LONDON — It’s billed as the world’s largest library of film-related books, comprising some 3,000 titles.
Given that so many of them deal with American films and that Westerns constitute the single largest category, you might assume this massive collection would be housed in the USA. Hollywood, maybe? Monument Valley Utah, where so many westerns were shot? Or Tombstone Ariz., site of the legendary Gunfight at the OK Corral?
Instead, it can be found on the south bank of the Thames in a surprising and scholarly setting — at the British Film Institute, where it is now being made available to students, researchers, filmmakers and the general public.
The collection was donated to the BFI by the family of the esteemed British film critic Philip French, who wrote for the Observer newspaper for almost 40 years. He died in 2015 at the age of 82. In terms of both reputation and longevity, French was a counterpart to the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael. (They admired each other’s writing and corresponded often.)
French had an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, and his huge library of film books was shelved in four rooms of his large north London home. It took 120 packing crates to remove them to the BFI’s national archive 25 miles north in Berkhamsted for cataloguing and temporary storing.
BFI librarian Matthew Fletcher took weekly trips to the archive for almost 12 months to supervise cataloguing: “It was the only place we had with enough linear space to house it all.” At its new home in the BFI’s Reuben Library on the South Bank, the French Collection now takes up almost 100 yards of shelf space.
Emma Smart, the Library’s manager, recalls when she first visited the French family home and was shown around by French’s widow Kersti: “They had so many books, and the way they were arranged warmed my heart – it was just the way we’d arrange books in library school.”
French was particularly obsessed with Western films, which he regarded as America's great contribution to modern pop culture. He authored a book called “Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre,” published in 1973. In discussion, he often divided Westerns into “Democrat” and “Republican,” depending on their subject matter and narrative.
Thus, his enormous library includes virtually every serious critical appraisal of the Western in the English language.
“We normally wouldn’t collect books of this kind,” Smart says. “We have to prioritize material that is moving-image focused. But to have a selection of writings around a topic as important as the Western is really amazing for us.”
Yet as Fletcher points out, there’s far more to the French library than that. “What stood out for me was the breadth of the subject matter. He had books that were representative of our own collection — British filmmakers, European filmmakers, Hollywood as a place, classic Hollywood stars, big coffee table books — everything feels like it’s represented in his collection.
“It’s certainly not niche. It felt like he was interested in everything.”
The BFI has designed a unique stamp that will appear on the title page of each book in the collection, identifying it as part of Philip French’s library. And now its acquisition of the library has prompted the BFI to program a series of events this summer around the subject of film criticism — “as an art form, as a mode of study,” as Smart puts it. One of these events will also recognize Kael’s centenary in June.
“We’ve clocked that these are two towering figures,” Smart says.
Popular among his peers
Quite apart from the breadth of his knowledge about film and the longevity of his career, French was hugely popular among his fellow film critics. Approachable and witty — with a gleeful taste for puns — he always had time for his colleagues, even the youngest and least experienced, and inevitably had the answers to obscure questions about film history.
In 2016, the London Film Critics’ Circle renamed one of its annual awards categories after him — the award for “breakthrough British-Irish filmmaker,” an acknowledgment of his energetic support for emerging talent.
That same year the London film critics acknowledged his four decades of attending weekly national press screenings for the Observer by fixing a plaque bearing his name on his favored front-row-center seat at the Soho Screening Rooms.
Famously, French always sat through films until all the end credits had rolled, insisting a lot could be learned about a film by noting previous creative collaborations between members of its crew. He railed (though gently) against critics who left before the end credits: “Where do they have to go that’s more important?” he would ask.
Praise for French’s work and acumen is not confined to the film industry. His friend Christopher Frayling, who is formerly chair of Arts Council England, the Design Council and is one of Britain’s most prominent intellectuals, believes his strength lay in “his profound understanding of both the moving image and the printed word. It was as if he had two lives — he was like a literary critic on the one hand, but he knew so much about filmmaking and its crafts — editing, cinematography and all the rest.”
Recalling that French had created and chaired BBC Radio 3’s program Critics’ Forum, Frayling noted: “He seemed to know more about the subjects the critics specialized in than they did themselves. He was full of these astonishing esoteric facts.”
Frayling insists that French and Kael were the most original film critics of the second half of the 20th century: “Philip enthused about directors like Martin Scorsese and Nicolas Roeg when they were younger and encouraged the early work of filmmakers like Mike Leigh and Christopher Nolan.
“There was a complete absence of snobbery about Philip. He could go high or low. He always saw something in a movie, something to redeem it. And he took blatantly commercial directors seriously.”
It’s a rarity for any film critic to attract the kind of attention routinely bestowed on movie actors or directors. But the existence of the magnificent Philip French Library ensures that at least one of their number will be remembered for decades to come.
Gritten is a former chair of the London Film Critics’ Circle