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The history of cinema now spans more than a century. One could say that the twentieth century was the first century to be recorded in motion pictures. But how useful are motion pictures as historical evidence and what sort of evidence do they provide? From the inventors' first projections at the end of the nineteenth century, cinema was hailed as a mode of preservation, a hedge against death itself, preserving for posterity not only the images but the actions of people now long dead. We could say that cinema not only records the visual appearance of past time, but the passage of time itself.

When we look at films from the period we now call early cinema (from the invention of cinema around 1895 to the World War I), one might say we are by definition looking at "historical films." (The best collection of historical films is the Library of Congress Paper Print Collection.) As records of the beginning of what would become the major form of mass entertainment and possibly the most important art form of the twentieth century, films from this period are precious to film historians. They are also valuable to historians as records of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These films capture both historical events and bits of every day life, preserving forms of entertainment, social attitudes, clothing styles, and modes of transportation. But what constitutes their uniqueness? How can they be used?

A few practitioners and scholars recognized film's potential as a record of the past early on, even if they held a somewhat utopian conception of film's capabilities. In 1898, Polish cameraman Boleslas Matuszewski declared motion pictures "a new source for history" that provided "authenticity, exactitude, and precision." His call for a film archive, however, fell on deaf ears. Almost twenty years later, D. W. Griffith, perhaps the most famous American film director of the silent era, argued that motion pictures would revolutionize the way history was taught, even superseding written records:

Imagine a public library of the near future. There will be long rows of boxes or pillars, properly classified and indexed, of course. At each box a push button and before each box a seat. Suppose you wish to "read up" on a certain episode in Napoleon’s life. Instead of consulting all the authorities, wading laboriously through a host of books, and ending bewildered, without a clear idea of exactly what did happen, and confused at every point by conflicting opinions about what did happen, you will merely seat yourself at a properly adjusted window, in a scientifically prepared room, press the button and actually see what happened.

There will be no opinions expressed. You will merely be present at the making of history. All the work of writing, revising, collating, and reproducing will have been carefully attended to by a corps of recognized experts, and you will have received a vivid and complete expression.

Although Griffith somewhat uncannily envisioned the rows of video carrels now found in many libraries and archives, his view of history has been largely discredited. The notion of an objective representation of events, a recording of the way things actually happened, is no longer a goal of history. In addition, Griffith should have known that no picture of past events could be indisputable. His epic portrayal of the Civil War and Reconstruction, The Birth of a Nation (1915), was heavily criticized as biased in its selective portrayal of events and virulently racist in its depiction of African Americans. But Griffith was also claiming that film could be objective in the sense of providing evidence. Is this a possibility?

How can film serve as historical evidence? First, the seemingly simple but perhaps most vexed question: Does film have unique qualities, such as its perceived objectivity, that affect its role as historical evidence? Second is the issue of films themselves as historical material, objects with a history of their own. How are they transformed over time and through technical transfer? Finally, we will consider film as social and cultural history, by delving into its production, modes of exhibition, and audiences.