BATTLE OF THE SOMME, THE (J.B. & Geoffrey H. Malins McDowell, 1916, UK, 74m, BW)
Produced by W. F. Jury
Music by J. Morton Hutcheson (original 1916 medley)
Laura Rossi (2006)
Cinematography G. H. Malins
J. B. McDowell
Edited by Charles Urban
G. H. Malins
Distributed by British Topical Committee for War Films
21 August 1916
Country United Kingdom
Language Silent film
The Battle of the Somme (US title, Kitchener's Great Army in the Battle of the Somme), is a 1916 British documentary and propaganda war film, shot by two official cinematographers, Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell. The film depicts the British Army in the preliminaries and early days of the Battle of the Somme (1 July – 18 November 1916). The film had its première in London on 10 August 1916 and was released generally on 21 August. The film depicts trench warfare, marching infantry, artillery firing on German positions, British troops waiting to attack on 1 July, treatment of wounded British and German soldiers, British and German dead and captured German equipment and positions. A scene during which British troops crouch in a ditch then "go over the top" was staged for the camera behind the lines.
The film was a great success, watched by about 20 million people in Britain in the first six weeks of exhibition and distributed in eighteen other countries. A second film, covering a later phase of the battle, was released in 1917 as The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks. In 1920 the film was preserved in the film archive of the Imperial War Museum. In 2005 it was inscribed on UNESCO's Memory of the World Register and digitally restored, and in 2008, was released on DVD.
The Battle of the Somme is a black-and-white silent film in five parts, with sequences divided by intertitles summarising the contents. The first part shows preparations for battle behind the British front line; there are sequences of troops marching towards the front, French peasants continuing their farm work in rear areas, the stockpiling of munitions, Major-General Beauvoir De Lisle addresses the 29th Division and some of the preparatory bombardment by 18-pounder, 60-pounder and 4.7-inch guns, 6-inch, 9.2-inch howitzers and 2-inch mortars is shown.
The second part depicts more preparations, troops moving into front line trenches, the intensification of the artillery barrage by 12-inch and 15-inch howitzers, a 9.45-inch Heavy Mortar and the detonation of the mine under the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt. Part three begins with the attack on First day on the Somme (1 July 1916), with some re-enactments and shows the recovery of British wounded and German prisoners. The fourth part shows more scenes of British and German wounded, the clearing of the battlefield and some of the aftermath. The final part shows scenes of devastation, including the ruins of the village of Mametz, British troops at rest and preparations for the next stage of the advance.
The documentary is a genre that was born at the same time as the cinema itself because at the beginning the cinematographer was there to reflect and capture daily events of varying degrees of importance: the arrival of a train to a station, the exit of the proletarian masses from the factories or even the exciting view of the parishioners going in and out of church. It followed that the new invention was a perfect instrument to display images, costumes and events that would interest older people as well as the new long haired generation.
But "The Battle Of The Somme" it is not a trivial show of mundane events during the early times of the cinema; it is a document of a great importance for film history and history itself. The film depicts the terrible and largest WWI battle; it happened in a long front north and south of the River Somme in northern France and was a huge battle in which more than a million people from different nationalities died. The film is an exceptional document of the horrors of war that shows the great magnitude of that that tragic war or really any war. This conflict changed Europedrastically ( the end of the innocence ) and, even worse, rather than deter future wars, it only led the way to the even more terrible WWII.
The movie is divided into five parts, which are presented as a chronological account of the battle. The first two involve preparations and troop movements, the third shows the beginning of the battle, while the fourth mostly shows wounded and prisoners returning to the British side, and the final chapter shows some of the aftermath. Soldiers are generally identified by division or unit, and no names (even that of a general addressing his troops) are given. A lot of the men look at the camera, and it’s interesting to note the looks on their faces. Occasionally, they stare blankly at the camera, but more often they seem cheerful and wave or smile. No one shows fear or anger. No gunfire or hand-to-hand combat is shown, although we do see a progression of increasingly large mortars and cannon firing at the enemy lines, and also some shots showing the explosions from a distance. Scenes depicting the men going “over the top” in chapter three are simulations, however there are some shots of what appear to be real body piles in the later parts of the movie.
It is also highly effective documentary cinema. The images in this movie are probably familiar to anyone who’s seen a documentary about World War One. There just isn’t that much other footage from the period, so certain shots from this one show up in almost everything that gets made. The footage lacks sound and color, but it shows us images of the real people, animals, and machines that fought the battle and allows us to witness military activity from a now-remote past. One thing that this footage makes obvious is the importance of horse-power in fighting at the time. Far more cannon and supplies are shown as drawn by horses than motors. We also see how many dogs were present at the front, and one especially powerful image shows a dead dog lying next to “his master” (according to the intertitle) on the battlefield. We definitely get a clear picture of the French countryside before, and its devastation after, the battle. One panorama shot of the ruined town of Mametz seems to go on forever, reminding one of later images of Hiroshima.
The film was photographed, not directed,-there is a big difference between those terms- by the British official cinematographers Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell whose primary intention was to film such an important battle but since they ended up shooting quite a lot footage, the British Topical Committee for War Films decided to release it as the first feature-length documentary film that depicts war combat. The film is structured and divided into different parts in which can be seen the different war preliminaries and the consequences of the battle, besides the tactics and arms used in the WWI. Since it was released during the war the movie functions as a propaganda film for the British Army. And of course it exposes to the civilians the horrors of war that was still raging. The film was shown in Great Britain and many countries of the world while the battles continued in France.
"The Battle Of The Somme" it is an exceptional war document of historical importance, a silent film that, although it seems a redundancy, doesn't need words.
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