Saturday, 19 November 2016

Faces… The Battle of the Somme (1916), Royal Festival Hall with Laura Rossi, BBC Concert Orchestra


It was 100 years to the day since the ending of the Battle of a Somme, one of the bloodiest seasons of the war to end all wars in which over one million men lost their lives in an almost inconceivable slaughter.

Laura Rossi’s Great Uncle Fred fought in the battle and lived to tell the tale as a photo with his young great niece showed. I believe my Great Uncle Alec was also involved and whilst he survived the shrapnel embedded in his skull claimed him well before his time. So many have connections still and it was Laura’s that helped inform her moving and delicately structured score.

The film originally came with a lists of suggested contemporary songs which Stephen Horne plays on the IWM DVD. Not all of these songs fit the mood and Laura’s score was intended to provide a stronger musical narrative and more emotionally-nuanced accompaniment for a film with a loose and highly varied structure in tone and form. It bridged the gap of a century and made me anxiously scan all those faces partly to pay respect but also to see them as more than just history: then and now, life and death; the delusion of safety simply blown away.

The Lancashire Fusiliers take a break
The Battle of the Somme covers everything from propagandist battle preparations, shell-polishing bravado, staged battle scenes to actual battlefield advance and devastation. It also looks death hard in the face in lingering shots initially of the German fallen and then in unbearably poignant moments of the allied troops passing whilst in the midst of life: sitting or grasping for safety – death whilst unaware or exhausted and death by surprise as gas passes over or machine gun fire rips your life away in shocked seconds.

Not once does Laura’s score over-play its hand and throughout she evokes pride, pity, hope and sadness with perfect and delicately wrought pitch.

The BBC Concert Orchestra is able to convey this musical meaning with a precision of their own: expert players conducted in style by John Gibbons who gracefully acknowledged his 80-piece ensemble section by section at the final bows. The room was filled with raucous respect.


So, Royal Festival Hall, after Gance’s epic reconstruction, tonight a real war or at least one portrayed in brave documentary form by the ground-breaking efforts of Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell.

IWM's Senior Curator Dr Toby Haggith introduced and reminded the audience of the British Army’s first day casualties of 57,470 men – enough to fill this Hall over eight times… The Times hailed the film as a documentary that in “years to come” would be preserved by historians to show what this conflict was really like.

So it was tonight and, having watched the DVD some yearsago, I have to say the combination of music, audience and screen was even more affecting. Laura’s aim was to let the images speak for themselves and there really is no need to emotionally enhance the faces of optimistic Tommies thrilled to be on camera and still to face the actuality of war and even later, captured Germans lark about and battle-drained troops cheer for the home front videos. They had spirit, all of them, they had hope.
Royal Field Artillery and mascot
The film felt more cohesive with the elevated experience of the live score pulling our attention into line.

Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell were no doubt kept under tight reign and military intelligence not only edited their 8,000 feet of film but wrote the title cards. This all gives the resultant film the look and language of military discipline and yet the people cannot be scripted in the same way.

Part one shows the preparation and the rather deliberate stacking of those very potent shells – a point needed to be made after earlier “quality issues” – the massing of cheery troops and potent hardware.

Friend and foe pose for the camera
Then comes the bombardments and shots of so many Howitzers of increasing size from 4.7 inches to 15 with the mammoth “Grandmother” - you really do wonder how anything could have survived – a similar mistake to the one made at the time…

The huge Hawthorne Ridge mine explosion is shown as filmed by Malin and there is also later footage showing the 40-foot deep crater left by the Lochnagar mine whose crater remains unfilled on the battlefield to this day.

The 40 foot crater
Then comes the attack and, the reconstructed scramble over the top aside, most of the footage is genuine including an actual charge, in which you can clearly see the men flooding forward – a moment when I always hold my breath and image just for a second what it could have been like.

These were our great and grand-parents all drawn from Lancashire, Dorset, Scotland, Sussex and Kent offering up their lives for the sake of a country they passionately believed in. With our modern everyday petty gripes, we should simply watch this film and note down every last similarity… it won’t take long.

The Royal Field Artillery and the dead at Mametz
Malin and McDowell didn’t just make a propaganda film for 1916 but one that can still stir today: the first war documentary and the first portrayal of the death that glory costs. They focused on the faces of soldiers from both sides and the hope was that many of the watching hoards at home – reputedly over 20 million watched the film: almost half the population – would spot a loved one. How many did we can only guess and, as to how many lived… we can only fear for the worst.

More than anything this is a film about the bravery, trust and loyalty of the common man: people haven’t changed in a century but the prospects for hope possibly have.

The Royal Fusiliers after the opening battle
The Battle of the Somme was being screened as part of Somme100 Film which involves 100 screenings of the film and score across the country and even into Europe: don’t miss it… we should indeed never forget because, as the world turns the same mistakes return and human misery will always be the end product.

The Imperial War Museum’s DVD featuring the restored print and Laura Rossi’s music is available from their shop. It includes Stephen Horne’s alternative score as well as a commentary and interview with Roger Smither, Keeper of the IWM’s Film and Photograph Archive, as well as missing scenes and a 36-page booklet. 

One for the Kaiser

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