How 1916 movie The Battle of the Somme sparked cinema's obsession with war
When The Battle of the Somme was released as a feature film in August 1916, audiences were stunned by the feeling that they had witnessed the battle for themselves.
In a few weeks’ time, 100 years will have passed since the first day of the battle of the Somme. Tens of thousands of soldiers went “over the top” at 7.30am on 1 July 1916. The moment looms large in the collective national memory – nearly 20,000 British soldiers died that day, just the first of the “big push” that continued into the winter months.
The ferocious offensive drew on Britain’s imperial forces, and was the bloody debut of civilian volunteers who had flooded recruitment halls in 1914. Among them were two individuals who weren’t there to fight, yet were profoundly influential in shaping our vision of the conflict. Cameramen Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell were in France to record the footage that went on to become the cinematic sensation The Battle of the Somme, the film that sparked cinema’s obsession with war. Now, a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London explores the inspiration behind some of the best-known war movies, the craft of reconstructing the extreme environments in which fighting occurs, and why audiences remain enthralled by the genre; from the desert epic Lawrence of Arabia to Apocalypse Now’s jungle insanity in Vietnam.
At the turn of the 20th century, short films were a fairground novelty. Their popularity lead to purpose-built cinemas, but they remained largely the preserve of the working class. With the onset of war, what had seemed faddish gained traction. Craving news from the fronts, British audiences flocked to the cinema for a sense of immediacy that no newspaper report, photograph, or illustration could rival. The cinema acquired a degree of legitimacy and across the social spectrum people welcomed the narrative-driven perspective that film offered.
The Battle of the Somme was, in some ways, a surprise to both its makers and its audience. When Malins was dispatched to the western front in November 1915, he was charged with shooting footage for use in short newsreels. Neither the War Office nor Malins’s cinema trade employers expected a feature film. In late June 1916 Malins was joined by his assistant McDowell, and together they turned their cameras towards the British army gearing up for, and then launching, the largest battle it had ever fought. When their reels arrived in London, the decision was made to present the silent footage as a feature film, often accompanied by an unexpectedly jaunty score played by musicians in cinemas.
The finished film had an extraordinary impact. When it was released in August 1916, audiences were stunned by the feeling that they had witnessed the battle for themselves. It begins with the buildup. Mountains of munitions and thousands of men deluge the frontline in readiness. German defences are smashed by British guns. Yet to give these real scenes a coherent narrative, the film needed climactic images of men going over the top. Loaded down with cumbersome equipment, the cameramen were unable to capture this crucial moment and resorted to fakery. They staged troops leaping over their trench parapet and stepping through barbed wire before disappearing into a smokescreen. These shots had a tremendous impact in the cinema, with audiences cheering the men. There are reports of a woman crying out “Oh God, they’re dead!” at the “deaths” played out for the camera alongside unflinching real shots of the dead and wounded.
However, look closely and the staged shot gives itself away. Some scenes are believed to have been filmed at a school near St Pol, over 25 miles away, about a month later. In this footage men go into action unencumbered by the weighty packs that real soldiers had to shoulder. With just a rifle in his hand, one man drops “dead” in front of barbed wire – and proceeds to cross his legs to get more comfortable on the ground. Most telling is the camera position. Had Malins or McDowell really been filming from this angle they would have been in considerable danger from German fire. But the audience had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the footage. The Battle of the Somme’s imagery has come to represent the conflict as a whole, and paved the way for what we might think of as a “war film” – a fictional reconstruction of a real event. The tension between dramatic effect and recording the “reality” of war has troubled film-makers ever since, in both feature film and documentaries.
In 1942, the film-making duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made One of Our Aircraft is Missing, a story of a British bomber crew shot down over the Netherlands. Following a screening in March 1942, an excited Powell telegraphed Pressburger: “After Glasgow showing no doubt whatever that picture has most extraordinary effect on audiences creating lasting impression of truth and reality.” What does it mean to capture truth and reality, and why do war films, perhaps more than most other genres, often claim to tell “the real story”?
