Would you like to discover the truth – messy, inconclusive and unflattering as it might be? Or would you rather be vindicated by discovering not only were you right all along, but the answer lay close to home, a triumph you could take personal pride in? For any rigorous film historian, there’s clearly a right and a wrong answer to that question. But wouldn’t we all veer a little to the latter option? And might, perhaps, the second denouement make a better movie?
Film producer and former actor David Nicholas Wilkinson would definitely choose the second path. His documentary The First Film records not a search for the origins of cinema, but his quest to prove that Louis Le Prince was its key progenitor. Wilkinson, a proud and dogged Yorkshireman, is on a mission to put Leeds on the early cinema map, by asserting that the Frenchman shot the first authentic moving images in that fair city. Step aside, Messrs Lumiére, Edison and Friese-Greene …
What follows is a meandering, engaging, often bizarre but definitely over-long tribute to two men and their obsessions: Le Prince and his determination to crack the problem of the moving image, and Wilkinson’s devotion to boosting Le Prince.
It’s a noble quest, and I applaud Wilkinson for taking it on. Inventor Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince was born in Metz, France in 1841 but moved to Leeds in 1869 to work in a factory there. After several camera experiments, including a model with 16 lenses, in 1888, he succeeded in creating a moving image. He shot two short scenes, using a single-lens camera on paper film: a view of Leeds Bridge and a gorgeous domestic snippet called Roundhay Garden Scene. As such, he may well have been the first movie-maker, the “Father of Film”, the chap who beat all the rest to the punch. And it happened right here in the UK. We should be proud, and also outraged that other people have taken the credit. Wilkinson already is, more than enough for the rest of us.
But how did Le Prince lose so much face to his rivals in France and the US? Although they were a few steps behind him, Edison’s aggressive pursuit of patents, and the Lumières’ winning way with marketing, combined to crush Le Prince’s legend. Wilkinson also points his finger at British targets. The Magic Box, 1951’s glossy but factually challenged biopic of fellow British film pioneer William Friese-Greene, ignores the contribution of Le Prince, and so do people like, er me: according to Wilkinson, too many journalists and “people in London” refuse to “believe” his story about Le Prince.
The reason, which may appear a mere technicality, that many quote for not crediting Le Prince with the first film is briefly mentioned here: Le Prince’s paper reels were too fragile to be projected. At some point, though arguably not today, projection was considered part of the essence of the moving picture, and so Le Prince’s experiments were deemed close, but no cigar. Eastman Kodak’s first celluloid film went on sale in 1891, which was, sadly, too late for Le Prince.
Indisputably, Le Prince’s disappearance from the history books began when he disappeared in real life – and we don’t honestly know who to blame for that. In 1890, well before the kinematograph began to catch on, Le Prince was visiting family in France when he boarded a train from Dijon to Paris and was never heard of again. Simply put, he wasn’t around to take the credit. And to be honest, the fact that his body was never recovered, his absence never explained, overtopples this wandering documentary. Wilkinson’s purpose is divided – he has both a mystery to solve, and a point to prove.
Wilkinson appears undaunted and undeterred, however. In pursuit of the truth, or rather the truth he wants to uncover, as he freely admits, he travels from Leeds to Memphis to Metz to Manhattan interviewing an impressively wide range of people. You may recognise, and expect to see, the erudite early cinema expert Stephen Herbert. But you might not expect a cameo from Joe Eszterhas, screenwriter of Flashdance and Showgirls, who aims an amusing potshot at Edison and takes a warm and informed interest in the project. The most interesting interviewee is Louis Le Prince’s great great grand-daughter Laurie, who lives in the US and has an archive of fascinating material from her ancestor’s papers. The scope of Wilkinson’s reach is creditable, and reflects the fact that he has been fighting this corner for decades. But you have to smile to yourself when you realise that in the name of Yorkshire pride, Wilkinson is battling to prove that the first movie was shot by a Frenchman and premiered in New York.
Despite all that, I have a few quibbles with The First Film. I am all for trumpeting Le Prince’s achievements from the city walls, but as he and his rivals were all working in isolation, I can’t really see what is taken away from, or added to, by chronology. Focusing on the race to be first risks missing out on all the fascinating detours in the journey from still to moving pictures. More specifically, I cringed during the sequence at the beginning when various talking heads, from industry execs to Tom Courtenay (endearingly, and not to say inaccurately, captioned “Yorkshire’s greatest actor”), confess to a complete ignorance of Le Prince. I thought it was irrelevant and patronising – plenty of people have heard of him after all, and anyone sitting down to watch this film will have a fair idea before this point. And the coda, in which Wilkinson asks some of those first questioned whether he has convinced them seems to be oddly self-serving. In fact this film “ends” several times, between this round-table interrogation and a nitrate-damage gag about Le Prince’s disappearance after the credits roll.
The best ending is the sweetest: a re-enactment of Roundhay Garden Scene using a lovingly crafted replica of Le Prince’s camera, on the exact spot where it was shot, which is no longer the lawn of a stone grange, but a tarmac-covered suburban avenue. It’s a little bit ridiculous, but the sight of these Le Prince enthusiasts flapping their hands and turning the crank in undisguised delight is a joy. This is the best of The First Film, and Wilkinson’s project – taking pleasure in Le Prince’s genius, and paying it its proper tribute.