Putting the Collection on Line

Marc St-Pierre
Assistant Project Manager and Collections Analyst

Although Sam Kula’s remarkable work in 2000 enabled an accurate, comprehensive inventory of all the films in the collection to be drawn up, a way of presenting these extraordinary pictures still had to be found. Given the content, number and diversity of the films, this was a significant challenge. How was such a huge, diverse collection to be organized effectively, and how was silent film footage from over 90 years ago to be made accessible to today’s viewers?

To resolve the organizational problem, we chose a simple structure that divided the footage into three main categories. The first category, titled “Building a Force”, contains films focusing on the emergence of a Canadian military force. It includes footage shot between 1915 and 1917 and documents the mobilization of troops in Canada and the training of Canadian soldiers in Europe. The second category, “Wartime”, consists of scenes filmed between 1915 and 1918 showing the Canadian Expeditionary Force in battle. It contains footage on units assigned to provide support for the achievement of military objectives, troops engaged in combat, the air force and soldiers stationed behind the front lines. “The Postwar Period”, the third category, is made up of films highlighting Canadian troops shortly after the armistice, in November and December 1918, and the return of soldiers to Canada in early 1919.

Having decided on an organizational structure, we still had to find a way to make the material easier to understand. We asked some of Canada’s best-known specialists on the Great War to write about various aspects of Canada’s participation in the conflict. These essays enrich our understanding of the films and help us view them in context. Other background material—photographs, posters, diaries, letters, poems, maps, plans, texts, Web links, bibliographical references and biographies of significant figures—was added to enhance the source footage and make it more accessible. As well, educational resources have been provided for teachers so that they can make immediate use of the site in the classroom.

Most of the films in the collection lack any coherent narrative structure. They are simply sequences of shots grouped together under a common theme. Many of the films are hard to follow and quite repetitive. As Mr. Kula notes, this is because the films “…were used as viewing copies and as stock shot resources so that they were not protected from wear or from changes in the order in which they were originally edited. In fact many of the entries in the catalogue of the NFB Stock Shot Library indicate that shots and/or sequences are duplicated elsewhere in the collection. This is partly the result of the continual re-editing of the available footage by the Canadian War Records Office and other government agencies and by newsreel companies during and immediately after the war; this duplication is characteristic of the films in all the collections, and partly the result of NFB producers over the years assembling copies of shots from the master material and then depositing the results in the Stock Shot Library when their productions were completed”.1

Despite the disorganized nature of the sequences, we have preserved the films in their entirety in most cases. Our decision was based primarily on the fact that the originals “…were destroyed in a fire in July 1967…”2 making it impossible for us to know how the films were originally edited anyway. Nevertheless, a few sequences were modified slightly when it was obvious that shots had been reversed. Furthermore, in some films we took out scenes that were totally unrelated to the main action, while striving as much as possible to avoid repetition.

The question of intertitles also had to be dealt with. As Mr. Kula notes, “…they are important components of silent films…”.3 We therefore decided to keep them. Since we needed to have them in both official languages, however, we did make a few minor changes to them. We also added the title at the beginning of each film to make it easier to identify. It is also worth noting, as Mr. Kula points out, that it is “…impossible to determine whether all the intertitles made for a given film are present in the prints, or, if all of them are present, that they are in the correct order”.4

To conclude, we should mention that some footage shows the British Expeditionary Force in action. While Canadian soldiers are rarely seen in these shots, if at all, we decided to keep them anyway. It is important to remember that the Canadian force was an integral part of the British army and these films give a good idea of what Canadians experienced on the Western Front.

1Kula, Sam. Canadian Expeditionary Force Film Records. National Film Board of Canada, 2005, p. 3.
2Kula, Sam. Canadian Expeditionary Force Film Records. National Film Board of Canada, 2005, p. 3.
3Kula, Sam. Canadian Expeditionary Force Film Records. National Film Board of Canada, 2005, p. 3.
4Kula, Sam. Canadian Expeditionary Force Film Records. National Film Board of Canada, 2005, p. 3.