From time to time the Bioscope lifts its eyes from the screen, looks wistfully out of the window, and turns its mind to poetry. And when it does so it adds another poem to the select list of those works which touch upon the subject of silent film.
I’m ashamed to say that ‘A War Film’ is a poem that is new to me, though I now discover that it is a much-anthologised and popular work. It was written by Teresa Hooley (1888-1973), a British poet from Derbyshire who in private life went under the name of Mrs Frank Butler. The fascination behind ‘A War Film’ is her reaction to seeing a film of the First World War, and then trying to determine which film it was:
With a catch of the breath and the heart’s uplifting,
Sorrow and pride, the “week’s great draw” –
The Mons Retreat;
The “Old Contemptibles” who fought, and died,
The horror and the anguish and the glory.
As in a dream,
Still hearing machine-guns rattle and shells scream,
I came out into the street.
When the day was done,
My little son
Wondered at bath-time why I kissed him so,
Naked upon my knee.
How could he know
The sudden terror that assaulted me? …
The body I had borne
Nine moons beneath my heart,
A part of me …
It should be taken away
To war. Tortured. Torn.
Rotting in No Man’s Land, out in the rain –
My little son …
Yet all those men had mothers, every one.
How should he know
Why I kissed and kissed and kissed him, crooning his name?
He thought that I was daft.
He thought it was a game,
And laughed, and laughed.
The event to which she refers, the British retreat from Mons in Belgium, took place in August-September 1914. However, there was no film made about the retreat at the time, as officially-sanctioned films of the war were not being produced at this date, and in any case no film at this date or later in the war would have included the word ‘retreat’ in its title. So commentators have speculated that the film could be The Battle of the Somme, made in 1916, or one of the other British official war films. However it would seem unlikely that the poet would confused Mons with the Somme, and a more likely candidate is the 1926 film Mons, made by British Instructional Films. BIF produced a series of dramatised documentaries in the 1920s which recreated key conflicts from the First World War. The films (all feature-length bar the first) were The Battle of Jutland (1921), Armageddon (1923), Zeebrugge (1924), Ypres (1925), Mons (1926) and The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927). They were all produced by H. (Harry) Bruce Woolfe, generally with Army or Admirality assistance, and combined official actuality films of the war with recreations, models and animated maps. The films gained the remarkable triple of popular, critical and official acclaim, and while they were characterised by a certain amount of dogged literalism, the best sequences merit comparison with the Soviet documentaries of the twenties. Many a dramatised scene from them has ended up being used in television documentaries which take the scenes to show actual warfare. Mons itself was directed by Walter Summers and was given the re-issue title of The Retreat from Mons, which adds further credence to the theory that it was the film that triggered the poem.
It is unclear when Hooley wrote ‘A War Film’, though it was first published in 1927 in her volume Songs of all Seasons, which again suggests the 1926 film is the right one. That would make her reaction to the film one of the fear of another war that would engulf her child rather than a war that was then raging. Its tone is in any case a retrospective one – few on the home front thought of corpses rotting in No Man’s Land in 1914. Such grim visions came to haunt the public only as the war dragged on and as the enormity of the sacrifice made shook society in the years immediately after the war.
It would take cinema a while before it felt able to depict the war in terms of futility. Ironically, Mons the film was a sober minded drama-documentary with more of a mind to demonstrate military procedure and heroic achievement than to make its audience think of the horror and anguish. Hooley’s poem was perhaps inspired not so much by the film she saw as by the memories it triggered. It was a silent film, after all – no machine-guns rattled and no shells screamed. Hooley saw the film in her mind, while a plainer account unspooled itself on the screen.
Mons is held by the BFI National Archive and in incomplete form by the Imperial War Museum. You can get an idea of the BIF style, however, by seeing Ypres, which is available to view from the British Pathe website (the link is to reel one of seven on the site).