With our troops on the Yser


With Our Troops on the Yser, from http://www.ledoux.be/dvd

In this month, the ninetieth anniversary of the ending of the First World War, there have been many commeorative events, programmes and publication. The Bioscope has already reported on the Imperial War Museum’s DVD release of The Battle of the Somme. Now comes news of another important film, one originally released ten years after the war, issued on DVD for the first time. The film is With Our Troops on the Yser, a record of the war from the Belgian point of view, though a record of a quite particular kind. Here’s the blurb promoting it:

After four years of horror, the First World War ended on 11 November 1918. Ten years later, a Belgian veteran named Clemens De Landtsheer made With Our Troops on the Yser, a film on the ‘Great War’. The film is neither a triumphant retrospective nor an objective documentary, but a bitter protest in which the hardships of ‘our boys’, the simple soldiers at the front, are central.

As secretary of the ‘Yser Pilgrimage Committee’ De Landtsheer was part of a movement with a political agenda: to promote Flemish nationalism by emphasizing the purportedly disproportionate suffering and abuses endured by Flemish soldiers during the war. To this end, his film combines authentic archival footage from the war with staged images from existing fiction films, as well as a tendentious voice-over commentary. The result is both a unique cinematic experiment and a fascinating historical document, as Daniël Biltereyst (Ghent University) and Roel Vande Winkel (Ghent University – University of Antwerp) explain in the extras on the DVD.

With Our Troops on the Yser was screened more than 400 times in the interwar period. Its success inspired De Landtsheer to found the company Flandria Film. The fascinating story behind De Landtsheer’s film career is also illustrated in the extra documentary on this DVD, accompanied by several Flandria Film productions.

With Our Troops on the Yser was originally released in 1928, but was subsequently revised and augmented several times. The version on this DVD is the definitive colour version of 1933, restored by Noël Desmet (Belgian Royal Film Archive). The soundtrack is based on the original musical recordings used by De Landtsheer to accompany the images. The film can also be viewed with a scholarly audio commentary (in English, French or Dutch) co-written by Leen Engelen (Media & Design Academy), Roel Vande Winkel and Bruno Mestdagh (Royal Film Archive).


The film runs for 83mins, and comes with Dutch intertitles and English or French subtitles. Bonus features are three other Flandria Films productions by Clemens De Landtsheer: 10th Yser Pilgrimage (1929, 12 mins), Winter Has Come – Ice Festivities at Temse (1933-1934, 5 mins), Jules Van Hevel Tribute (1935, 9 mins); and a 25mins documentary Clemens De Landtsheer, by Daniël Biltereyst, Roel Vande Winkel and Erik Martens. Clearly this a pamphleteering film demanding contextualisation, particularly knowledge of Belgian nationalism, and the understanding of the experience of the war from the Flemish point of view. The commentary is provided by some of the leading lights in film and history today. Well done to all concerned for bringing out this title on DVD and widening our understanding of how film of the war was used and understood, not just during the conflict but in its aftermath. The DVD is Region 0, and is available from the Cinémathèque Royal de Belgique.

First film dogs


The Lumières’ Le Faux cul-de-jatte (1897), from http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog

David Bordwell recently posted yet another jaw-droppingly good piece on his Observations on film art and Film Art blog, whose consistently high quality makes the rest of us look like mere gossip-mongers. This post, entitled Gradations of emphasis, starring Glenn Ford, examines widescreen cinema (you’ll have to read it to find out what the title means). But there was one aspect of it that caught my eye, something captured drifting across the screen, that reminded me of one of the odder corners of early film down which I like to wander sometimes.

In his survey of lateral staging in film (i.e. action happening within the frame, literally coming in from the sides), Bordwell looks at early film strategies, and reproduces frames from the Lumières’ Le Faux cul-de-jatte (1897), in which a fake amputee begs in the street. He describes the action, until one frame (on the right, above), where a stray dog enters the action from the right. He writes, “The cop comes to the beggar, partially blocking the dog, who takes care of other business. (Not everything in this movie is staged.)” What interests Bordwell is the staged action. What interests me is the dog. Let me explain…

Cinema’s first dog, appearing in Edison’s Athlete with Wand (filmed February 1894) is noticeably at a remove from action and camera (though obedient enough to keep within the frame)

It was when I was presenting a series of programmes at the National Film Theatre on Victorian cinema (i.e. films made before 1901), in 1994, that I first noticed a peculiar phenomenon. As I introduced each short film in the compilation, and pointed out those points of central interest which I had recorded in my notes, I started to notice that the audience’s attention was being frequently been drawn away from the supposed subject and centre of the film’s attention, and instead they were detecting action to the edge of the frame, or crossing the frame, interrupting the action or courageously ignoring it, creating a vital counter-narrative. In short, their attention was irresistibly drawn to stray dogs.

