by Allan Fish
(UK 1916 73m) DVD2
We’re here because we’re here…
p William F.Jury d none ph J.B.McDowell, Geoffrey A.Malins ed Geoffrey A.Malins, Charles Urban m Laura Rossi (DVD reissue)
Here is a unique film in this selection. Take one look at the credits; there is no director listed. It’s not because he wasn’t known, but rather because there was no director as such. The real auteurs here, if tradition dictates we must have them, are the two unheard of gentlemen given photographic credit. In the full listing of selections for this book, I list them as the directors, but if there really were directors for this film, they were the accursed brass hats who made the orders and never got within range of a field artillery gun. History would rather call them mis-directors.
The subtitle is “original pictures of the British Army in France“, and essentially that’s what it is. We’ve all seen footage of the Great War, grainy, flickering and faded flashes on TV in November, but in many cases have no idea where they came from. In many cases, the answer is right here. We see the preparation for, a brief re-enactment of, and the aftermath of the fateful attack of 1st July 1916. Cynical modern day commentators have been grossly unfair to the film for the brief re-enactments of the initial charge, with hardly any men actually dying and no real sense of the unparalleled slaughter of that summer’s day. Yet in an age where our media is saturated with fake, re-enacted footage, and we say nothing, surely attacking the makers of Somme for doing so is churlish indeed. To shoot the real attack would have been so life-threatening as to beggar belief. They were in many ways already being foolhardy getting so up close and personal to the action, taking their camera to within a couple of hundred yards of the front line trenches, taking time to stop off at sunken roads where troops gather their strength prior to another onslaught (in one group’s case, perhaps less than half an hour before their death).
It’s that most crucial of realisations that strikes home with the deepest resonance. We can all watch the films of Feuillade, Griffith, Gance and their contemporaries and wistfully acknowledge that everyone seen on screen has long since passed on. Yet in the case of Somme, we are filled with a sense of urgency, the sense that many of these men featured not only are not still alive, but would not have lived as long as the movie’s premiere and, in some cases, not any longer than a few minutes. Is it any wonder that the film was selected for UNESCO’s Memory of the World register?
Some still won’t have it that much of the footage was shot amongst real trenches and troops, and to them I not only offer hearty disdain, but ask them to look closely at the one single-most telltale sign of authenticity. Look at the faces of the soldiers, and see how you can actually see their faces. So many of them are looking at the camera, or turn to look at the camera, in a way no act of fakery could recreate. The camera’s presence in their midst doubtless rather surreal to the battered troops, and it’s a surrealism mirrored back to the audience ninety years on, as we watch on, numbed, by the immediacy of the footage, the clouds of earth from shell and mine explosions and the sense, indeed the very aroma, of impending death. In no other film are there so many shots of such apocalyptic desolation as the camera looks out over No Man’s Land.
And just pay attention to that camera. This is 1916, cameras were largely rigid, static, but the toys of our two cameramen are constantly on the prowl, through long, poetic tracking shots and pans of bombarded devastation. In every sense of the word, this film moves. It leaves one feeling somewhat inadequate and in awe of the men depicted, so that when they wave and cheer towards the camera in the final reel, one feels like saluting them. And that, of course, is very much the intention, for this is not merely a historical document but a piece of propaganda for the folks back home. Yet it’s also a window into hell itself, perhaps dirty, but we can still see and feel the absolute futile despair. Forget charges of datedness, for sometimes historical context takes precedence; no other film so merited the simple two word epitaph, much overused – in memoriam.