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The Doc Option: Instead of “War Horse” Watch “The Battle of the Somme”

The Doc Option: Instead of "War Horse" Watch "The Battle of the Somme"

Two Doc Option columns in the same week? Hey, if Steven Spielberg can release two movies back to back, it’s only fair that I get to provide alternatives for both. So yeah, here’s another Doc Option for you:

I didn’t love “War Horse” any more than I loved “The Adventures of Tintin,” which is a shame since I’m usually a fan and defender of Spielberg’s work. I’m going to one day look back on this whole season’s disappointments and blame myself, or at least my final semester of grad school. For now, I offer up the best nonfiction alternative to the filmmaker’s new World War I horse play adaptation: “The Battle of the Somme.”

Considered by many to be the first feature-length documentary, this 1916 British propaganda effort depicts the famed title battle, which Spielberg also recreated for his movie. And actually the 95-year-old doc is notorious for obvious reenactment footage of its own. One laughable moment features a “dead” soldier turn his head back as if to see if the camera was done rolling. This material was apparently shot before the battle even began, as was common for early propaganda cinema of the time. Of course it also presents some amazing real footage, as well.

Partly shot by Geoffrey H. Malins, who went on to write many of the early Eille Norwood “Sherlock Holmes” films I wrote about recently, the British production was released to theaters in the UK while the battle was still going on, as an effort to promote enlistment and support for the war. It was an enormous success, and I’ve seen it written up as still to this day holding the box office record in Britain in terms of ticket sales. Even the Royal Family saw it in a private screening held at Windsor Castle.

Later, the film played other countries, including the United States and France, where it continued to boost morale for the Allies. The release in America was also reportedly employed as propaganda by the U.S. to drum up support for and defend its entry into the Great War the following year. If only it was still so popular in the States.

Obviously, like most of my Doc Options, “The Battle of the Somme” is not easily available to watch on DVD or any other way in the U.S. This is a tragedy nowhere near as large as the war itself. But in terms of First World, 21st century problems, it’s a real shame. Here is a short clip uploaded by the Imperial War Museum, which has preserved the film since the 1920s and recently had it digitally restored for a DVD release in the UK. Maybe they can partner with a distributor in the U.S. so we can watch the whole thing.

There are no horses in that relatively peaceful segment above, but you might be thankful for that. Below is a part of some recent documentary featuring footage shot during the battle, and immediately shows numerous dead horses, including one up in a tree.

Follow Christopher Campbell on Twitter: @thefilmcynic
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