Published: 06/05/2014 12:25 - Updated: 09/05/2014 17:17

First World War films get Inverness screening

A scene from Exploits of a German Submarine.
A scene from Exploits of a German Submarine.

ALMOST a century on, a close up view of the men — and women — of World War I is being offered at Eden Court this weekend.

The Inverness theatre’s cinema will present a rare chance to see propaganda films from the conflict, introduced by Imperial War Museum senior film curator Dr Toby Haggith.

"Most of the wars since the start of cinema in the 1890s were covered by film, but what’s important about the First World War is that it’s the first war where the state begins to film war for propaganda, training and historical purposes," Haggith said.

Initially British and French authorities were suspicious of filmmakers and banned them, as well as stills photographers from the frontline, but the public appetite for images from the war was so strong that filmmakers back in Britain began making their own melodramatic films set on the front.

"By late 1915, some officers begin to realise we need to do some filming ourselves, mainly because the Germans are already doing it, and two newsreel cameramen, Geoffrey Malins and Edward Tong, who had been working for French companies, are brought into the British army, given a uniform, given the rank of officer, and are allowed to start filming at the front," Haggith continued.

"Their first films come out in October 1915, but the big change comes in July 1916 when the film of the Battle of the Somme is made. What’s really important about that is they give these two cameramen, Geoffrey Malins and J.B. McDowell, access to the front during the battle, so you have this amazing film that shows incredible scenes of a battle taking place."

That film has proved controversial with suggestions that parts may have been faked. However, Haggith refutes this although he acknowledges some parts are "re-enactments" shot away from the frontline elsewhere on the Western Front and showing troops climbing out of the trenches.

"To spot them you have to ask yourself: would you be standing there filming if an actual battle was taking place? But we have got to look at the bigger picture," he said.

"The sequence that follows of men advancing into No Man’s Land is genuine. Not only is it genuine, it’s incredibly powerful because you see a couple of them getting cut down. Uniquely it contains film of not just the German dead, but British dead. We’ve become familiar with images of coffins landing at RAF Brize Norton from Afghanistan and Iraq, but in the context of the history of war in film, that’s pretty tame because this is the first film that contains footage of battlefield burials."

The British also began making films aimed at the Home Front. Haggith will be showing some examples in Inverness, including Fighting U-boats in a London Back Garden, an early example of the "dig for victory" campaign more closely associated with World War I.

Another of the films he will be showing in Inverness is The Exploits of a German Submarine (U-35), a British propaganda film which makes use of footage from a German propaganda film and is perhaps the first example of such "borrowing" between enemies.

"The Germans started making propaganda films before the British, but once they got going, the British realised what a powerful tool it is," Haggith said.

Both sides also made films with a view to the potential audience in the USA, the largest market for cinema in the world, the Germans with a view to maintaining American neutrality and the British with the aim of bringing the US into the war on the Allied side.

War films also had an impact on film going in the UK. Prior to the war cinema had been seen as a lower class pursuit, but interest in footage from the front resulted people from across all areas of society visiting their local cinemas, breaking down any social stigma about cinema going.

The British went on to produce films from all theatres of war, and these eventually went into the Imperial War Museum (IMW) collection, the world’s first film archive.

"Our first curators were the first to look at ways of preserving film," Haggith explained.

"It’s thanks to them we have this amazing collection, but in the intervening 100 years they would made a copy periodically. Every time you make a copy of a film, it gets darker.

"Another factor is that we usually didn’t get the master, we got copies, often shown all around the world, so we have scratched copies and darkened copies. What we have been doing in the last 10 or 15 years is trying not only to preserve them digitally, we’ve also been doing a digital restoration.

"With this amazing digital software, you can remove some scratches and damage to the prints. We’ve also been able to add a soundtrack. A soundtrack makes film and more enjoyable and authentic experience because sound makes it come alive and two of the films we are showing in Inverness, Exploits of a German Submarine and The Woman’s Portion, have specially commissioned musical soundtracks.

"It’s all part of bringing the films to new audiences and making them realise that these films may be 100 years old, but they can be just as engaging as any film made today."

Much of the archive’s work over the last five years has been in preparation for this year’s centenary with many films shown free on the IMW collection and a programme of live events such as this weekend’s screening in Inverness.

"A lot of family historians have had their interest peaked by the centenary and we are trying to reflect that as much as possible by showing films that have local interest," Haggith said.

When asked which film he would be most interested in bringing to the public, Haggith opts not for The Battle of The Somme, but a less well familiar follow up,

"The one I would like to be seen by most people is The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks, which is next in the sequence of campaigns after The Battle of The Somme," he said.

"It’s not as well, but it’s a brilliant film. We showed it at the London Film Festival in 2012 and it went down a storm. The other film we are working on is called Peace on the Western Front which came out in 1929-30, and that’s a film about a battlefield pilgrimage in the inter-war years, so cinema doesn’t stop it’s engagement with the First World War even after the conflict ends. That would be the other film I’m really excited about getting the chance to show around Britain."

• Dr Toby Haggith of the Imperial War Museum will be showing a selection of World War I propaganda films, including The Exploits of a German Submarine (U-35), Fighting U-boats in a London Back Garden and The Woman’s Portion, at Eden Court cinema, Inverness, on Friday at 6.15pm.

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