This was a surprising phenomenon, which I exploited at the time for some simple humour, but on mature reflection it seemed that here was a hitherto wholly ignored yet clearly important facet of early cinema, a theme overlooked yet superabundantly obvious once pointed out to the idle observer. The number of stray dogs in early films is considerable, as anyone familiar with the period will readily acknowledge, and their distracting and engrossing qualities seemed to be in urgent need of analysis. Why were stray dogs accepted in early film dramas? What were they doing there? Where did they come from? Were there more such dogs in British films than others? What could their presence tell us about early film practice? How could one construct an overarching vision of early cinema that encompasses the animal and the accidental? Why are there no stray cats? Why, ultimately, were the audience looking in the wrong direction? Were the original audiences similarly distracted? In what sense could it said that such canine interruptions were directed, and by what agency? I resolved to write a paper that would answer these nagging enquiries. It would be called ‘First Film Dogs’.


I began first by collating the necessary data, and working on a critical theory which would most usefully and succinctly describe the phenomenon. The examples were easy to find: the exuberant Jack Russell which joins in the punishing of a sweep who wanders into a garden and dirties the laundry in James Williamson’s Washing the Sweep (1898, left); the stray dogs wandering over the parade ground amid the marching soldiers in the Boer War actuality Lord Roberts Hoisting the Union Jack at Pretoria (Warwick, 1900), upsetting the solemnity of the situation; dogs wandering casually onto the studio set of early Pathé films; the dog that takes position centre frame in film of a genuine mining tragedy funeral in the middle of the Pathé mining drama Au Pays Noir (1905); actualities such as Funeral of the World’s Greatest Monarch (1910), where King Edward VII’s own dog takes part in the procession, and is then accompanied by a passing stray (such thematic complexity!); the efforts of ‘Monarch’ the Lifeboat Dog to contribute to a life-saving re-enactment performed on the beach in Launch of the Worthing Lifeboat (Biograph, 1899).


Monarch’s contribution to an actuality which in fact incorporates a dramatic element illustrated the next stage of the theme, where the cinema progressively encroached upon the freedom of the dog, containing the dog within the frame, from Edison’s Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog (1901, right, though watch the film and see how the dog, Mannie, keeps trying to leap out of the frame only to be drawn back into it); to the passing dogs that enthusiatically take part in early chase films; to the triumph/defeat of Hepworth’s Rescued by Rover (1905), where the dog’s natural motion is contained entirely within the cinematic narrative. Did the sequel to that film, The Dog Outwits the Kidnapper (1905), where Rover gets to drive a car, indicate canine empowerment or slavery? What price the freedom of early cinematic form, when all that results from it in the end is Rin Tin Tin and Lassie?

The critical theory at this stage consisted mostly of a series of such questions, without a key, but I began to work on the concept of ‘canine space’. There was more going on in these early films than first appeared. There was a central performance, or news event, which the original catalogues declared to be the subject matter, but this could not necessarily be what the audience saw, nor was such a dictate bound to be obeyed by those appearing in these films. Anyone familiar with early films will know of the puzzled glances from passers-by that characterise street scenes, of the distracting matter which suggests that the camera operator was not in full command of the subject. In such circumstances, dogs run free. What adds to the fascination, reinforcing one’s belief in the essentially liberated nature of early films, is that stray dogs can be found in studio films of the period. The drama is enacted, the comedy routine performed, and in the background a dog watches, or wanders past, or joins in if it so desires, and this is accepted as part of the total action. ‘Canine space’ is therefore that other space, that world onto which the camera has intruded.


Rover (played by Blair) and Cecil Hepworth in Rescued by Rover (1905)

I never did write the paper. It was intended as a spoof of early film studies, but I couldn’t quite get the humour right. I was scheduled to give the paper at a British silent film festival some years ago, but in the end got up and apologised to the audience and said that the paper was beyond me. But I gave them enough of the argument that it probably affected the rest of the festival, as people starting spotting stray animals in every film, and ever since I’ve had people send me images or information on roving animals which they’ve spotted in some silent or other. A chord was touched.

