimately, these are films of enormous interest—but only to those who are enormously interested in the early development of natural history filmmaking. It seems unlikely that anyone else would want to pay for, or sit through, all three hours and 20-minutes of them.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/128781-secrets-of-nature-pioneering-natural-history-films/