Making The March

Today’s post is from Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which is responsible for performing conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives. Recently, she completed a digital restoration of The March (306.765).

On August 10th, 1963 The U.S. Government, under the auspices of the United States Information Agency (USIA), tasked Hearst Metrotone News with crafting a documentary covering The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the landmark civil rights event planned for the end of that month.  The agency tentatively titled the film that would become The March “The Time Is Now” and specified that it should be three reels (approximately 30 minutes) of 35mm black and white film.  As stated in the contract, the “specific objectives of the Picture are to portray the dramatic events of the August 28th Demonstration… as a living force in American democracy, and to present in depth… a responsible, Nationwide effort on the part of major civil rights organizations…. in order to arouse the conscience of a nation to the need of Congressional legislation on the civil rights issue.”


Still from The March (Local Identifier: 306.765)

To undertake the direction of this momentous film, Hearst and the USIA enlisted James Blue, previously known for his critical success with Olive Trees of Justice (1962) and The School at Rincon Santo (1963).  The USIA required that the film of the March be made up entirely of original footage and that synchronized sound be used as little as possible to facilitate worldwide distribution in a variety of languages.  A rough cut was to be delivered on September 3rd, only six days after the event, with a final cut expected on September 5th.  The release prints would be rolling off the processors by December 3rd, 1963.  The USIA budgeted a total of $50,000 for the completed production.

With these requirements, James Blue went out with fourteen sound and cameramen split into seven teams.  They garnered footage from New York, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Atlanta, Texas, Chicago, and Washington D.C.  Over the course of three days they shot 59,795 feet of film– more than 11 hours of material.  Ultimately, the footage was edited down to 3,021 feet and a runtime of 33 minutes.

James Blue personally undertook the task of going through all of the footage and edited the complete production as we see it today.  He wrote the script and narrated the English, French, and Spanish dialogue.  He created a visually stunning, moving, and arresting documentary of the hope, determination, and camaraderie embodied by the demonstration. All in all, the film came in under budget for a total of forty thousand dollars.

For something that seemed so straightforward, the controversy over The March was intense.  In the fall of 1963, Edward R. Murrow, head of the USIA, was battling cancer and had fallen out of favor with the Johnson administration in part because of his progressive views on civil rights issues.  It was during this time that Murrow, and George Stevens, Jr, chief of the USIA Motion Picture Service, were attempting to move The March into circulation.  Liberals protested that the film was too conservative and did not highlight the disparity between whites and blacks while conservatives argued that the film shouldn’t have been made at all.

Meanwhile, members of the USIA Advisory Committee sparred over the content, the release, the appointment of Carl Rowan as the new director of the USIA, and Rowan’s decision to move forward with distribution of the film.  Committee member Clark Mollenhoff said, “I was not against film clips of the march being distributed abroad because I think USIA should cover the news… But foreign audiences are not sophisticated and we should not advertise our problems.  We are not showing ‘Tobacco Road’ or ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ abroad and we should not have shown this.”  To temper these sorts of reactions, the film was reframed, through press releases and with an introduction to the film by Rowan that focused on the orderliness of The March and the constitutional right of assembly rather than the struggle for civil rights.

Telegrams flew between U.S. Embassies and the USIA as the film was being offered for release.  Several of the telegrams were critical of the film and of the predicted impact.  A telegram from the embassy in Amman Jordan reads, “Team believes “The March” with Rowan introduction excellent film but fails [to] provide sufficient background [on] U.S. civil rights problem for Jordanians who are uninterested [in] this issue.  Furthermore, in view [of the] absence [of the] passage [of] civil rights legislation, the demonstration feature in [the] film will appear to locals to have failed.”  Respondents at the USIA sent telegrams back to various embassies, such as this one to Moscow, reading, “Suggest you consider use of film The March in private showings in order [to] allay interpretation of Civil Rights issue as exclusively ‘negro or anti-negro.’  Film’s footage of substantial white participation in gigantic and orderly demonstration should help straighten record.”

Despite the political and social concerns about The March, its impact was immense, both at the time when shown to international audiences, and again when the film was permitted for release in the U.S.  In 1964 The March was screened at film festivals including the Venice Film Festival and the Tours Film Festival. The film won grand prizes at the Bilbao Film Festival and Cannes.  The Bilbao committee cited its decision to award the film first prize for “Contributing Most to Friendliness and Understanding Between Peoples,” and the Cannes Jury credited the film for its “concentrated rhythm which permitted clear interpretation of the way a powerful peaceful force was used to uphold a general desire for universal justice.”