It’s not a phenomenon entirely restricted to the early cinema (there a renowned stray dog in Joseph Losey’s Accident for instance), but it is a noticeable characteristic of early film which could make one think about the special free nature of film at that time. A cinema where dogs run free is a cinema that has not yet been pinned down, one that lets us look at the edges. You could call it the cinema of distractions. You could theorise about it seriously – there is perhaps some parallel with Roland Barthes’ concept of the ‘punctum’, the oddity in a photograph that shouldn’t really be there but which draws your attention away from what the photograph is ostensibly trying to convey.

Maybe I’ll write the paper one day. Maybe it’s the sort of paper that’s not meant to be written. Maybe we’re always going to be looking at the centre, while at the edges, or wandering across the frame, another kind of story passes by, always eluding us even though it may for a moment catch our eye. I don’t know. Try asking a dog.

Slapstick is here again



Slapstick, Bristol’s silent film comedy festival, returns 22-25 January 2009. At just the time of year when we probably need it most, the Bristol festival (now in its fifth year) will be bringing together a programme of silent comedies with guest star comedians of today. The festival opens with a special gala event at Colston Hall of Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality (1923), with live music from the Prima Visa Social Club, hosted by Paul Merton, who will introduce a supporting programme of comedy shorts including Laurel and Hardy in Liberty (1929).

Promised guests include Merton, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden, Neil Innes, and the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain playing to films from the BFI National Archive. British comedy great Eric Sykes will appear at the Bristol Old Vic on January 25th, in conversation with Phill Jupitus, to talk about his career as a writer and performer, to include a screening of his own classic ‘modern’ silent, The Plank (1967). Other venues will be the Watershed and the Arnolfini.

The remainder of the programme remains to be announced, but you are advised to book early, as this blurb from the festival says:

We are expecting unprecedented demand for these tickets and expect them to sell out quickly. A limited amount of priority tickets have been put aside for Bristol Silents Members and those people who purchase festival passes until 17th November and will be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.

All Bristol Silents members and delegates will be able to purchase tickets at discounted rates.

We look forward to welcoming you once more to an extraordinary weekend of film, music and laughter in the heart of Bristol and would like to take this opportunity to thanks you for your ongoing support.

More programme news here as it appears.

Any more for Metropolis?



You will remember the great excitement earlier this year when a 16mm copy of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis turned up in Argentina, with scenes missing from existing 35mm prints. We await the outcome of whatever restoration will eventually bring those scenes to us, but now we hear of more on Metropolis from South America.

A 9.5mm print of the film has turned up in Chile, specifically at the Cinemateca de la Universidad de Chile. A report in the Ecuadorian newspaper El Telégrafo (never let it be said that The Bioscope does not search far and wide in its quest for the best news and information for you) says that the print was uncovered in 2006, though it had been in their vaults for years, but wasn’t immediately recognised as a priority. Now they have sent it to the folk at Murnau-Stiftung, which already has care of the Argentinian material.

We shouldn’t be throwing our hats up in the air over this one, as Pathé-Baby 9.5mm copies for the home market were generally cut-downs from full releases. In any case, no examination has been undertaken of the print, and it will be at least six months before we get any news concerning its contents, as the report states (you can get the drift of it through Google Translate’s English interpretation):

Apareció original de Metrópolis

La cinta en formato 9,5 milímetros de Fritz Lang fue hallada en Chile

Una edición presumiblemente original de la película Metrópolis, realizada por el alemán Fritz Lang en 1926 y uno de los símbolos del cine expresionista, fue descubierta en la Cinemateca de la Universidad de Chile.

La cinta, en formato de 9,5 milímetros, permaneció durante decenios en las bodegas de la Cinemateca y solo en el año 2006 se constató que se trataba de una edición similar a la que se exhibió en Alemania para su estreno comercial, en 1927.

Así lo confirmó al diario La Tercera Luis Horta, restaurador y encargado técnico de la Cinemateca, que precisó que las latas que guardan el filme solo decían Metrópolis en la cubierta.

