To mark the 100th anniversary of the release of the original blockbuster, The Battle of the Somme, the Imperial War Museum, London, launched an immersive exhibition which explores who film-makers have approached the theme of war, and been able to translate catastrophe into compelling narratives. We catch up with Laura Clouting, historian and curator of the exhibition, to discuss how such a culturally destructive concept can create such longstanding entertainment.
A: Why do you think that war films have had such a good reception from the public and why do you think it endures today, even in generations that have no memories or perception of global warfare to this degree?
LC: War films remain popular even with audiences who have no direct experience of war themselves. War is inherently dramatic and war films, whether based on fact or in fiction, are able to make use of that inherent drama. Whether in the form of visually spectacular battle sequences, or in exploring the emotions of characters living under the pressure of wartime as combatants or civilians, war stories readily lend themselves to emotional stories. Cinema is well suited for exploring extreme human experiences through the resources available to a director, whether in acting, photography, editing, sound effects, music.
A: How do you think the older films compare to today’s contemporary contributions to cinema? Do you think any have more integrity or sense of realism?
LC: What do we mean by realism? I think many of us have some imagined sense of what certain wartime experiences might have been like, and that sense draws on a wide range of influences – personal experience, memories shared by friends of family members with direct experience, first-hand testimony in books, television programmes, journalism and the news media. We have an idea of what constitutes ‘real’, and realism is how well a representation matches up against that.
Filmic realism in war movies is also shaped by the norms of the period in which they are made. It’s difficult to imagine a film about a recent conflict made in the style of 1916’s cinema documentary The Battle of the Somme having much impact on an audience more used to the chaotic visual style of fictional blockbusters like Saving Private Ryan, American Sniper or The Hurt Locker.
A: Could you talk us through the inspiration behind this exhibition and how you’ve separated it into five different sections?
LC: The centenary of the release of 1916 documentary and cinema sensation The Battle of the Somme gives IWM a moment to reflect on the place of the cinema in shaping our popular memory of war. We considered a chronological approach to the subject, but the overwhelming number of war films led us towards a thematic approach.
A: Are you expecting the audience to go through a journey through these sections, much like the narrative of a film?
LC: Yes, our visitors will be drawn through the exhibition with a narrative based around the stages of making of a film. The exhibition will take visitors from the inspiration behind films, the complexities of their production when recreating war’s hostile environments, from the sea to the air, before exploring how films are celebrated or criticised upon their release. Some endure as classics to this day. Visitors will be confronted, as a finale, with how films’ final moments leave audiences with very different feelings about conflict – from bittersweet, tragic or triumphant, to unsettling or uncertain.
A: How do you think that tragedy and loss can be translated into something aesthetically pleasing in this sense?
LC: War is bound up with loss – friendships shattered, relationships broken, communities destroyed, and lives lost. These changes, losses, and tragedies are often the centre of a film’s dramatic force and are why they remain emotionally compelling. While some war movies are more focused on battlefield action than others, the threat of loss generally tends to unpin them all. The spectacle of violence often makes for compellingly difficult watching.
A: Do you have any particular expectations or hopes for the exhibition, perhaps on how it might change the audience’s perceptions of war or how it might relate to them?
LC: We hope that this exhibition will encourage people to consider the decisions that underpin movie-making. No film is ‘just happens’. They are all the results of planning, decisions, creative skills, opinions and influences. The wider context of war films can be as interesting as their stories – how and why films get made and the challenges of putting war on screen.
A: How do you envision the future of war films? Do you think they will be ever as popular as they have been up to this point?
LC: As war continues to be a major force in world affairs, the memories and legacies of the wars of the past will continue to influence contemporary culture, politics and society. I’m pretty sure that filmmakers will always be drawn to the dramatic possibilities of stories set in wars both real and imagined.
Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies is at IWM, London, until 8 January 2017.
1. Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film, 1916. British troops go ‘over the top’ into ‘No Man’s Land’. This scene was staged for the camera at a training school behind the lines. Courtesy of IWM.
2. A long queue stretches out from the entrance of the Odeon Cinema in wartime Reading, as people buy tickets, 1945. Courtesy of IWM.