This film is held by the BFI (ID: 19980).


Early footage from Ceylon.

Title card: 'Views and People in Ceylon'. Shots taken from the front of a train as it moves along a railway track. Train passes through tunnels in the mountains and past open fields. Medium shot of barber trimming balding man's head, armpits and beard with a razor blade; customer inspects himself in a mirror. Panned shot, left to right, of males and females bathing in a river. Street entertainer on a platform engages a snake and a mongoose and a snake in a fight. Street scene filmed from a tram, following two-wheeled oxen carts. Sequence filmed from an open goods wagon on a train, looking forwards towards passenger carriage. The train pulls into a station and then passes through a plantation and over a bridge. Medium long shot of Ceylonese boys on rafts in a river. The boys leap off the rafts into the water as they are thrown something to catch. Four elephants being held and then mounted by mahouts. The same elephants immersed in a wide river; the mahouts stand on their backs. The elephants stand and splash water towards the camera with their trunks. Further shots of the elephants bathing in the water.



By 1905, Pathé-Frères was the largest film company in France and was emerging as the ‘first acknowledged global empire in cinema history (Abel, ‘Pathé-Frères’, emphasis in original). The company’s success rested on the mass production of films and on distributing its releases via a worldwide network (Abel, 1994, 22). Pathé had established an agency in Britain in 1902, and by 1906 had opened further agencies in Russia, America, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Holland, Spain and Italy (McKernan; Abel, 1994, 23). By 1905 the company was selling 12,000 metres of positive film stock per day (Abel, ‘Pathé-Frères’)

Although the majority of Pathé’s films were fiction titles, the company also produced a large number of travelogues. Tom Gunning describes the travelogue as being ‘the genre of early film that is most clearly prepared for by pre-cinematic practice’ (Gunning, 1995, 21). The genre developed from preceding media representations of travel, such as magic lantern shows, illustrated lectures, postcards and pictorial magazines, and thus had a readymade and cognisant audience. There were also other reasons for the travelogues’ success: these films were inexpensive to produce, and they provided exhibitors with film material that they could easily edit together into their own compilations (Musser, 1990, 123; Abel 1994, 91).

Jennifer Lynn Peterson proposes that it was around 1905-06 that ‘travelogues solidified into a distinct film genre’ (Peterson, ‘Travelogues’). Films were usually comprised of a series of discreet sequences; they featured a large number of long shots; and there would be movement in almost every scene (either created by camera movement or by the action on screen) (Peterson, ‘Travelogues’). Many would begin with views of landscapes, taken from the point-of-view of a ship or train (Rony, 1996, 83). It was also during this period that the French companies, Eclipse, Gaumont and ‘especially’ Pathé-Frères, established themselves as the most renowned makers of travel films (Peterson, ‘Travelogues’).

Travelogues served to promote tourism (hence several of them were sponsored by railroad companies), but also provided glimpses of foreign lands to those who could not visit them themselves (Rony, 1996, 82). Nominally educational, the films were fixated upon the picturesque, ‘scenic’ originally being the most common term used to describe them (Peterson, ‘Travelogues’). They also regularly featured ethnographic studies of people, providing the viewer with what Rony describes as an ‘“archive” of human variation’ (Rony, 1996, 85). Although shown in a variety of contexts, including lectures, fairground shows and movie theatres, travelogues were aimed primarily at an educated audience, and erred towards the point of view of a ‘bourgeois tourist’ (Peterson, ‘Travelogues’; Rony, 1996, 83). Travelogues also often served as imperial propaganda. Peterson states that ‘Colonial lands appear as tranquil as parks; any explicit sense of social conflict is banished from the travelogue world-view’ (Peterson, ‘Travelogues’).

