50 Years Makes a Difference! How Film Research Has Changed Since the 1972 Conference on Audiovisual Archives

You may have heard that the National Archives is partnering with the University of Maryland Cinema and Media Studies Program to present Films of State, an online conference on government-produced moving images (if not, check out my last blog post for more background). What you may not know is that the National Archives sponsored a similar event in 1972, the Conference on the Use of Audiovisual Archives as Original Source Materials, held at the University of Delaware. While there are some similarities between the two events, moving image research has come a long way in the last forty-nine years and so the focus of the conference has shifted to reflect growing accessibility of government films and new research questions about the role of media in the history of 20th Century events and government.

A major change in the last half century is the size of the National Archives’ film holdings, which in 1974 was estimated at 82,000 reels.[1] Now we have more than half a million reels of film, one of the largest collections of film in the world, and it grows every year. In addition, “access” meant something completely different at the time. Researchers for the most part came to Washington, D.C., and viewed prints on machines called Moviolas. Retired motion picture archivist Bill Murphy recently told us that when he arrived at the National Archives in the early 1970s, flammable nitrate-base film copies were still served to researchers. The only way to make a copy would have been to order a new film print from a lab. 

An airman reviews film for editing using a Moviola.
(From First Motion Picture Unit: Army Air Forces, Local Identifier: 342-USAF-19369)

Today, some researchers still watch (non-flammable!) film prints on flatbed editors in our research room, but they also have access to thousands of digitized items in our online catalog. It is easier than ever for researchers to obtain viewing copies of films and make their own copies for further study. Every year, the Moving Image and Sound Preservation Labs digitize thousands of records for which there is not already a film print, video, or file available. Those files are then added to our growing collection of digital reference copies. All of this means that many researchers, no matter where they are in the world, can access a large amount of archival film without ever leaving their homes.

Considering how much more difficult it was to access and study government films in the early 1970s, it is unsurprising that historians were only beginning to think more about how photographs, audio recordings, and moving images could be used as historical evidence. A report in the journal The History Teacher described the 1972 conference sessions in detail.[2] Participants discussed the ways film should be studied and understood, and the limitations of film as a historical text. Those limitations mostly revolved around the practical challenges of using film in a classroom setting. One prescient conference attendee suggested that the coming need for programming on cable channels would lead to more use of the largely non-copyrighted film holdings of the National Archives, a prediction that came true. Today, footage preserved at the National Archives is likely to turn up on almost any television channel, and any number of other creative productions from commercials to major theatrical releases.

The 1972 Conference on the Use of Audiovisual Archives as Original Source Materials was deemed a success by attendees and reviewers alike. Bill Murphy told us that the opportunity for the group to come together and discuss the ideas that had been percolating led to the organization of the Historians Film Committee within the American Historical Association and the International Association for Media and History

National Archives staff inspecting motion picture film, 10/12/1937. (Local Identifier: 64-PR-49-1)

With moving images firmly established as a legitimate form of historical evidence, and access so much simpler than it was fifty years ago, the Films of State conference emphasizes current research and uses rather than considering whether such things are possible. The model for the conference can be seen in the first Orphan Film Symposium in 1999, which brought together scholars, archivists, and creators to watch and study films deemed “orphans.” While NARA’s moving image holdings do not fit the orphan metaphor, which refers to films that have unclear ownership or have suffered from physical neglect or abandonment, the Orphan Film Symposium is undoubtedly responsible for leading more scholars to engage with previously overlooked government film. 

In recent years, we’ve seen a steep increase of scholarly interest in government films, including numerous researchers investigating films made by the United States Information Agency and an entire volume of essays on films made by the United States military.[3] A lot of this can likely be accounted for by the simple fact that digitization has changed the landscape for film research, making it easier to both view and share government films. NARA’s open access policy has not changed, with researchers coming from all over the world and viewing any available film they want with no explanation needed or charge levied. The combination of the two factors meant that when more people became interested in government film, mining for new material was not overly complicated.

Beyond all of that, I believe that moving images produced by the United States government (or any government, really) are a distinct category of study, which I hope the Films of State conference will demonstrate. Government films document the activities of various federal agencies, and they show us what the federal government felt was important to communicate to its citizens–and to audiences around the world– whether it be the best way to eradicate an agricultural pest, the dangers of illegal drugs, or the benefits of democracy.

Most importantly, government films are, as Richard Dyer McCann wrote in 1973, the people’s films.[4] These films belong to all of us, and they should be studied and used. 

Many thanks to Bill Murphy, who recently spoke with me and Heidi Holmstrom about the 1972 conference and other aspects of institutional history. Murphy retired in 2000, but is still writing and publishing. His most recent article is “Nuremberg: A Definitive Survey of the Evidentiary Films,” published in the most recent issue of Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal (Vol. 50, Number 2, Winter 2020, pp. 3-19)

[1] Audiovisual Records in the National Archives of the United States Relating to World War II. Compiled by Mayfield S. Bray and William T. Murphy. Pg. 1.

[2] “The Conference on the Use of Audiovisual Archives as Original Source Materials,” by John Lee Jellicorse, E. Bradford Burns, Sam Kula, Martin A. Jackson, David L. Parker, Robert A. Venables and Robert A. Weinstein. The History Teacher, Feb. 1973. Vol. 6, No. 2. Pp. 295-322.

[3] Cinema’s Military Industrial Complex. Editors Haidee Wasson and Lee Grieveson. University of California Press. 2018.

[4] The phrase was coined in the title of McCann’s book, The People’s Films: A Political History of U. S. Government Motion Pictures. McCann’s book, based on his 1951 thesis, was one of the first to discuss the history of filmmaking by federal agencies. McCann was a speaker at the 1972 conference.