IN the 100th anniversary year of the release of The Battle of the Somme film, it is perhaps fitting and certainly timely for an exhibition that looks at and examines how wars of the past 100 years have provided inspiration to film and documentary makers.
Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies, which has just opened at the Imperial War Museum, is an interactive and immersive exhibition which goes behind the scenes of some of the war films that have captured the imagination of audiences across the generations.
Featuring some of the most celebrated and provocative war movies from the past 100 years, it shows how film-makers have used war’s inherent drama to translate stories of love and loss, fear and courage, triumph and tragedy into blockbusters for the big screen.
Alongside 200 items including a combination of film clips, costumes, props, scripts, sketches and designs, the IWM opens up its own extensive collections to bring original archival material and artefacts to new audiences.
Accompanied by immersive audio-visual installations, the exhibition will explore the film-making process and how war movies have shaped popular perception of conflicts.
It will also include items from iconic films such as The Dam Busters, Where Eagles Dare, Apocalypse Now, Battle of Britain, Das Boot, Casablanca, Jarhead, Atonement and War Horse.
It has been put together by historian and curator Laura Clouting who says that it has proved a fascinating subject to bring to the museum’s visitors.
“IWM has wanted to go back to look at the subject of war films for a while,” she says. “We felt it was important because the cinema is one of the main ways of getting a visual impression of what war can be like.
“What this exhibition does is explore the enduring fascination of war on the big screen, and why film makers have been inspired to make such movies and how these stories have influenced our understanding of war.
“It has been a fascinating process putting it all together and delving into the archives here at the IWM to bring out some items which we don’t normally see. It represents a unique opportunity to see these items which as well as our own include props and costumes from other organisations.
“What was important when creating the exhibition was to make sure there is a real mix and breadth to it - so it features the impact of documentary film such as the Battle of the Somme film as well as blockbuster Hollywood films.
“In 1916 the Battle of the Somme film was put together for audiences who did not know what was going on in the front. It is important to remember that cinema was very new during the First World War and people were desperate for news. They had been used to getting it through newspapers but film became a way of getting a sense of what their loved ones were going through. It was an important way of understanding what it’s all about to live through war.
“The equipment they used was very heavy and they had to go to a position of safety to shoot it. In fact some of the scenes were recreated elsewhere, but it was an incredibly important film and really paved the way for what has come since."
There are five sections which make up the exhibition - Introduction: the war film genre; Inspiration: why are war films made? Making a film: how do film makers bring stories of war to life? Release and reception: what impact do war films leave? and Finale: through a montage of final scenes and endings drawn from films across the century, this section shows how film-makers put an end to their war stories.
All of them explore how war has proved a profoundly compelling subject since the earliest days of cinema.
And while many might think that war films are just about the battles, it provides a chance to prove that this is not the case - and in fact that war can act as a backdrop and scene setter.
“War shapes peoples’ lives in ways that are far beyond the battlefield,” says Laura. “For example Casablanca is not about any battle but war was the backdrop for the story and it determines the course of that love story.
“The biggest surprise for us when collating all the various parts of the exhibition was that although we have all seen or have heard about a lot of war films, when we began to dig we realised just how many there are.
"And equally fascinating is that we see the way films have changed over the years - for example the sense of futility, waste and terrible slaughter in World War One had gone by the time it comes to World War Two.
“And of course some have been much more heavily covered than others. World War Two for example is a case in point, as is the Vietnam War - both have provided inspiration for films both fiction and non fiction.”
Laura hopes that the exhibition will fascinate both those who are film buffs as well as those who have not seen any war film.
“We want it to be approachable for everyone,” she says. “It is a big exhibition and is visually very striking and there is much for people to enjoy and take away whether they are avid film fans or are new to the subject.
“It’s an opportunity to understand the inspiration behind the films and there will be something there for everyone.”
Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies is on at the IWM, Lambeth Road until January 8, 2017. Tickets cost £10 for adults and £5 for children. Visit www.iwm.org.uk or call 020 7416 5000 for full listings.