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  • Hearts and Minds and Bodies: Reconsidering the Cinematic Language of The Battle of the Somme
  • John Hodgkins

On July 10th, 1916, cameramen Geoffrey Malins and J.B. McDowell headed home to London after having been dispatched several weeks earlier by the British government to the Somme region of northern France, where they had documented the preparations for, and the opening days of, a major offensive by the British military. The footage that Malins and McDowell recorded was to be edited into a series of six-minute newsreels for distribution and exhibition throughout Great Britain. After viewing the first rushes of this footage on July 12th, however, government officials devised a new plan: they would consolidate it into a feature-length, “factual” film for worldwide release (Reeves, “Cinema” 8). The result of their efforts was The Battle of the Somme, a seventy-three minute documentary that would prove to be the single most significant English propaganda film of World War One.1

The Battle of the Somme was a cultural phenomenon. The movie set box-office records in Great Britain, and newspaper reviewers and columnists of the time repeatedly invoked the language of religion to describe the unparalleled affective and emotional spell cast by The Battle of the Somme on domestic wartime audiences. This “factual” film apparently was touching on psychic (and perhaps somatic) pressure points, and eliciting responses from audiences that were decidedly different from those elicited by the more overtly “fictional” cinema of the era. In light of these dramatic and unique spectatorial reactions, it is difficult to understand why there has been so little serious critical consideration of the filmic techniques and artistry at work in this motion picture—so little consideration of its potent cinematic language. Almost exclusively, The Battle of the Somme is studied and written about as an historical document. Researchers go to great lengths to detail its inception and production, its distribution and exhibition, and the “veracity” of its sequences. Rarely, however, do these scholars venture into the field of textual analysis, and this is unfortunate, for, as edifying as production histories and box-office records can be, they do little to illuminate the aesthetic complexities of a film. To understand The Battle of the Somme as both celluloid artifact and cinematic art, we need to engage more openly and directly with those aesthetic concerns.

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This essay proposes to outline the origins and critical/popular reception of The Battle of the Somme, and then to contextualize (or recontextualize) the film within the history and development of cinematic form and style. Coming on the heels of what Tom Gunning has termed the “cinema of attractions” era, The Battle of the Somme represents a fascinating amalgam of “attraction” and narrative integration. Part spectacle, part “actuality,” part dramatized fiction, it draws on a variety of filmic tools and traditions in the creation of meaning (“Cinema of Attractions” 57). Through a close textual reading of the film’s suggestive compositions and mise-en-scène, its alternately associative and disruptive editing rhythms, and its deployment of intertitles and music, I hope to broaden and deepen our critical appreciation of The Battle of the Somme as an artful, stimulating filmic text, and shed new light on its palpable and [End Page 9] powerfully affective impact on viewers.

Propaganda, Cinema, and the Great War: Origins

In the war of propaganda, Germany struck first. With the outbreak of open hostilities in August 1914, the German government immediately began to produce and distribute “posters, leaflets and pamphlets” designed to justify its own cause while discrediting “the motives of the allies” (Sanders 119). Reacting to what they viewed as the “virulence” of this outpouring of German “mis-statements and sophistries,” the British government soon initiated its own propaganda program (119). Charles Masterman, then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and chairman of the National Health Insurance Commission, was invited to oversee this new and highly secret program, which he headquartered in Wellington House—the Insurance Commission’s base of operations in London (Reeves, “Film Propaganda” 463). Masterman’s mission, as he saw it, was to counter German propaganda while avoiding the appearance of a...


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