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The Western Front - see it yourself
on 13 August 2009
As other reviewers have written, this is a remarkable film. Made during the Battle of Somme, in a way that must have exposed the film crew to considerable personal danger, this is a unique, contemporary `window' on that battle and the period. It is a silent film, with a background score, and divided into sections that follow the progress of the battle. Soldiers are seen marching, performing everyday tasks, digging trenches, firing weapons, taking cover, laughing and dying - the first time this occurred, as the soldiers went `over the top', I was so shocked by its matter of factness that I thought it was acted rather than for real. This film is powerful.
A number of historians are now producing `revisionist' works of the First World War. These argue that the embedded liberal consensus popularised by Black Adder, O What a Lovely War and the war poets is misleading and sentimental. In a way this film supports this view by its recording of normal day to day activities, including battle. It was war and terrible but not continuous beastliness. Indeed there is a great deal of the joys of comradeship and our common humanity is shown by the sequences involving German prisoners, which seem no more staged than any other section.
In the film the soldiers are clearly intrigued by the camera and show an innocence in its presence that gives a glimpse of the world before visual media made us self conscious about appearances and manipulative of the medium. These were not downtrodden serfs caught up in a clash of empires but open natured, good hearted people like you and me - only braver. They look directly at the lens and, although many scenes were presumably carefully set up because of the limitations of film equipment, this has about it the genuineness of a neutral, official record rather than any whiff of propaganda. Interestingly, this is a film about the experience of the ordinary men - very few officers appear `centre stage'.
Certain other things in this film that I found remarkable:
* Although the soldiers were presumably the fittest of their time, their teeth were awful!
* The level of organisation to keep the Front functioning must have been tremendous. There may have been the chaos of battle and inevitable supply problems but the film reveals an underlying orderliness and efficiency that is revelatory.
* The loading, sighting and firing of the howitzers, mortars and railway guns is remarkable footage. So many people to service one gun and and not a set of ear defenders in sight!
* The actual battlefield is quieter than anything in Spielberg or any other war film but the explosions of the artillery shells and mines are incredible and the landscape of northern France has been blasted into something lunar.
* The number of horses is astonishing, as is their everyday use for pulling almost all the equipment or just getting across that landscape where no motor vehicle of the time could travel.
* The casualty stations were efficient, if overworked
* The German prisoners look confused and ordinary without their webbing and other battledress. There seems no ideological rancour between fighting men.
* It appears that everyone in the world smoked all the time!
* The British army was an impressive force not a set of `beggars under sacks' (Owen).