Battle of the Somme (The)
R2 - United Kingdom - Network
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (31st October 2008).
The Film

Prior to 1915, both still and moving images of the First World War were prohibited under the order of Lord Kitchener, War Secretary. Kitchener’s decision was part of a series of attempts to regulate the flow of information from the Western Front to British civilians; these attempts at censoring representations of the war were justified through both the Official Secrets Act of 1911 and the Defence of the Realm Act (passed during the first weeks of the war). A number of journalists had already been arrested for their attempts to document what was taking place on the Western Front, including Philip Gibbs, a journalist with The Daily Chronicle who had been present in France at the time of the outbreak of the war and who had begun to report from the Western Front after attaching himself to the British Expeditionary Force. Other journalists, such as the Daily Mail’s William Beach Thomas, were arrested and accused of spying for the enemy. The journalistic accounts of the conflict that were permitted by the War Office were invariably vetted and rewritten by the Press Bureau.

However, in 1916 two cameramen, Geoffrey Malins and John Benjamin McDowell, were somewhat reticently commissioned by the War Office to document what became known as the Battle of the Somme. The completed film was five reels in length, broken down into five ‘parts’: Part One depicted the ‘preparatory action’, the preparations for battle, taking place between June 25th and June 30th; Part Two begins with the Warwickshire Regiment preparing for battle and crosscuts between scenes of British artillery bombarding the enemy lines and scenes of the infantry preparing for the ‘Big Push’; Part Three depicts the battle itself, beginning with the charge that took place on the morning of July 1st; Part Four shows the British wounded and the German prisoners in the aftermath of the battle; and Part Five represents a record of the outcome of the battle, showing the captured German encampments at Fricourt and Mametz.

The film had originally been planned as a short documentary but was expanded into a feature-length record of the battle. It was edited by Malins and Charles Urban. (Malins’ account of the film’s production is detailed in his memoirs How I Filmed the War, published in 1920, in which Malins neglects to mention McDowell’s input.) Following its completion, the film was exhibited (on August 10th, 1916) to a selected audience at the Scala in London, and within a fortnight it had been screened in thirty-four cinemas in London before being distributed throughout the rest of the country. The film was originally distributed as a propaganda piece, and some screenings were prefaced by an introduction that had been scripted by David Lloyd George, the then-Minister of War.

However, the scenes of dead and injured British troops undercut the jingoistic intention of the War Office, and in the interview included on Network’s DVD Roger Smither (the Keeper of the Film and Video Archive at the Imperial War Museum) quotes the comments that the author H. Rider Haggard made in his diary after viewing the film: Haggard stated that the film ‘is not a cheerful sight, but it does give a wonderful idea of the fighting on the Front, especially of the shelling and its effects [….] War has always been dreadful, but never, I suppose, as dreadful as today’.

Many of the images from the film have become iconic and are embedded in the collective memory as a key part of the iconography of the First World War, used frequently in books about the conflict and quoted visually in films about the Great War. In his interview, Roger Smither claims that the film is ‘as important […] as a contemporary diary or despatch’ and is remembered for ‘its role in creating the lasting visual impression of what the First World War fighting actually involved for British troops’. The film was also one of the first ‘battlefield documentaries’ and ‘set the mould’ for this specific genre of documentary filmmaking.



In 2005, the film was entered into Unesco’s Memory of the World register. As Roger Smither observes in the interview contained on this disc, the film is the ‘first British document in any medium that had been registered, and it was also […] the first time that a documentary film, rather than a feature film, had been included’. A digital restoration of the film was premiered in 2006 and an ambassador from Unesco handed over the certificate of the film’s inclusion in the Memory of the World register to the Director General of the Imperial War Museum. For this restoration, a new score was composed by Laura Rossi, and this score is included on Network’s DVD release alongside, on a separate audio track, a medley of songs compiled by The Bioscope’s columnist for music J. Morton Hutcheson. Hutcheson had in 1916 been recruited by the distributor of the film, William Jury, to put together a medley of thirty-nine pieces of music ranging from classical pieces to pop songs. For this restoration, Hutcheson’s medley has been overseen by musical director Stephen Horne, and in an interview contained on Network’s DVD Horne rightly points out that at times Hutcheson’s musical choices seem in discord with the images shown on the screen. As Horne notes, our relationship with the music has changed in part because of the ‘historical hindsight’ that modern audiences possess in relation to the Battle of the Somme; as a consequence, when jaunty pieces of popular music or marching music are played during the preparations for the battle, modern audiences experience a sense of dissonance.

Video

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1; the interviews are presented in anamorphic 1.78:1.

The film has undergone extensive restoration and the image on Network’s DVD is highly commendable.

Audio

The film contains four audio tracks. The 1916 medley of songs selected by Hutcheson is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. Laura Rossi’s new score, composed for the 2006 restoration, is likewise presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo.

All of the interviews contain optional English subtitles.

Extras

Interview with Roger Smither, Keeper of the Film and Photograph Archives at the Imperial War Museum (24:26)
In this interview, Smither discusses the importance of the film and its role in determining subsequent generations’ perceptions of the conflict on the Western Front. He reflects on the film’s inscription into Unesco’s Memory of the World register in 2005 and comments on the circumstances surrounding the film’s production. He also discusses the restoration of the film in 2006 and the decision to commission Laura Rossi to write a new score for the film.

Interview with Laura Rossi, composer of the new score (7:54)
In this interview, composer Laura Rossi discusses the difficulties she faced in writing music for a film that is absent of dialogue and requires a score that runs for the whole length of the film, as opposed to a film score in which the music is simply there ‘to underline or enhance the shorter cues which flow in and out of the scene’. Rossi also discusses her personal relationship with the Battle of the Somme and her great uncle’s role as a stretcher bearer at the Somme; reflecting on her uncle’s diary entries gave her an ability to empathise with the material and compose music that was in sympathy with the images and which didn’t ‘over-romanticise or over-dramatise these images, as I think they are striking enough by themselves’.

Interview with Stephen Horne & Dr Toby Haggith (17:56)
In this piece, comments by Stephen Horne (pianist and musical director of the 1916 medley that accompanies the film) are intercut with comments by Dr Toby Haggith (of the Film and Video Archive at the Imperial War Museum). Horne and Haggith discuss the relevance of the musical accompaniment and the ways in which the audience’s perceptions of the film are in part defined by the music that is selected to accompany it. Hutcheson’s role in compiling the original medley is discussed in some detail.

Missing scenes and fragments
Six missing scenes and fragments or variants of existing scenes are presented here: Scene 20 (1:03), Scene 21 (1:02), Scene 29 (1:19), Scene 29 (variant) (2:09), Scene 33 (0:44), Scene 57 (1:56)

Commentary by Roger Smither
Smither’s commentary is well-researched and filled with historical detail; his comments are also well-scripted in terms of the detail they imbue about the production of the film. Smither discusses the ways in which modern-day perceptions of the film differ from the ways in which the film was perceived by audiences in 1916; he also provides an objective examination of some of the controversies surrounding footage which it is suggested has either been ‘staged’ or mislabelled by the intertitles.

Overall

Network’s DVD release of this important documentary is packed with fascinating contextual material, and further to this the extensive restoration work means that the presentation of the film itself is marvellous. For anyone interested in either the First World War or the ways in which conflict has been represented in cinema, this DVD release is a must-buy.


For more information, please visit the website of
Network DVD.

The Film: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


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