“Chequeamos y vimos que era una rareza; se trataba de una versión en 9,5 milímetros, formato que está obsoleto, y que tiene una perforación al medio y no al costado como el de 35 milímetros, lo que hace imposible proyectarla”, dijo.

El experto explicó que el descubrimiento no se hizo público de inmediato, (en 2006), porque la Cinemateca tenía como prioridad la recuperación de cintas de los chilenos Raúl Ruiz, Helvio Soto y Miguel Littin.

En todo caso, anunció que la próxima semana la película será enviada a Alemania, a la Fundación Murnau, dueña de los derechos de Metrópolis, para su verificación.

A juicio de Horta, solo en esa fundación podrán determinar si la encontrada en Chile es la edición de 1927, tras un proceso de verificación que durará entre seis meses y un año.

Sostuvo que hasta la década de los 40’s, circuló una edición de 120 minutos realizada por la compañía estadounidense Paramount, pero en 2001 la Fundación Murnau hizo una restauración en base a varias copias y logró agregarle algunas escenas, que aumentaron su duración a 147 minutos.

Sin embargo, recordó que esa versión, estrenada el 10 de enero de 1927, era una reducción hecha por el propio Lang, cuyo original duraba 210 minutos.

Horta manifestó que la película fue olvidada por décadas, porque tras el golpe militar de 1973, época de quema de libros y destrucción de la cultura en Chile, el entonces director de la Cinemateca, Pedro Chaskel, cambió los rótulos de algunas películas para evitar que fueran destruidas por los militares.

My thanks to regular Bioscopist David Pierce for bringing this to my attention, and acknowledgment to DVD Savant where he spotted it.

Pathé treasures



Here’s a real treasure trove. The Fondation Jérôme Seydoux Pathé is an organisation deciated to collecting documents and artefacts (everything, in effect, except the films) relating to Pathé. Their collection, based in Paris, comprises photographs, posters, business documents, cinematograph machinery, books, periodicals, scripts, brochures, designs… seemingly everything connected with the business empire created by Charles Pathé.

Examples of these can be found on their stylish, Flash-driven website, which has background information on each type of collection, and a useful historical timeline from the 1890s to the present day. There is also information on a Pathé filmography which they are producing, building on the herculean work undertaken by Henri Bousquet (who has produced several volumes documenting the output of Pathé in the silent era) and others. The site is, please note, all in French.


Sample search results from the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux Pathé database

The Fondation has now produced a database of its holdings (accessible from this link or via the Collections section of the site – click on Base de données). The database provides preliminary information on over 25,000 artefacts, designed to assist any researcher prior to their visiting the Fondation in person. It’s easy to use (again, all in French), and a sample search under Ferdinand Zecca (Charles Pathé’s right-hand man in the early days) yields 219 results. Many of the search results come with an associated image, creating a marvellously rich gallery of Pathé history (just look at all the extraordinary posters for the first Pathé productions if you search under Zecca).

Jérôme Seydoux is head of the Pathé and his brother Nicolas Seydoux head of the Gaumont group. Gaumont and Pathé cinemas are now merged (as EuroPalaces), as are the Gaumont-Pathé Archives. You can find the whole complex history the Ketupa site (a useful resource in itself for media ownership history).

My thanks to Mariann Sträuli for alerting to me to this site.

Update (June 2009): The filmography is now available (1896-1913).

Sounds and silents

A call for papers has now been issued for The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain: Textual, Material and Technological Sources, a conference being held 7-9 June 2009 at the Barbican, London. The conference is being organised as part of the Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain project, which is one of a network of project organised under the Arts & Humanities Research Council‘s Beyond Text programme.


AHRC-Funded Beyond Text Network “The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain”

The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain: Textual, Material, Technological Sources

Sunday 7th-Tuesday 9th June 2009

Institute of Musical Research and the Barbican, London, UK

We invite papers from interested parties from all related disciplines to participate in this, the first of four events to establish and develop a research network concerned with the variety of sonic and musical practices of “silent” film exhibition in Britain, interpreted in the broadest possible sense. Explorations of “sources” – of whatever kind – are particularly welcome, as are presentations by archivists, curators, and performers.