This travelogue is, however, a French film about Ceylon, which from 1802 to 1948 was a British colony. Chandra Richard de Silva has written that at the beginning of the twentieth century ‘British power in the island seemed more secure than ever’ (de Silva, 1987, 185). Nevertheless, there were stirrings of popular agitation in Ceylon (notably from the Buddhist temperance movement) as well as some outbreaks of labour unrest (de Silva, 1987, 186-87). Moreover, the plantation economy, in particular the tea trade, prompted the arrival of increasing numbers of Indian Tamil workers to the island. Roy Moxham notes that by 1900 there were 300,000 Indian Tamils working on the tea estates and that their presence was ‘resented by the native Sinhalese’ (Moxham, 2003, 183-84). 



The emphases of this film are made clear in its title, Ceylan, Vécu et Pittoresque (Ceylon, lived and picturesque). This is a ‘scenic’, one that aims to present the life of Ceylon in the most attractive manner. It has many of the hallmarks of the early travelogue genre.

The film begins with a sequence filmed from a tourist’s point-of-view. The camera is placed on a train in motion, capturing the rugged landscape between Colombo and Kandy. Later in the film there are further scenes filmed from an accelerating train. These sequences not only provide the sense of movement and geographical framing that was expected of travelogues, they also convey what Charles Musser describes as the ‘sensation of separation which the traveller feels on viewing the rapidly passing landscape’ (Musser, 1990, 127). There is also a clear sense of separation between the type of people who are using the train, and those who are situated within the landscape. Uniformed porters and richly-attired European passengers can be glimpsed at a station, contrasting with locals, who can be glimpsed momentarily as the train speeds through the countryside, and who wear impoverished attire. Shots filmed from a tram that is passing through the streets of Colombo provide a different perspective. Here, situated among the movement of the workmen’s carts, the viewer is offered a point-of-view more akin to that of the local Sinhalese.

In the remaining scenes the local people are placed in the centre of the screen, and here a different sense of separation is conveyed. These ‘lived’ scenes of Ceylon are all purposefully arranged for the camera. The people are either performing to it (as with the bathing scenes and the shots of the elephant), or their action dominates the centre of the screen (as with the footage of the barber and customer, and the street entertainer’s mongoose and snake). At no point in any of these scenes is there a white person in the frame; the film instead provides ethnographic portraits of the Sinhalese.

In this film the ‘lived’ and the ‘picturesque’ elements of Ceylon are combined. The local people provide movement and spectacle, and they are commonly framed as being a part of the natural environment. This is conveyed by filming them in the water (either bathing or playing), and by depicting them with animals, who they can train to fight (as with the cobra and the mongoose) or perform tricks (as with the elephants). This film aims to present the local people in a light-hearted manner. Nevertheless, the distance that exists between the viewer and viewed sometimes works against this. Not all of the bathers look comfortable being captured on film, and some of the people appear to be uncertain about the tasks that they are made to perform and/or the way that they are being arranged for the screen.

Richard Osborne (February 2010)


Works Cited

Abel, Richard, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914 (London: University of California Press, 1994).

Abel, Richard, ‘Pathé-Frères’, http://www.bookrags.com/tandf/path-frres-tf/.

Gunning, Tom, ‘“The Whole World Within Reach”: Travel Images Without Borders’, in Cinema sans frontières 1896-1918: Images Without Borders, ed. by Roland Cosandey and François Albera (Lausanne: Payot, 1995), pp. 21-36.

McKernan, Luke, ‘Pathé’, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/461241/index.html.

Moxham, Roy, Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire (London: Robinson, 2003).

Musser, Charles, ‘The Travel Genre in 1903–1904: Moving Towards Fictional Narrative’, in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. by Thomas Elsaesser (London: British Film Institute, 1990), pp. 123-32.

Peterson, Jennifer Lynn, ‘Travelogues’, http://www.bookrags.com/tandf/travelogues-tf/.

Rony, Fatimah Tobing, The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996).

Silva, Chandra Richard de, Sri Lanka: A History (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1987).




Technical Data

Running Time:
3 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film

Production Credits

Production Company
Pathé Frères