The March continues to impact audiences today.  The footage is frequently used for academic research  and in television and film productions.  In addition, the National Archives has received numerous requests for public screenings of The March. In preserving and restoring the film, we are honored to be an ongoing component of the work that James Blue, Edward R. Murrow, and George Stevens Jr. began.

The National Archives is premiering the digital restoration of The March at the Archives building in Washington, D.C. at noon August 26th – 28th in the McGowan Theater. The restored version is also available for viewing online. Learn more about how we preserved and restored The March in our next post!

Added 8/22/2013: For information about other federal records relating to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, see the National Archives’ Rediscovering Black History blog.

11 thoughts on “Making The March

  1. Excellent articles on The March, it initial production and on its restoration. I actually have a good 16mm copy with no sound distortions…and have made a good digital copy.
    Back story to my brother’s involvement started with USIS asking him to do a review of a number of scenarios for a film on race relations in U.S…my brother wrote a scathing review essential saying that scenarios in which a middle aged black man living in a white suburb, driving his Chevy to his accounting job, followed by bowling with his white friends would not be believed by anyone in Europe or North Africa where James had experience. The idea of filming The March was born, but I don’t know whether this was James idea, or George Stevens, or it just emerged as an opportunity given that planning for the March was well underway. James was given broad authority and a lot of support but the editing and narration, even the voice, is his.
    I thought this might be of interest.
    Richard Blue

    1. Thank you so much for sharing that wonderful story, Mr. Blue! We always appreciate any more context that can be added to a film, especially when it is one as great as The March. Criss took all of her information for “Making the March” from the production files in our holdings, but clearly, the whole story isn’t always neatly contained in a single file folder. We’ll have to look around to see if we can find your brother’s “scathing review” in the USIA records. It sounds like it would be a great read!

  2. Yes, thank you for that information! I was disappointed that there wasn’t more of your brother’s presence within the production file (it was very cut and dry documentation) and would love to know more about his process and thoughts and vision for the film. I must say that I was particularly impressed with his ability to create something so iconic in the span of a few days after all of the footage was shot. He was clearly very gifted.

  3. I had the good fortune to see James Blue’s film THE MARCH in his non-fiction film history course at SUNY/Buffalo in the fall of 1979. I recall Blue explaining that, to his regret, his cameras lost sync-sound during Martin Luther King’s speech and he therefore had to stay in a long shot of King while editing the footage.
    On another note, James Blue can be seen and heard earlier in the film conducting an audio test.

  4. LC had a film curator (David Parker who died recently)with encyclopedic (with a capital E) knowledge of film and he swore James Blue was quite possibly the most under-appreciated American film director. Parker was a frequent judge at doc festivals and the like) . From seeing several of JB’s films, that sentiment has much merit. Glad to see the film digitally preserved by NARA (alongside the many other worthy titles they painstakingly ensure the survival of).

  5. Hi, Thanks for your interest. I think still have a copy of his report…what would be the best way to convey? In addition to my own experience with James growing up and as adults, I’ve got a lot of material, and I think Gerald O’Grady up in Cambridge has more. Barry Strongen at Harvard is interested in James work. Barry was a student of James at his last job at SUNY Buffalo.

    1. Hi Richard! It was so good to meet you at the screening this week! And thanks for pointing us toward Gerald O’Grady and Barry Strongin! We have been in touch with Barry, who is now a New York-based documentary filmmaker and director of photography, and he has given us some really good information about James Blue’s other films. We look forward to talking with you about the other James Blue films in our holdings.

  6. I heard about this filme while I was in DC this past Wednesday…I read this article and it BLOWS MY MIND……when was it PERMITTED TO BE RELEASED IN THE US? 1986? am I in error? I thought that what was said during the interview….

    1. Hi, Jacob! Thanks for the link to the article about the park ranger standing behind King! You have us intrigued. We’ll see what we can do with the images. We can’t manipulate the image like on TV, but Criss scanned The March from the original negatives at a high resolution, and if there’s anything there, we should be able to zoom in on it. We might not be able to make anything out, but we’ll see what we can do and get back to you!

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