Potential topics might include:

  • Sonic and musical practices used alongside the exhibition of early film in Britain
  • The potential sources for understanding these practices
  • Their problems. How we might excavate them
  • The challenges that Britain faces in preserving the existing historical legacy of these sonic and musical practices, instruments, equipment, and spaces
  • Relationship between these practices and those of cinema’s antecedent forms in Britain
  • Distinctive musical practices pursued in Britain, compared to other countries
  • Perspectives from other disciplines, other countries
  • Use of eye-witness memory

Preference will be given to papers with a British focus, though we may be able to accommodate papers that explore the same issues in other national contexts.

Individual Papers: Abstracts of 250 words for individual papers of up to 25-30 minutes should be e-mailed, as a Word attachment, to Mrs Valerie James at music [at] sas.ac.uk. We will also consider shorter presentations of around 15 minutes on specific issues relating to sources. Please include your name and title, institutional affiliation (if any), email address, and postal address.

Round tables: Round table organizers should provide an abstract of 700 words introducing the discussion topic for a 90 minute/2 hour presentation. All panel members must be listed (names and affiliations). The round table organizer is the chairperson and acts as moderator. Proposals should be e-mailed to Mrs Valerie James at music [at] sas.ac.uk as a Word attachment, along with your name and title, institutional affiliation (if any), email address, and postal address.

The deadline for all proposals is 9th January 2009.

Postgraduate scholarships: Postgraduate students working in this, and/or related areas may apply for one of two scholarships (to include basic travel and accommodation, and conference fee and refreshments). Applicants should send the following information to Mrs Valerie James music [at] sas.ac.uk: name, institution where studying, and an outline of their (related) research project.

Should be fun. Start excavating.

Silents in the Hills


The Quantocks

Now here’s a commendable thing. The third Wiveliscombe Silent Film Festival (aka Silents in the Hills i.e. the Quantocks) takes place in the small Somerset town on 14-16 November.

The festival opens with Louise Brooks in Diary of a Lost Girl, with musical accompaniment by Devon-based harpist Elizabeth-Jane Baldry (fresh from her star turn at Pordenone). On Saturday 15th they are showing Metropolis, with accompaniment by Reflektor (Jan Kopinski and Steve Iliffe), and on the Sunday there’s Buster Keaton in Sherlock Junior and Lon Chaney Snr in The Phantom of the Opera, accompanied by Alan Eason and Andy McFarlane, guitarist and violinist from D.A.T.A. All films will be shown at the New Hall at Wiveliscombe Primary School, North Street, Wiveliscombe (where a special free show of comedy shorts for the children will be put on before the main Festival begins.)

More details from the festival web page.

100 years ago

100 years ago, The Bioscope was relieved that a certain type of film was certain to be no more:

Indecency’s Decline and Fall

The indecent picture is departing, unwept, unhonoured, and unsung. It has been tried in the balance of public opinion, and has been found wanting. It has been adjudged by the general consent of the public to be “not what we want.” The great majority of manufacturers and showmen have known all along that clean amusement is what is wanted by that section of their patrons which really matters. They have relegated the questionable film to the zone of undesirables, and so, banned by the respectable frequenter of our great picture halls, and uncountenanced by the bulk of manufactuers and dealers simply because they respect public opinion, and themselves recognise the evil which would most assuredly be the result of its constant exhibition. The indecent picture is gradually disappearing. It is mortifying to think that the man whose sole mission on earth seems to be to pull the world down into the mire, should ever have found a place in the bioscope world. But it is gratifying to note that with the steady rise of this form of entertainment into the favour of the populance [sic], there arose men who were ready to give the people real healthy diversion, to minister to the man, not to the beast. The result we all know. It has been the big jump into popularity of the really elevating yet dramatic picture, a huge slump in the output of the low-down manufacturer, and a big increase in the number of patrons who are in search of a good, sensible form of recreation, for themselves and for their children, and who are willing to pay for it. Bioscope entertainments must necessarily have a big hand in the moulding or the marring of a country’s morals, and it behoves us as fellow-workers for the general good of all mankind, to all lend a hand in the work of stamping out this evil altogether and placing those dealers and manufacturers who are inclined to look on it with an encouraging eye, in their proper places – outside the bioscope business.

The Bioscope, 6 November 1908, p. 3.

How indecent did they mean by indecent? Pornographic films of every hue had been produced from practically the start of cinema, but these were really only encountered in ‘smoking concerts’, men’s clubs and brothels. Pathé kept films it described as Scènes grivoises d’un caractère piquant in its catalogue during the early 1900s, and there were companies like Austria’s Saturn Films (examples of whose output can be found on the Europa Film Treasures site) producing coyly erotic films, but these would not have made into the public halls and proto-cinemas of London at this period.

