Imperial War Museum – Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies

Laura Clouting, Historian and curator of Imperial War Museum London’s latest exhibition Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies talks about the emotional and educational experiences associated with museum exhibitions.

Whether a film ends on a note of triumph, tragedy, or ambiguity, going to the cinema is an experience designed to agitate the feelings. We buy our tickets in the hope of being shaken and stirred. Increasingly people also go to museum exhibitions in the hope of an emotional as well as an educational experience. IWM London’s latest exhibition brings these two things together in Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies.


My first blog post for Bowers and Wilkins revealed the practical twists and turns in curating this immersive exhibition. In this piece, the movies themselves are the ‘stars’. We most readily associate war blockbusters with battlefield epics, like the acclaimed Saving Private Ryan (1998) or acts of individual daring-do while fighting in the skies in The Battle of Britain (1969). But there is far more to war movies than the violence inherent in conflict. The destructive tedium of military life is exposed in Jarhead (2005), and relationships are forged or torn apart as a result of war in stories likes Atonement (2007) and Casablanca (1942).


Real wars have been reconstructed with artistic license that has sparked spectacular rows over accuracy and emphasis. The showbiz clout of star Errol Flynn wasn’t enough to save Objective, Burma! (1945) from a panning (and a swift ban) upon its release in British cinemas. It was widely perceived by British audiences to be a deeply misleading account of the Burma campaign in which American troops are the saviours. The kind of offence stoked by wrongly emphasised heroes has even reached parliamentary level. Tony Blair, when prime minister, agreed in the House of Commons that the movie U-571 (2000) was deemed an ‘affront to the memory’ of British sailors involved in actions relating to the discovery of the Nazi message-encrypting Enigma machine.


We’re likely to think of the cinema as a theatre of entertainment, where fictional extravaganzas dominate. But documentaries based upon real footage from war zones have been shown to compelling effect in cinemas. One of the titles we showcase in the exhibition is The Battle of the Somme (1916). IWM preserves this feature-length film, which is so significant that it is on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Ticket sales numbered twenty million in the immediate aftermath of its release while the battle still raged, half of the British population at the time. People clamoured to catch a glimpse of real footage of guns pounding German positions, soldiers moving into action across No Man’s Land, the injured and even the British dead. At several points, hundreds of men march in front of the camera, looking straight at it, grinning and waving fervently. This film swiftly established the cinema as a place in which the distant war could be visualised and understood on the home front, and loved ones potentially spotted. It was of course made with the intention of stoking continued support for the ongoing First World War.


Almost all of today’s visitors to IWM London have seen a film that has influenced how they perceive the past. The universality of cinema’s appeal and power was what prompted us to explore the war movie genre in an exhibition. Some scenes transcend the movies they are in. Immortal moments in film history are relived at IWM, such as our display of the original artwork storyboards from Apocalypse Now (1979) for the unforgettable helicopter attack scene, where US forces attack a Vietnamese village to the strains of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. Without even having seen the films, the recognition factor of classics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Great Escape (1963) is potent. Some old favourites remind us of how cinema has been used to honour inspirational real-life actions undertaken by ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, such as those of shop worker turned undercover agent Violette Szabo in Carve Her Name With Pride (1958). As shown in the film, Szabo paid the ultimate price for her war work when she was captured and executed in a German concentration camp.

When walking around the exhibition, the thing that strikes me is how easily influenced our impressions of history can be. We are encouraged and easily persuaded by filmmakers that their tales are ‘how it really was’. It’s a convincing medium with an intense emotional currency. When retrospectively reconstructing the past for the cinema, every war film is fraught with subjective bias. But because they make us feel a sense of the shock, horror, trauma, camaraderie, duty or victory so bound up in the experience of war, cinema’s obsession with war movies looks set to continue.

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