A few requirements for the age-old business of empire-building: money, powerful military and naval forces, medicine, infrastructure projects, and more recently, films to convey how fantastic all of the above are. Offering a kind of Imperial IMDb, Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire features complete credits, detailed synopses (some from the British Film Institute’s Monthly Film Bulletin), and historical and textual analyses for 6,000-plus films—150 of them available to watch online. Among the filmmakers are giants of British documentary like John Grierson, Basil Wright, and Paul Rotha.
Made between 1895 and 1997, these predominantly silent films remain indelible even for someone who’s not writing their Ph.D. on the Warwickshire Yeomanry in Palestine. They functioned as propaganda, instruction, ethnography, or all three for audiences from Naruru to Newfoundland, and endure as rare and valuable records of the countries and cultures on display. You can view Nigeria’s sprawling independence celebrations in 1960, and contrast them with Fiji’s fawning goodbye-to-Britain ceremony 10 years later. (Spoiler: on both occasions, the Queen sends a less important relative to represent her.)
Some of the collection’s most intriguing works are fictional. Gordon Hale’s 27-minute Mr. English at Home (40) shows the routines of a nondescript English working-class family in England, apparently leaving Gold Coast audiences stunned that “Mrs. English” didn’t have a staff of servants at her beck and call. The accompanying text on the website discusses a fascinating essay, “Films for Primitive Peoples,” by the head of the Colonial Film Unit. The tract advocates the use of extremely long takes, no reverse angles, and no close-ups—the better to ensure comprehension by supposedly inferior audiences.