The First Film (2015) review: in pursuit of a cinema pioneer

Louis Le Prince
Louis Le Prince

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.

David Nicholas Wilkinson (and Roundhay Garden Scene)
David Nicholas Wilkinson (and Roundhay Garden Scene)

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.

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13 thoughts on “The First Film (2015) review: in pursuit of a cinema pioneer”

  1. I have not seen this film yet, but with all it’s flaws it draws some welcome attention to an important pioneer. Does the film record that there is evidence that Le Prince did actually achieve some projection of his films [the Deliverer] but not in public. Also that he was aware of celluloid and apparently was already experimenting with this material?
    Anyway well done with this: perhaps you can persuade S&S to let you write an overdue profile for their World of Silent Cinema.

    1. Ah, you must watch this film! Anything that draws attention to Le Prince deserves applause, as you say. I saw your letter in the magazine this month, actually. I believe the projection was mentioned, though if I can be honest I would have to watch it through again to be sure of all the technical details that are set out – the depth of the film on that score is very impressive.

  2. There’s almost no doubt that the Le Prince footage from Leeds is the first-ever film, bearing in mind the possible definitions of “first ever” and “film”. Muybridge’s “moving images” were not “film” but a succession of still photos (horse running), little better than the zoetrope. The interesting thing about the Le Prince footage is the quality. Edison produced his first film very soon after this, but the quality is primitive, as might be expected, casting doubt on the authenticity of earlier productions of better quality. And whilst we know what equipment Edison used, information regarding Le Prince’s equipment, who made it, how he processed the film etc. is less well documented. A whole series devoted to the origins and early development of the film industry is being published in chapters on
    http://www.judgefoozlesforum.com/showthread.php?tid=43
    and contributions are welcome but unpaid.

  3. I must find I am baffled by this. I teach film and certainly it is standard that Le Prince is given credit as the first true filmmaker with Roundhay Garden Scene and Leeds Bridge. Every modern history of film with which I am familiar gives Le Prince credit for the first true moving pictures. In The First Film, if the people are being asked about him are not specialists in film history or have not had an intro course in film history, it is highly likely they wouldn’t have heard of him. The trailer looks very like that created for Green & van Sluijs documentary on Alice Guy Blaché: “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.” This may just because both are little known beyond film history circles and thus a similar sense of mystery was wanted. The real mystery about Le Prince is his disappearance. I’m really looking forward to seeing the whole film — expanding popular knowledge of these early innovators is all to the good! ( If one is looking for controversy, perhaps Edison is a good place to start — despite widespread crediting of Thomas Edison for those first films in the U.S., they were all done in the 1890s by William K. L. Dickson and then Edwin S. Porter and others by the turn of the century. Edison just had good P.R. Was he involved in the disappearance of Le Prince? Hmmmm. There’s another mystery too. Maybe there are more insights on this in The First Film. )

  4. I think Susan is a little sanguine on Le Prince’s reputation. All I can find on the BFI site is a brief reference to the Roundhay Garden sequence. And Sight & Sound have had a column on The World of Silent Cinema for a couple of years, but no profile of Le Prince yet. They have, though, profiled other ‘forgotten pioneers’ and ‘early lost fragments’.
    Wilkinson’s oddyssey partly resulted in his failure to drum up interests in institutions like the BBC. They have done a very good programme on Muybridge but passed on Le Prince.
    In fact there is a book on Le Prince: The Missing Reel by Christopher Rawlence 1990 and he also made a short film on Le Prince with the same title: though I don’t know how you could access that now.
    If you actually come up to Yorkshire the National Media Museum have a Le Prince Camera and pages on their Website. And the Leeds Industrial Museum has a copy of a camera and a display with video copies. And there are several Blue Plaques in the city in commemoration.
    In fact the 1888 Leeds International Film Festival was a mammoth celebration of cinema and commemoration of Le Prince. Sounds like it passed quite a few people by.

  5. It’s always so touching to hear about people who are very passionate about the legacy of people like Le Prince. Hearing that a”remake” of the garden scene was made makes me want to see this film!

    I would definitely agree that Le Prince is an obscure figure. Of course you’re going to be very familiar with him if you teach film or are otherwise immersed in film history…but the general public most certainly has no clue who he is.

  6. I thought this film was absolutely delightful. I feel lucky I caught it. David is a wonderful man too – I got chance to catch up with him after I saw film. I heartily recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet!

  7. Louis Le Prince was fascinating, but everything I’ve heard about this documentary makes it seems conceptually shaky. Well, I guess it will still be an improvement on the book The Missing Reel, which was … uneven, at best.

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