Scene from ‘The Battle of the Somme film’, 1916 © IWM British troops go ‘over the top’ into No Man’s Land. This scene was staged for the camera at a training school behind the lines.

Triumph and Tragedy

1st July 2016

As the Imperial War Museum launches a new exhibition that goes behind the scenes of some of the greatest war films, Jack Watkins is particularly moved by the historic documentary that began it all: ‘The Battle of the Somme’.

The First World War was the ‘war to end all wars’, but if it failed in that – as in so many other things – it did spawn a vibrant film genre that is still with us today. The war movie is hardly a narrow brand, however, running from macho fun to myth making, to indictments of politicians, generals and entire nations, and on to simple love stories. When it started, one hundred years ago this summer, however, it was with a sober documentary, The Battle of the Somme.

The film is central to a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum (IWM), Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies, which explores ‘how film-makers have found inspiration in compelling personal stories and gripping real events from wars of the past century’. The Battle of the Somme was the subject of an exhaustive restoration ten years ago, and has been available on DVD since 2008. However, the UNESCO-listed film is being screened at venues around the country to mark the anniversary of the Somme this summer (listings can be found at, and if you get a chance to see it on a big screen, it is highly recommended.

I was fortunate enough to attend the IWM’s screening at the suitably historic and recently re-opened Regent Street Cinema (which in 1896 was the first venue in this country to show moving pictures, showcasing the ground-breaking cinematography of the Lumière brothers). Aided by the score of British composer Laura Rossi, specially commissioned by the IWM ten years ago to mark the 90th anniversary of the Somme, the film still retains its power. The clarity of the digitally restored film is remarkable, and the combination of imagery and music is at times almost overwhelmingly poignant. The scenes showing preparations, building up to the battle, unfold with a sense of awful foreboding, and the sight of these plucky soldiers’ faces, nonchalantly puffing on cigarettes, offering up a cheerful smile for the camera as they march off, tugs at the heartstrings. At once, you understand why the compulsion to trace and tell the story of individual casualties of war is such an obsession for many historians and archivists of war, as well as for ordinary members of the public.

The Battle of the Somme was the first film of its kind because, to begin with, Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War, had banned all photography and film from the Western Front until late 1915. However, with the public ill-informed about fighting conditions, the War Office finally relented and allowed the presence of cameras in the hope that footage would have a morale-boosting propaganda value. The Battle of the Somme had a strong emphasis on depicting the care and medical assistance that the soldiers received, and included scenes of the chivalry shown to enemy prisoners. Even so, the grim realities as shown – including dead combatants’ bodies slumped in trenches, barbed wire, and the dreadful, pockmarked landscape –would surely have alarmed many.

“Parts of the film were shocking to its audiences”, agrees Ian Kikuchi, a historian at the IWM, “in particular the staged shots of men going ‘over the top’ and stepping though barbed wire, and real shots of dead and wounded men.”

Nevertheless, he argues that few members of the film’s domestic audience drew an anti-war message from the film. “Most interpreted the film as evidence of the British army’s stoicism and courage. The sight of dead and wounded men was more likely to generate a feeling that those on the home front should redouble their efforts to win the war, and to ensure that their sacrifice was not in vain. That being said, The Battle of the Somme was seen by audiences overseas in Allied and neutral countries. Among neutral audiences, viewers were more likely to conclude that their country should stay out of the war.”

Ian agrees the film – viewed by an audience of around 20 million people within six weeks, amounting to almost half the British population of the time, with many watching in the nervous hope of catching a glimpse of a family member or friend on screen – is still incredibly moving. “For me it retains its power because it captures the faces and emotions of hundreds of soldiers. None of these men knew what the future would hold for them – many smile and wave at the camera, and others are seen only minutes before they went into combat… many must have been killed or wounded. Everyone seen in the film is now dead, even those who survived the battle and the war, but the images capture them youthful and alive.”

All the footage was shot by just two cameramen, Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, using large, hand-cranked cameras. The equipment was heavy and would only permit a few hundred feet of film to be loaded at a time. Even so, the pair returned to London with 8,000 feet of footage. The IWM exhibition includes a Moy and Bastie camera of the type used by McDowell.

You could argue that The Battle of the Somme went on to shape the tone of many later British war films, which, even when they dramatised the subject, retained an earnest desire to show how things really were done. “As far as films made during the Second World War are concerned, British films often had a documentary aesthetic that has perhaps contributed to their longevity,” says Ian.

The same approach can be seen in British films of the 1950s. The Dam Busters is a classic example, though by the late 1960s and 1970s, epics like The Battle of Britain and The Eagle Has Landed, with their big budgets and large, starry casts, were different in tone. The inspirations behind all these films are examined in the IWM show, as is the myth-making which lay behind David Lean’s shimmering Lawrence of Arabia and the D-Day events so vividly re-enacted in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. The costumes worn by Virginia McKenna in her portrayal of Violette Szabo, a British undercover agent in France during the Second World War, in Carve Her Name With Pride and the solder’s uniform worn by James McAvoy in Atonement are also on display.

Violette Szabo was a war widow, a mother, and an undercover secret agent. Her war work and eventual execution inspired the 1958 film ‘Carve Her Name with Pride’, starring Virginia McKenna. Costume items worn by McKenna will feature in the exhibition alongside historic documents concerning Szabo’s training, arrest, and posthumous recognition of her bravery © IWM

In all of these films, even those that are more glamorising, a discernible lineage back to The Battle of the Somme can be traced in some way or another. That’s quite something for a film made with a camera so heavy that it needed a tripod for stability, and for which the quality of the film was such that it was ill-suited to use in poor light or filming action from a great distance. No wonder one of the cameramen, Malins, received an OBE for his work, and later wrote about it in a grandly titled autobiography, How I Filmed the War.

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