In 1946 Brian Desmond Hurst directed Theirs Is the Glory, a film recounting the British army’s bloody and unsuccessful airborne assault on the Dutch town of Arnhem in 1944. During the battle, Major Richard Lonsdale of 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment, delivered a rousing speech to his men at a battered church. For the film, Lonsdale appeared as himself, delivering the same speech, at the same church, to hundreds of soldiers who had also fought at Arnhem. This time his severe wounds were merely costume and makeup, but the effect is striking. Theirs Is the Glory made extensive use of battle footage taken by parachute-trained cameramen of the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU), and blurred the line between reality and reconstruction.
The AFPU captured scenes on British fighting fronts throughout the second world war, and comparisons can be made with fictional depictions of the same episodes. IWM’s film historian and archivist Dr Toby Haggith has watched both AFPU’s footage of the D-day landings and the scenes from Steven Spielberg’s 1998 Saving Private Ryan. Intriguingly, he has noted that while Spielberg shows us soldiers trembling with nervous anticipation, the real soldiers filmed aboard their landing craft struck confident, even heroic poses, refusing to allow themselves to appear scared. Interpreting this as a kind of dramatic performance, Haggith asked: “If real soldiers act in front of the camera, how should actors portray reality?” In other films professional actors brought additional ambiguity because they had once been soldiers, sailors or airmen themselves. When Richard Todd, a paratroop officer on D-day, was cast in The Longest Day (1962), he found himself playing Major Howard of the glider-borne “Ox and Bucks” light infantry, someone he had met during the real invasion.
Todd was one of a generation of British actors who became household names for their roles in a stream of 50s war films. John Mills, Kenneth More and Jack Hawkins, in films such as The Cruel Sea (1953), Reach for the Sky (1956), Ice Cold in Alex (1958) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), embodied ideals of leadership and courage – and a dash of eccentricity. The heroics of female agents Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo were depicted by Anna Neagle in Odette (1950) and Virginia McKenna in Carve Her Name With Pride (1958).
Of this generation of films, it is perhaps Michael Anderson’s The Dam Busters (1955) that is best remembered, both for Todd’s portrayal of bomber pilot Guy Gibson and its rousing, martial theme by composer Eric Coates. The power of music to manipulate an audience often transcended a film’s subject matter. “The Dam Busters March” today resounds around football stadia and Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Great Escape was recently appropriated during the EU referendum campaign, with Bernstein’s sons protesting against the use of their father’s music by Ukip.
In the aftermath of the second world war, this wave of films helped to contextualise the continuing austerity in postwar Britain with tales imbued with clear moral certainty. They reflect the place the war holds in Britain’s national identity. In Germany, however, nearly six decades passed before a home-produced depiction of Adolf Hitler made it into the cinema. In 2004, director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall dramatised the last days of Hitler’s Führerbunker beneath ravaged Berlin. German-speaking Swiss actor Bruno Ganz played Hitler with a manner that many found “chillingly authentic”. The film sparked debate as to how far a film-maker or artist should go in humanising a historical figure who committed appalling crimes. The historian Ian Kershaw asked in this newspaper, “Wasn’t there the danger, in seeing Hitler as a human being, of losing sight of his intrinsic evil and monstrous, demonic nature, even of arousing sympathy for him?”. Ganz’s performance has gone on to be parodied mercilessly online, re-subtitled to show Hitler ranting against petty injustices from unwelcome sporting results and poor customer service. Hirschbiegel endorsed these parodies, saying that they further the film’s purp
But not all films have been as concerned with realism. In Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb(1964), Stanley Kubrick brutally satirised the madness that the strategy of nuclear “mutually assured destruction” implied. Richard Attenborough’s adaptation of Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) rendered cavalry charges as carousel rides. In it, the battle of the Somme is summed up by a scoreboard that ultimately declares: “Allied losses – 600,000. Ground gained – Nil.”
• Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies, curated by Laura Clouting,opens on 1 July at the Imperial War Museum, London SE1. iwm.org.uk/real-to-reel.
Source: The Guardian