The Battle of the Somme, a 1916 silent film, directed and photographed by Geoffrey Malins & John McDowell
BBC Concert Orchestra
Reviewed by: Brian Barford
Reviewed: 18 November, 2016
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The Battle of the Somme is one of the most successful British films ever made, and remains a powerful experience. Over half the population at the time watched it hoping to catch a glimpse of a loved one. Its success helped raise the status of film from a trashy form of mass-entertainment to a more serious form of communication.
On one level it was a propaganda film shot in June and July 1916 and released before the Battle of the Somme was over. Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell shot footage at the Front and supplemented it with reconstructions, then edited by Malins and producer and documentary maker Charles Urban to give a greater sense of shape. Some of the most extreme images of the dead and wounded were removed as the film was aimed at boosting morale. We now know that some scenes were staged, such as troops crouching in a ditch and then going ‘over the top’ was filmed at a training camp yet the movie has become a moving memorial to those who died.
The First of July 1916 remains the worst single day for casualties in British military history with 19,240 dead and 40,000 wounded.
Much of the 77-minute movie is haphazard and makes for shocking viewing with many dead and wounded, animals too, and German soldiers in a communal grave. It also has moments of levity with resting soldiers smiling for the cameras and smoking enthusiastically.
Laura Rossi, who introduced the re-released film along with the Imperial War Museum’s Senior Curator, Dr Toby Haggith, composed a score in 2007. Rossi’s great-uncle was a stretcher-bearer in the Battle and survived the carnage. It must have been a difficult commission as it would have been essential to provide something theatrically effective while avoiding bombast and sentimentality. It is a dignified score that never seeks to dominate the powerful and affecting images or distil emotional rawness. It is also dramatically successful: quivering strings help us survey the landscape before the attack; the sound of wind sweeping the battlefield is an exercise in terror; and timpani rolls and piano strings simulate the artillery bombardments. A jaunty tune accompanies those returning from an attack and waving for the camera.
Above all, Rossi provides simple music for powerful images. An oboe and a harp accompany stretcher-bearers; a string threnody with echoes of George Butterworth (killed at the Somme) and Vaughan Williams accompanies the images of death and shattered landscapes; and brass fanfares ring out in the closing minutes to offer a sense of relief rather than reinforce the propaganda message. Rossi’s music is an honourable partner to the film. John Gibbons drew dedicated playing from the BBC Concert Orchestra.