The Imperial War Museum has a real treat for film fans, a new exhibition looking at the creation and influence of war films that brings together a huge number of props, costumes, videos and documents from the last hundred years of movie-making. An often controversial subject, movies claiming to depict real-life events can polarise opinion frustrating historians and veterans, while patronising audiences. Yet some of the greatest films ever made were war movies, many with devoted cult followings, so from Casablanca to Black Hawk Down, Das Boot to Eye in the Sky film has often reflected the nature of modern warfare.
The parameters for this rather brilliant exhibition become clear as you go along and it’s quite strict about selecting films based only on wars that have actually occurred in the last hundred years, as well as the films – both real and fictional – made in this time. So if you’re hoping to see medieval depictions like Braveheart or the recent Macbeth, or gain insight into the big battles of the British Empire such as The Charge of the Light Brigade or Zulu then this is not the show for you. Real to Reel instead fits entirely with the museums remit to represent the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Pushing the history aside, there’s plenty for film fans; if you want to see Mark Rylance’s 2016 BAFTA mask for Bridge of Spies, David Niven’s RAF flying jacket from A Matter of Life and Death, Marlene Dietrich’s ‘entertaining the troops’ dress, James McAvoy’s Atonement army uniform, an original chair from Rick’s bar in Casablanca or Clarke Gable’s trench-coat then this show has it all and more. Taking a largely chronological approach we walk through the World Wars first, grouping together examples of films made about them at any time since. Initially the layout is like a store room piled high with boxes, reels and packages – reminiscent actually of the layout of the Barbican’s James Bond exhibition a few years’ back – a stage set in a way to showcase the individual items which include the costumes mentioned above, digital screens showing excerpts from the films, screenplays, stills, director’s letters and corresponding testimony from the IWM archives for the periods examined.
Given the recent splurge of commemoration activity, naturally we start with The Battle of the Somme a landmark piece of early film-making that gave people at home a chance to see what the Western Front looked like for the first time. Although parts of it were staged, it does show wounded and dying men, the dangerous environment full of shells, craters and fear, and, from a distance, men genuinely engaged in combat. It sets the scene for the rest of the programme as we learn about the purpose of war films both as patriotic drivers made during actual conflicts to rally morale, as well as reflections on the way in which particular conflicts have shaped British and American consciousness. The fully fictional accounts soon follow, from Kubrick’s Paths of Glory with original set drawings from Bond designer Ken Adams, to Lawrence of Arabia, as well as costumes and a flag from the recent Warhorse movie, the First World War has been a popular focus for films throughout the last 100 years.
Understandably, however, it is the Second World War that takes up the most room here and seems to have been the greatest inspiration for film-makers. There are several reasons for this, key among them is the idea that by 1939, film had become an important medium for propaganda and morale, so while the art was in its infancy during the Great War, many movies were made in both the UK and America to promote the cause. In addition, of course, this war had a greater effect on the USA than its predecessor, so naturally Hollywood both then and since has spent considerable resource attempting to comprehend and honour it.
We learn how several major stars joined-up to fight while continuing to make films and hold concerts, showcasing the costumes mentioned above for Niven, Gable and Dietrich along with their stories including how Dietrich gave up her citizenship rather than perform for the Nazi cause. Nearby on a giant cinema screen are some interpretations of the 1944 D-Day landings with the combat sections of several films contrasted to show us how differently the war has been interpreted in different decades. Saving Private Ryan is one of those included and in a case nearby you can see Tom Hanks’s costume from the film along with memorabilia from comparable D-Day movies.
From here on the chronological framework for the exhibition fluctuates somewhat because next up is an interpretation of the Dunkirk retreat from 1940 using Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement which includes probably one of the best tracking shots ever seen in a combat movie as we follow the hero Robbie (played by James McAvoy) and his friends along the beach. The shoreline is packed with men awaiting rescue, some enjoying the faded glory of the fairground rides, some slumped exhaustedly on the ground, and the shot, shown here in full, is compelling, eye-opening and strangely beautiful. Nearby, is McAvoy’s army uniform worn in these scenes along with a brilliant short video interview with Wright and his designer Sarah Greenwood discussing how they found the location, dressed it and prepared for the sequence. In a microcosm, this small section is why this exhibition is so successful, because it shows you the piece of film, tells you how it was made with passionate care and attention to detail so notable of modern filmmakers, and offers you a bone fide bit of Hollywood glamour with a costume worn by a movie star.
There are some final display cases on character which feel a little under prepared in comparison but cover some of the Vietnam films and Where Eagles Dare, as well as an excellent ultra-modern video with trailers and interviews for recent hits including Zero Dark Thirty and Eye in the Sky. It ends where it began with a warning that war movies are often highly controversial and glamorised versions of history that can be unreliable. But the minute the marketing machine goes into production the cultural impact of these films is inescapable. Walking around the final anteroom that contains posters, memorabilia and replicas it’s hard to disagree. The soundtrack to this section is the music from classic movies like The Great Escape and Casablanca which are instantly recognisable and firmly embedded in a wider idea of the periods they represent.
War movies, then, are a dangerous thing and for many will be the only history they will ever see. And while such fictions have no claim to absolute truth (the catch-all term ‘based-on’ helps with this), artistic licence can lead to considerable controversy – particularly when American films completely expunge other Allied forces from their own history. From Real to Reel is probably the Imperial War Museum’s most successful exhibition, in terms of logic, argument and content, since their Ian Fleming show in 2008. It is brilliantly executed with a persuasive argument that makes you think more deeply about the issues it raises, while enjoying a rare sweep of exciting artefacts. While plenty of films are left out what this show contains will delight military historians and film fans alike.
From Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies is at the Imperial War Museum until 8 January. Entrance is £10 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1