Yet clearly there were shows not reported by the film trade press whose existence threatened the reputation of the industry. Although some research has been done on early pornographic films, little written evidence remains, as might be expected. While one can speculate on what to read between the lines of this editorial piece, what is most striking about it is the sense of responsibility coming out of general popularity. “Bioscope entertainments must necessarily have a big hand in the moulding or the marring of a country’s morals … ” – that’s big claim for what was still a relatively small industry, albeit one just about to mushroom in size to a remarkable degree. The editor of the Bioscope evidently foresaw this, and the anguished debates over motion pictures and morality which were to follow – and which have remained with us, in one form or another, ever since.

Lessons from Toledo

There has been quite an on-rush of new material appearing on the Internet Archive, some of it relating to our subject and period, and I’ll be working my way through selected titles and adding them to the Bioscope Library. First up is the Reverend John J. Phelan’s Motion Pictures as a Phase of Commercialized Amusement in Toledo, Ohio (1919). This is another example of a social survey driven by moral concerns rather than social science itself, and the distaste implied by the book’s title is reinforced by these lines from its introduction:

Students of social science are in quite general agreement as to the necessity of community control
of public commercialized amusements.

And yet there is rather more to this study than disdainful suspicion of popular taste for the movies. To begin with, Phelan recognises the virtues, listing these key advantages that motion pictures offered society:

1. The providing of a reasonable-priced and highly entertaining form of amusement.
2. Convenience both as to accessibility and continuous play hours.
3. The promotion of family unity – as seen in attendance of the entire family.
4. The counteraction against the influence of the brothel, saloon, public dance hall and other questionable forms of amusement.
5. A provision for amusement and relaxation.
6. The supplying of information in regard to travel, history and world events.
7. The treatise of high moral and educational themes.
8. The movies as an “art.”

So, while Phelan feels that the movies may appeal to those “who feed their nature upon the abnormal, distorted, suggestive and far too often, vicious things of life”, he feels that they are capable of “moral and educational worth”. But what makes his study valuable for us is that he wants to back up his understanding of motion pictures with empirical data.

Using Toledo as his subject, Phelan tells the number, type, size, location, ownership and function of the different cinemas in his town (there were six in 1919). He tells us of their proximity to other forms of commercialised amusements (saloons, dance halls etc.). We learn of their value, the rental fees charge, and the cost of machinery, fabric, employees, musicians, advertising, lighting and heating. He supplies figures on the composition of audiences, prices of admission, and the construction of cinema programmes. We learn what it cost to invest in the cinema business, the operating expenses and the revenue. This is all very useful data.

Phelan provides evidence of studies conducted at individual schools. There is a long list of suitable educational films, by itself an illuminating guide to how this new branch of the film business was starting to blossom. There is plenty on the moral issues, censorship and the hoped-for attractions of “non-commercialized” amusements valiantly fighting their losing battle against the irresistible attraction of the screen. Intriguingly, Phelan ends each section of the book with a series of questions for other “social studies” students, indicating the sort of things they should be asking of their own territories should they intend to conduct similar surveys.

The book concludes with substantial appendices. These includes a valuable bibliography; examples of relevant legislation; a list of all Ohio cinemas with owners, managers, seating, location and number of employees; sample questionnaires; sample testimony from juvenile courts; and much more. Beyond the moralising, this is study with a great deal of practical information to inform a particular study of American film-going in 1919 – well worth investigating further.

The dead

All images in this post are frame grabs from the DVD of The Battle of the Somme (1916)

Is it right to let us see men dying? Yes. Is it a sacrilege? No. If our spirit be purged of curiosity and purified with awe the sight is hallowed. There is no sacrilege if we are fit for the seeing … I say it is regenerative and resurrective for us to see war stripped bare. Heaven knows that we need the supreme katharsis, the ultimate cleansing. We grow indifferent too quickly … These are dreadful sights but their dreadfulness is as wholesome as Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’. It shakes the kaleidoscope of war into human reality … I say that these pictures are good for us.

