Ghosts

ghosts

Every film is an archive. The actuality to which it is witness is embedded in every frame. All we need is are the eyes to see it and the intelligence to express it. A model example that will hopefully become an inspiration to others is Alastair H. Fraser, Andrew Robertshaw and Steve Roberts’ Ghosts on the Somme, an archaeological study of the 1916 documentary The Battle of the Somme. It is as revelatory a piece of film scholarship as you are likely to find, and this has been achieved by the simple expedient of experts from another field examining the film with the same methodological principles as they would apply to any other historial artefact.

The story behind The Battle of the Somme was covered by a recent post on The Bioscope, coinciding with its release on DVD in a digital restoration by the Imperial War Museum with both original score and new orchestral score from Laura Rossi. In short, it is a feature-length documentary recording the build up to the opening day (1 July 1916) of the Battle of the Somme, the day itself, and its immediate aftermath (all from the British perspective).It was produced by the British Topical Committee for War Films, a film trade body working at the behest of the War Office. The two cameramen were Geoffrey Malins and J.B. McDowell.

Most histories which discuss the film have chiefly considered its production and reception. The authors of Ghosts on the Somme, all military historians, have instead viewed the film itself as a piece of hisorical evidence, examining it frame by frame (in some cases literally so) to determine precisely what it shows. There has long been controversy over the authenticity of parts of The Battle of the Somme. One of the book’s major accomplishments is to confirm that the greater part of the film is quite genuine – indeed, that some scenes previously believed to be faked, or rather shot away from the front line, are not so.

In analysing the film, the authors considered seven major elements of evidence:

  • The film itself, and not just for its photographic evidence – a lip reader helped identify some conversations;
  • The Imperial War Museum’s collection of stills, many of them taken by Ernest ‘Baby’ Brooks, who worked alongside Malins (though the captions are frequently inaccurate);
  • Malins’ autobiographical book How I Filmed the War, a somewhat boastful account whose evidence needs treating with care;
  • A ‘tie-in’ book, Sir Douglas Haig’s Great Push:The Battle of the Somme (1916/17) which has photographs taken from the original film, including sequences which no longer exist;
  • The ‘dope sheet’, compiled between 1918 and 1922, a record of each of the shots from the film in caption order – now known to be highly inaccurate;
  • Assorted war diaries for the identification of men and units, plus other original documents in The National Archives;
  • The present-day landscape of the Somme battlefield.

The result is extraordinary. The authors identify not only locations, units and dates, but people. The grey figures whose faces point at the camera as they march cheerily to war and return shaken are, in a few, precious cases, given names, ages, a past history and – for some of those who survived – a subsequent history. There is such power in being able to put a name to a face. Previously, perhaps we have been guilty at times of sentimentalizing the film when we see those ghostly faces; this book humanizes it.

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Men of B Company, 1 Lancashire Fusiliers, in a sunken lane in front of Beaumont Hamel, filmed by Geoffrey Malins, 1 July 1916 (frame grab from DVD)

This is a book chiefly for the military history enthusiast. The film historian will welcome the attention paid to the practicalities of the film’s production (there is a chapter on the cameras used and the limitations of orthochromatic film stock, which was not sensitive to the full spectrum, though more could have been said about lenses), while expressing surprise that the book refrains from saying anything about the film’s history once it had been released to an astonished British public (more than half the population saw it). It is pedantic in its dogged desire to identify and list every place, every unit, leaving no scene of the film unturned – a tabulation at the end of the book lists each shot (extant and lost) in order, with timing, date, camera operator, location, subject, date and caption. It is not a history for those who crave narrative.

So it may not find a place on any film studies shelf, but for the factual historian, it opens up a medium for study. As Roger Smither, Keeper of the Film and Photograph Archives at the IWM, says in his foreword, “Ghosts on the Somme sets a new standard for the examination of archive documentary film”. The convention has always been to distrust the record the actuality film provides, to emphasise film’s propensity for lying. Ghosts on the Somme shows that, ultimately, film records reality, and that we can uncover that reality, if we have eyes to see. Perhaps it really should be on a few film studies shelves.

3 responses

  1. Thanks for your review of our book. I wrote almost all of the text and it was very difficult to make much of it readable. The arguments are detailed and not that easy to express. The original draft was 73000 words which I finaly cut down to 48000 words. We did not have space for the reception of the film and we were quite sure that we could add little to the work of Nick Hiley, Stephen Badsey and Roger Smither to name but three. Kevin Brownlow has been very generous in supplying photographs. As outsiders to the mainsteam of cinema history we have been very fortunate to have had such generous help. We are planning a sequel which will cover the subsequent British films as well as the French and German films of the Somme. We would welcome any help from your readership.

    The film is the only surviving visual witness to the events of July 1916 and it is important that we understand what we are seeing, especially before we show segments of the film as the “reality of the First World War”.

    Regards

    Alastair Fraser

    Regards
    Alastair Fraser

  2. I admire your book hugely, not least for challenging scepticism (not to say cynicism) in those studies of documentary film which argue that the camera fundamentally lies. You say that the camera tells the truth, we just have to look with a trained eye to see what that truth contains.

    I am delighted that you are going to continue the work with the later British official war films and the other Somme films. If I can help at all, do get in touch – I’ve worked chiefly on the official newsreel, War Office Official Topical Budget, and on the distribution and reception of the British films in America (where The Battle of the Somme itself had a mixed history, being re-edited with other films and released as a serial).

    Congratulations on a fine piece of work.

    Luke McKernan

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