Released in August 1916, The Battle of the Somme documented the activities of British troops during the Battle of the Somme’s early days, journeying from the optimism of the preparatory stages through to the later horrors of trench warfare.
Between 1915 and 1916, cinematographers Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell traveled to Northern France on commission from the British Topical Committee for War Films and the War Office, immersing themselves among the soldiers of the British Army as they prepared for what would become the largest World War I battle fought on the Western Front, and one of the bloodiest battles in history.
With 20 million Brits flocking to see the spectacle on the big screen in the first six weeks of its release alone— an incredible figure given that the population was 46 million — the film was a phenomenal success.
After seeing The Battle of the Somme, Secretary of State for War and future Prime Minister David Lloyd George is said to have declared, “If the exhibition of this picture all over the world does not end war, God help civilization’. Sadly, this sentiment would prove to be wishful thinking, but ever since The Battle of the Somme first transfixed viewers, war has continued to be a source of fascination and inspiration for filmmakers and cinemagoers around the world.
The War Museum’s “Real to Reel” takes us behind the scenes of iconic war movies; with a mix of personal stories, wartime artifacts and film industry memorabilia, featuring the props, scripts, costumes (look out for Liam Neeson’s Schindler’s List outfits) and set designs of movies from War Horse to Casablanca, Apocalypse Now to Jarhead, with a host of movie clips from many dotted around, making for a fully kinetic experience.
Crucially, the exhibition explores the ways in which war allows filmmakers to tell stories which traverse a vast array of human experience — from love and romance, to tragedy and fear — with movies offering an invaluable insight into varying perspectives on warfare; whether it’s the jubilance of The Dam Busters, the patriotic pride of An American Sniper, or the skepticism of Three Kings. As curator Laura Clouting puts it, “Cinema has got this appetite for understanding conflict and it is because war is the most extreme human experience, whether you are a soldier or a civilian.”
Beginning with a look at the famous or infamous figures that have inspired filmmakers to produce stories of war for the silver screen, from T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) to Adolf Hitler; and moving onto a mix of specific case studies including Stanley Kubrik’s meticulous research process, to the role of animation in historical propaganda films, “Real to Reel” offers an extensive, comprehensive foray into this most versatile of genres, providing fascinating and perhaps uncomfortable insights into our enduringly complex relationship with conflict.
“Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies” is open from 1st July 2016 to 8th January 2017 at The Imperial War Museum.
The Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London, SE1 6HZ, UK, +44 20 7416 5000