Those words were written by James Douglas in The Star (25 September 1916, p. 2). He was reacting to a screening of the film The Battle of the Somme, a film whose impact upon audiences was unprecedented and – it could be argued – has never been repeated. Douglas, like many commentators, was trying to rationalise what he saw, to express the meaning and to find justification for a film whose stark images of the war that was still raging shocked audiences into a realisation of sacrifice and death. It was the images of death in the film that so disturbed many. If soldiers were not shown being killed (and some apparently were), then every face that stared at the camera was likewise facing death. The audience had been made witness to this, complicit in the soldiers’ fate.

While some called for the film not to be shown, for most it was justified, to the point of becoming almost a moral obligation. Through watching The Battle of the Somme, they gained a sense of the enormity of what troops in their name were undergoing, what the sacrifice (the optimum word) was that army and nation were making. Douglas’ evocation of religious feeling put the film in terms that many would understand. It is not a pure reaction to the film itself – that is not possible. Instead he saw the film through his own thoughts on the meaning of war. Any image, any film, is identified by us through expectations and understandings that are informed by time, place and culture. The Battle of the Somme in 1916 was a different film to The Battle of the Somme in 2008.

This we can now judge through the release of the film for the first time on DVD, produced by the Imperial War Museum, whose archive preserves the film. Alert to the complexities of authenticity, the IWM presents the film in a form that encourages us to question how we see what we see. Firstly, the film (for which no original negative survives) has undergone a digital restoration which has brought out details which were hitherto obscured. Even for those familiar with the film (and all of us must be familiar with it to some extent, given the widespread use of sequences from the film in television documentaries etc.), it is like seeing the film anew. But the major coup is the music. We are given two music tracks. One is a modern score by Laura Rossi, a symphonic work for full orchestra. The other is a recreation by Stephen Horne of a likely original score, taken from a contemporary cue sheet which suggested the sort of musical passages musicians might want to adopt in accompanying the film in 1916.

The latter will amaze many. Jaunty marches and popular airs accompany scenes of troops marching to the killing fields of the Somme, the scenes of battle and their aftermath. What were they thinking of in 1916? It is a complicated question to answer. Partly the musicians of the time were responding to what might have seemed just another war actuality film, which required patriotic accompaniment. But also the audience of the time saw heroism and uplift where we, after almost a century of awful contemplation of the futility of that war, bolstered by poems, novels and films, see something profoundly pitiable. It is with consciousness of such modern expectations, but equally with a sense of being true to the film’s original vision, that Rossi supplies a rich, subtle and binding score that connects 2008 to 1916. Which of these two very different scores will you prefer to listen to, and why? Or might your preferred option be to witness the film in silence?

The digital restoration, which allows us to see so much, is perhaps most striking when it comes to the famous ‘over the top’ sequence. This is the part of the film that will be most familiar. It is shown on television (at least in the UK) every time a shot is needed to evoke the First World War. Troops clamber over the top of a slope, then march slowly over barbed wire away from the camera, a couple of men falling down as they do so, shot dead.

Oh God, they’re dead!

a woman is reported to have exclaimed in a cinema showing the film, and it was this sequence that aroused the greatest comment at the time, the greatest need to explain the film’s significance. But they were not dead. As is now known, the sequence is a fake, set up in a trench mortar battery school some time afterwards, simply because the actual scenes taken of troops going over the top were deemed disappointing. At the time, no one knew of this subterfuge, and as far as reception is concerned, it did not matter. People believed they were witnessing death on screen; and producers and exhibitors felt this to be an acceptable thing to show. Which you may think is extraordinary.

What seldom gets shown on television is the shot that immediately follows the ‘over the top’ sequence in the film. This shows genuine footage of troops going over the top. But we see them only in the far distance. The cameramen (there were just two, J.B. McDowell and Geoffrey Malins, who shot both ‘over the top’ sequences) were greatly restricted in what they could shoot. Their hand-cranked cameras had single 50mm lenses with poor depth of field, they had no telephoto lenses, the orthochromatic film stock was slow, making filming action in the distance or in poor light difficult. But there was also military control and official censorship, each preventing them from filming anything other than officially-sanctioned images. And there was the danger. The most obvious indication of the ‘fake’ nature of the first sequence is that the cameraman would have been in absolute peril of his life had it been genuine. But for the above shot, Malins is a long way off, and far in the distance we can just pick out tiny figures on the horizon – British troops, coming over the top and marching into no-man’s land. Looking closer into the middle ground, the digital restoration now reveals to us a sight not previously detected in the film: a number of troops proceeding leftwards, one or two of whom fall down. Oh God, they’re dead.

