Will Barker was born in London in 1867. Along with Cecil Hepworth, he is credited as leading a revival in British cinema in 1911. That year producers of films in Britain made a concerted effort to improve the standing of their product within the industry, both in Britain and in the rest of the world.
Typically, Barker did so in spectacular fashion. He paid stage legend Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree £1,000 for a day's work filming Henry VIII and paid for the stage sets at Her Majesty's Theatre to be transported entirely to his studios and re-built there. He also, for the first time, hired a composer, Edward German, to write music especially for the film. He then released the film for hire only, at a time when showmen still bought copies of films outright, announcing that he would publicly burn all twenty copies available for hire after twenty-eight days, so the film would never be seen except in pristine condition.
Such an event was typical of his character. Barker was a big ideas man. A wild and sometimes reckless character who was not averse to settling disputes by beating his adversary with a whip, his trademark logo was, appropriately, a bulldog: like Barker himself, tough, pugnacious and thoroughly British.
Having first dabbled with film on an amateur basis, he began his professional career in 1901, when he founded the Autoscope Company. At first, he was drawn to topical films, and to the possibilities of cinema for documenting aspects of life. He undertook expeditions to Canada, Norway and Africa, and his African films were eventually released in a series called Cape to Cairo. This was premiered at the Palace Theatre in London in 1907, an event by which Barker declared he invented the trade show.
When Autoscope was merged with the much larger Warwick Trading Company in January 1906 Barker was left in command He launched a daily newsreel, London Day by Day, but it had to be abandoned because bad weather made it impossible to film every day. He also patented a sound process, the Warwick Cinephone, which, like all early sound processes, suffered from a lack of controllable synchronisation and inadequate amplification.
In 1909 he left Warwick to form a new company, Barker Motion Photography, with studios in the West London suburb of Ealing. That same year he travelled to America to counter the threat posed by the Motion Picture Patents Company trust, and signed a deal with the anti-trust IPPC to ensure the continued sale of British films in the US. By 1911 the IPPC had failed and British filmmakers like Barker had to seek other ways of restoring their fortunes.
Ironically for the man who claimed that the topical was the natural subject for cinema, he became known for his elaborate fiction films, among them Henry VIII (1910), East Lynne (d. Bert Haldane, 1913), Sixty Years a Queen (d. Haldane, 1913) and Jane Shore (d. F. Martin Thornton, 1915).
East Lynne was the first British six-reel feature, whilst Sixty Years a Queen cost £12,000 to make, an unprecedented sum for a British feature. The subject matter was ideal for Barker, patriotic, intimate when necessary, but also representable on a grand scale. The film covered events from the simple sight of the young princess Victoria receiving news of her accession (the only surviving fragment) through to the siege of Ladysmith during the Boer War, and made a fortune for its backer, G.B. Samuelson.
Barker had the bluster required to produce his mammoth epics, but generally handed the directing reins to trusted comrades such as Bert Haldane. However, he did direct an astonishing early version of Rider Haggard's She. In 1915 Barker and Frenchman Horace L. Lucoque (who owned the rights to the novel and whose wife would write the screenplay) joined forces to produce She as a star vehicle for the French actress and singer Alice Delysia. Barker had the film designed by the artist Lancelot Speed, and festooned his sets and actors with costumes, jewellery and authentic period artefacts. The film ran one and a half hours and Barker was compared to D.W. Griffith.
Barker's style was simple: big stories, big actors, and big battles with lots of people in them. His films contrasted markedly with the small, intimate and very British melodramas of his friend and rival Cecil Hepworth. Barker's films were closer to the epic stories coming from Italy and America, like Cabiria (d. Giovanni Pastrone, 1913) and Birth of a Nation (d. D.W. Griffith, 1915). But sensational though his films were, they were expensive, and the market for British films, even in Britain during the First World War, was shrinking. Barker's films were crude in their use of film language and began to look old fashioned against Hollywood behemoths like Theda Bara's Cleopatra (US, d. J.Gordon Edwards, 1917), all the more because their similar epic scale encouraged comparisons.
Barker announced his retirement from the film business the day after the 1918 Armistice, but in 1920 he was coaxed by his friend William Jeapes, Managing Director of the Topical Film Company, to follow the Prince of Wales on his empire tour and some of Barker's work was released as issues of Topical's newsreel, Topical Budget and, as a special released in 1920, 50,000 Miles with the Prince of Wales. During the interwar period he ran a photographic company in Wimbledon, and in 1936 gave a talk to the British Kinematograph Society about his career. He died in Wimbledon on 6 November 1951.
Low, Rachael, The History of the British Film 1906-1914 (London: Allen and Unwin, 1949)
Low, Rachael, The History of the British Film 1914-1918 (London: Allen and Unwin, 1950)
Simon Brown, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors