Rough Sea at Dover (1895) A Silent Film Review

What is says on the tin. What it lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in historical importance in helping to establish British cinema and launching the careers of R.W. Paul and Birt Acres, two of the many fathers of film.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Great Britain Has Entered the Chat

When we talk about earliest motion pictures, the conversation often centers on France and the United States. However, Britain was among the very earliest pioneers of cinema. The Roundhay Garden Scene of 1888 was shot by a Frenchman in Leeds and British pioneers were quick to jump on the peepshow film concept of the Kinetoscope.

And so, we have every reason to talk a bit about R.W. Paul and Birt Acres.

Early derby footage of R.W. Paul and Birt Acres.

1895 was a transformational year for the movies. Motion pictures had been marketed to paying audiences but not on the screen. The Kinetoscope and similar devices provided a peepshow of brief (less than a minute) movies of landscapes, dancers and other images to delight Gilded Age customers.

In 1895, there was a race for projected cinema. Allowing multiple people to see movies simultaneously greatly increased the potential for revenue and one projector was more cost effective than one-to-a-customer peepshow devices. Projected cinema was established by the end of the year but many of the films shown on the screens in 1896 were repurposed peepshow pictures. In fact, in The Emergence of Cinema, historian Charles Musser points out that there was a motion picture shortage with the old peepshow material being unable to keep up with the newly-reignited demand for the movies.

As promised, rough sea at Dover.

And this is where Rough Sea at Dover comes into the picture. R.W. Paul had found a lucrative business in pirating the Edison Kinetoscope and he needed a supply of films to run for paying customers. Birt Acres was a photographer who had already shown an interest in a more mobile type of picture with his 1893 patent for a rapid lantern slide changer.

The men briefly went into business and their collaboration resulted in what are generally considered to be the first pictures taken and projected in England. Like the Edison films being released at the time, Paul and Acres focused on subjects that were easy to convey in a short viewing through the eyepieces of peepshow devices.

Truth in advertising.

Thus, the Rough Sea at Dover. What you are promised is what you receive. It’s the sea, it’s Dover and it’s rough, all for less than thirty seconds. Rough, too, is the surviving print of the film but we are fortunate to have it, many of the early Paul-Acres pictures are now considered lost.

Americans loved the new projected cinema as much as anybody else and proprietors of picture shows supplemented domestic material with foreign imports. Rough Sea at Dover received an American screening in 1896 (which explains why some sources give it an 1896 release date), and it was a smash hit. British cinema was now an international force.

(There are some accounts that claim audiences were afraid that their feet would get wet. A report of the show published in 1897 in The Photoscope magazine noted that the audience was enthralled by the realism and asked for the film to be repeated a second and third time. Obviously, they loved the picture but were aware that it was a picture.)

The mysterious Footpads.

When deciding which film to cover of the Paul-Acres 1895 output, I ran into a few tangles. I had hoped to review Footpads, a crime picture that features a violent mugging and a policeman struggling to overpower the perpetrators. It’s a dynamic, exciting film with real fight choreography and an ambitiously complex backdrop that includes ersatz electric lights. Perfect, right?

Well, during my research for this review, I read an important piece in Provenance and Early Cinema. Prevenance and credit in pioneering works are highly fluid even today and so an entire book on the subject is most welcome. In the book, Ian Christie, who curated the wonderful R.W. Paul set released through the BFI, writes about Footpads, which he included in the collection.

Genuine Paul-Acres footage of a bicycle scene.

His later conclusion, based on deeper research, was that Footpads has been accepted into the Paul-Acres filmography for decades simply because it was grandfathered in. Christie concluded that there was a possibility not only that the film was not from Paul-Acres but that it might not have been from 1895 and it may not even be British! In the end, we don’t know the source of this picture but at least now we know what we do not know.

Christie’s writing on the subject is highly recommended, as it shows the dangers of taking “facts” at face value and how the process of research is ongoing. I am so grateful to all the researchers who keep right on digging, they are an inspiration. (Have you ever wanted to give a book a standing ovation? I just did.)

Crash, waves, crash!

This is my long version of Why I Decided to Review Rough Sea at Dover. While I would love to cover Footpads another day, I am currently focused on the all-important first year of cinema, 1895. And so, crashing waves it is.

Rough Sea at Dover showcases the early fascination with water scenes in films and it’s easy to see why. Water makes for dynamic viewing and it’s difficult to fake. (In fact, a Méliès film shot a few years later made “real water” a selling point.) This film provides a building block for actuality filmmaking—pictures shot around the globe showing people, places and animals without any particular narrative.

What was that? More water coming right up!

Plus, you can take a good look at Dover and get an idea of the seascape, should you be a Viking or Napoleonic commander and have an eye on owning Kent.

Do we get a complicated plot, well-acted characters and special effects? No, we don’t but we do get a valuable glimpse into the hits of 1895 and how they laid the groundwork for actualities and documentaries of later eras. And the charming innocence of the picture means that it stands on its own as a reminder of a time when moving pictures were truly something to talk about.

Where can I see it?

Rough Sea at Dover is included in The Movies Begin box set from Kino and the R.W. Paul set from the BFI. Both are excellent and educational but the Paul set is a hard Region 2, so if you are not located within that release zone, you will want to make sure you are capable of playing the disc prior to purchase.


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