Do we want to look that closely? Can they really seem dead when viewed at such a distance? Is the death we seek not in the falling bodies, or even in the corpses seen later in the film, but rather in the eyes of the still living, whose fate awaits them, and who are all dead now of course. That was a line the film historian Denis Gifford would sometimes come out with when we were in the basement theatre at the British Film Institute, watching some collection of British silent shorts. The figures would parade to and fro, some of whom he knew, having interviewed them in the 1960s, but then that sad moment of realisation:

They’re all dead now, of course.

This is a poignancy that seems particularly linked to the non-fiction film. Dramatic films, of whatever age, are attempting to entertain. Either they do or they don’t. But the film of actuality trades on the depiction of life, and then the distance created by time. This was recognised even in 1916. Sir Henry Newbolt wrote a poem inspired by the experience of watching the film, entitled ‘The War Films’, but made memorable by its opening line:

O living pictures of the dead,
O songs without a sound,
O fellowship whose phantom tread
Hallows a phantom ground —
How in a gleam have these revealed
The faith we had not found.

The Battle of the Somme captures the point of loss, the ghosts on the screen, the living pictures of the dead. Of course it is a deeply partial record. It shows no real fighting beyond shellfire, no serious injuries, no pain, little hatred (look for the shove that one British soldier gives to a captured German who stumbles past him). And of course it shows only the Allied point of view (the Germans would respond with their own film, Bei unseren Helden an der Somme, in 1917). But we recognise it for what it is able to show, not for what it leaves out. It is a profoundly memorably expression of the hopes and fears of its age.

The Battle of the Somme was filmed by Malins and McDowell, two experienced newsreel cameramen, who knew well how to capture plain packages of actuality. McDowell was the senior of the two, who ran his own film company (British & Colonial). Malins had been filming on the war front for longer, and is the better known, not least for his somewhat vainglorious memoir, How I Filmed the War (available from The Internet Archive). Malins co-edited the film with Charles Urban, to whom credit should be given for seeing that the footage Malins and McDowell has shot would work best at feature length, rather than as a series of ten-minute shorts which had been the practice up til then. His vision gave the film the presence it needed to capture the audience that it found. The producer was William Jury, and the film was made for the British Topical Committee for War Films, a trade body working under War Office sanction, which would be replaced by the War Office Cinematograph Committee once the film started to enjoy huge success. It has been estimated that it was seen by 20,000,000 people in the UK in six weeks – almost half the population.

The DVD comes with the alternative music scores, commentaries, interviews with archivists and musicians, and five ‘missing’ scenes and fragments. We do not know what the original The Battle of the Somme was like exactly; the version that survives was re-edited, and the footage used in multiple other films, during and after the war. Rather than insert these extra scenes where it is not quite certain they should go, the IWM has chosen to present these (without music) separately. There is a booklet as well, with information on the film’s production, reception, restoration and particularly its music. A website, www.iwm.org.uk/somme-film, will provide viewing notes, additional information, suggestions for further reading and teaching resources. It is a magnificent achievement, one whose influence on research, teaching and the appreciation of First World War history is likely to be considerable. The only possible disappointment is the menu, which simply divides the film into its five parts, where a more detailed use of chapters could have helpfully guided researchers to particular points of action, regiments, location etc.

More will follow. The booklet notes the publication next year of Alastair H. Fraser, Andrew Robertshaw, and Steve Roberts’ Ghosts on the Somme, a book which analyses the film in great detail, overturning some of the traditional understanding of who filmed what, which regiments are shown, and which locations are featured, while confirming that the vast majority of the film is genuine actuality. There is still more to be discovered about The Battle of the Somme. It is a film we will have to return to, again and again.

The DVD is available from the Imperial War Museum Shop (Region 0, PAL, duration 74 mins with 58 mins extras).

A CD of Laura Rossi’s score is available from Virtuosa Records.

On the weekend of 15/16 November 2008 there will be two screenings of the film at the IWM in London, the ‘original’ score on Saturday, the Rossi score (not played live) on the Sunday. Both screenings are free, and start at 14.00.

The Battle of the Somme has been recognised by UNESCO by being accepted for inscription on its Memory of the World register.