Silent cinema review: The Battle of the Somme, with Ealing Symphony Orchestra

St Martin’s Church, West Acton, was the venue of last night’s screening of the Imperial War Museum’s restoration of the 1916 propaganda film ‘The Battle of the Somme’, performed to Laura Rossi’s score by the Ealing Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Gibbons.

Shot by official cameramen Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, this film is mainly real scenes with a couple of reinactments (the ‘over the top’ and ‘through the barbed wire’ scenes). The film has no plot as such, but in five parts it shows the highs and lows of warfare, with sight of weaponry and shells, of war horses, and of the inevitable death toll of battle.

Rossi’s score is punctuated by imitations of gunfire, lots of strings, and the occasional quiet passage of harp and woodwind. As such it highlights the constant changes of mood of the piece of propaganda, firmly aimed in the British camp.

In the preceding Q&A, a pertinent question was asked concerning the Somme and how many Germans died in the conflict – although we hear of British and French casualties we rarely hear about the ‘enemy’ losses (which are shown here in detail). However, this film is very effective a century on, showing the excitement of troops heading to the front, the boredom and fear of waiting, the dedication to work, and the happiness of hearing material from home. Now it looks odd to have no story and no actual characters, but weaving a drama around a current conflict would not have been the right way to represent it.

Ealing Symphony Orchestra gave a good account of themselves, too, in this last date of a small tour showcasing this film with live accompaniment. The restored film has been made available on DVD since the ninetieth anniversary of the conflict in 2006.