Lambeth Road SE1 6HZ
Thursday August 11 2016
This is one of the Museums where we have privileged access but also one where we felt we were far from completing (if one ever can) the five floors of exhibits and galleries. Today’s visit included a return trip to a special exhibition and an overview of the pretty crowded World War 1 gallery, comprising 14 sections. As photography was forbidden in the special exhibition and there were low levels of lighting in the second our photos are poor. Apologies.
'Real to Reel' has been put together to look at 100 years of war films , the starting point being the first ever war documentary The Battle of the Somme filmed mainly from the point of view of an ‘embedded’ photographer, running quite few risks but with some staged episodes. The film was seen by millions in the UK and overseas with the audience both keen to identify their loved ones and anxious at the fatalities. This key film included many of the elements of a ‘war movie’ which are later explored and illustrated: shocking and traumatic scenes, acts of bravery ( see here for an exploration of the man carrying his wounded, later to die, comrade out of the trench and directorial vision, to which you might add ‘propaganda.
While my more simplistic mind might have managed more easily a chronological canter through war films this thematic approach is more thought provoking.
If Geoffrey Malins was the auteur behind Battle of the Somme, there was no greater auteur in the war film genre than Stanley Kubrick and his work is well illustrated with excerpts from Full Metal Jacket, Paths of Glory, and for me the unforgettable, sign-up-here-for-CND Dr. Strangelove. Full Metal Jacket was based in part on Michael Herr’s writings and experiences and the ‘dope sheets’ are there to see also. Films made more specifically for propaganda purposes (commissioned by the government of the day) included Listen to Britain and Dig for Victory, key pieces in the British documentary tradition.
Inevitably there is a long section devoted to what you might call ‘star vehicles’ and this is certainly quite a thrilling point for anyone star-struck: a chance to inspect items of costume worn by David Niven and Marlene Dietrich and this continues through to the modern day with Tom Hanks’ uniform from Saving Private Ryan, Liam Neeson’s suit from Schindler’s List and the tommy’s uniform from Atonement. There are more…
The exhibition also makes the valid difference between a star vehicle – so a well-known box office draw acting as an ‘ordinary/brave/conflicted’ war hero – and often unknown actors being cast to play ‘real-life’ heroes: thus we have the almost unknown Peter O’Toole cast as Lawrence of Arabia (too tall, too handsome but do we care?) and Virginia McKenna as the doomed spy Violette Szabo…
And the exhibition reminds us this was not the first film about Lawrence with Lowell Thomas’s With Lawrence in Arabia (1919) precursing and ?inspiring David Lean. Some actors get cast as villains of course , none more often portrayed than German Commandants or Hitler himself, with his famous rant from Downfall now better known as a YouTube meme.
In the UK the Fifties and Sixties saw a slew of ‘war films’ usually aired on Sunday PM so you could snooze through the boring bits after your Sunday roast and these kind of get embedded in the collective consciousness. The exhibition is also very clear in pointing out that after successful war films their images become the abiding ones of that particular conflict – think of the Dam Busters, the D-Day landings both from The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan, or the Dunkirk evacuation from Atonement.
Oscar-wining films get their own spot ranging from the very early Wings to the more recent Hurt Locker; interestingly many of these films depict specialist areas of warfare/defence and personnel in extreme circumstances.
The biggest thrill for me, and quite unexpected. was to see the stolen German motorbike that Steve McQueen rode so memorably in The Great Escape, which really did make my heart beat faster…
We could have lingered longer but if you are any kind of film fan (and if you are not you would have skipped this whole section) give this exhibition your time (and your money – it costs) – above all it shows that war films while containing the ‘big bangs’ are about a lot more.
According to the Project rules we were supposed to review the substantive collections only so before we left today we did spend some time back on the 1st floor with the extended and extensive World War I exhibition, which opened in time for the centenary commemorations in 2014.
This is most impressive and very well attended with significant numbers of overseas visitors. The 14 sections are arranged both chronologically (causes, course, key battles, global rather than just European conflict) and thematic – Allies/ Enemies/ Life at the Home Front the technology of war and there are a wealth of exhibits including uniforms galore, shells and armour and artillery, and the growth in hardware and technology. Individual campaigns are examined in detail – the Somme. Verdun, Gallipoli, Jutland and their immediate and long term impact analysed. The consequences of the war both economic, political social and psychological are all included and what impressed us was that balanced combination of objects/ relevant film and photographs, objects and many quotes not just from Generals justifying themselves but from the diaries and letters of army ordinary serving soldiers, sailors and fewer airmen. These different ways of both personalising the conflict and putting it into perspective makes for a very effective experience and one that should not be missed.
If this takes a couple of hours to visit think what the planned galleries for the longer, more intense and probably better recorded World War 2 will bring??