Tag Archives: Military History

Film Preview: Dunkirk – BFI Southbank

Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan

The miracle of Dunkirk is one of Britain’s most memorable war stories, and is one that combines all the key characteristics that ensure its place in history; it’s a display of ordinary heroism and stoic endurance, the triumph of the survival instinct, the combination of different groups working together, of individual and collective bravery, and most importantly, it is the story of victory against overwhelming odds – with ‘victory’ meaning the successful evacuation of hundreds of thousands of men cornered by the advancing German army. It is this more than anything else that inflames the popular imagination.

The way Britain records and memorialises its military history is almost unique, not in outright wins and numbers of enemy forces crushed, but in specific acts of bravery against apparently insurmountable obstacles. From the precision of Henry V’s paltry archers against a French army reportedly 4-6 times the size of the English at Agincourt, to the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, the defence of Rourke’s Drift in the Anglo-Zulu War and the Battle of Britain, whatever the outcome, the courage of men fighting for King and Country is celebrated and revered. And it’s no coincidence that major war films have been made of each these incidents.

It is somewhat surprising then that the events of Dunkirk have rarely troubled filmmakers in the 77 years since a combined force of Royal Navy, RAF and “little boats” ensured Britain’s soldiers got home from the beaches of Northern France. In 1958 Leslie Norman produced a respected movie of the same name for which he is still best remembered, while the one-shot beach scene in Joe Wright’s Atonement remains one of the most technically impressive and cinematic depictions of war to date, but it was just one scene.

Dunkirk has, perhaps, been overshadowed by other later events in World War Two that capture another idea of heroism – D-Day, the Battle of Britain, Japanese Prisoner of War Camps and the African campaign – which have given filmmakers a more straight-forwardly heroic model and clear victory set-up to warm the nation in the years immediately after the conflict ended. Dunkirk may be a popular landmark but a retreat, even a noble one, is not necessarily the basis for a great film. That is until Christopher Nolan decided to direct it.

At this point it’s best to warn you that what follows will assume you know the history and the outcome of this story, but won’t reveal what happens to individual characters. Nolan’s approach is in many ways atypical of war films, and during a brief introduction at the BFI Southbank screening (having come directly from the premiere), Nolan explained that he wanted to create a semi-immersive experience that felt more like a thriller than a gung-ho tale of derring-do, a template that traditional war films tend to follow. If you imagine that most people seeing this film will know the outcome then the only way to create tension is to ask the audience to invest in the individual fates of a set of characters, and make the action as realistic as possible to create and prolong the suspense, which is something Nolan does masterfully.

Unusually, there is relatively little exposition at the start, the film begins with a one of the protagonists the aptly-named soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) escaping snipers on the streets of Dunkirk where he emerges onto a beach full of men in lines waiting for the Navy to come for them. From this point, Nolan’s film is a full-on experience as tensions escalate, the clock ticks as the German Army approaches and four core narratives overlap. In the 105-minute run time, at least 95-minutes of this are unmissably tense so try not to take any breaks because you will miss something.

As we’ve seen from his previous work, Nolan is so accomplished at managing the multinarrative perspective, especially in Inception where the characters were situated in several layers of dream state, and he utilises this approach to considerable effect in Dunkirk. First, we follow Tommy who spends the film trying to jump the queue of men waiting for rescue, forced into short-term alliances with those prepared to push others aside to guarantee their own survival, including a role for Harry Styles that led to much conjecture. This perspective on muddied heroism is really fascinating, and while the audience is repelled by the greed of the men he meets, at the same time you can’t help but appreciate the desperation and fear that drove them to it.

The second strand is on “the mole”, a stretch of pier or jetty that extended far enough into the English Channel that the Navy’s ships could dock one at a time to take men home. Here we meet Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Army Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) who represent the wider war strategy, trying to save the men, but well aware that a harder war is on its way if Germany attempts invasion for which their ships must be protected.

Flying above them is a single RAF formation with three spitfires led by Farrier (Tom Hardy) and his fighter ace colleague Collins (Jack Lowden) who must keep the Luftwaffe from bombing the ships and men on the beach, engaging in dogfights and ensuring they don’t run out of fuel before they too can get home. Finally, we follow Mark Rylance’s “little boat” sent to help with the evacuation but picking up a stray soldier en route (Cillian Murphy) who survived an earlier sinking, but is so shell-shocked he tries to prevent them heading to Dunkirk.

Nolan’s approach feels more like real conflict than almost any war film you’ve ever seen, not just in the technical brilliance of the effects, but in the way the story is managed to show both the unremitting pace of combat, and importantly how the conduct of war is essentially a large system of interconnected elements, the removal of any one part of which would entirely change what happens to the rest of it. Aspects of these four stories do overlap in various ways as entirely separate characters come together momentarily, but what comes across most clearly is the sense that these men were all an important part of the same event, each contributing to the success of the rescue from different angles and with different outcomes.

The technical approach to this film is one its most impressive aspects, and with very little dialogue, it is the action that is the focus. Using real 35mm film was important Nolan explained for creating the right effect. Some of the most startling moments are in the aerial shots, with an Imax camera strapped to various parts of the substitute Spitfire, the actors were taken into the air to film Nolan explained, rather than compromise with imperfect green screening. The result is astounding, giving a kind of first-person perspective across the film that means the audience feels as though they’re sitting right next to Tom Hardy as he spirals through the clouds in pursuit of the dangerous enemy machines, standing should-to-shoulder with Kenneth Branagh on the pier or cowering during a snipper attack with Fionn Whitehead.

Two weeks ago, I suggested that Sam Mendes conducted rather than directed The Ferryman, and Nolan achieves the same effect here controlling the various elements, allowing them their moment but creating a sense of harmony across the film. It is compelling stuff right from the start, and even when you finally realise Nolan is playing with the timeline as well as the perspectives, it’s done in such an understated way that you’re instantly drawn back into the action. This is so redolent of the way men describe real warfare, with no time to linger on what happened and what it means, but having to just carry on. And Nolan’s approach to death and destruction is exactly the same, it happens but during the main thrust of the film it’s portrayal it unsentimental and unfussy, part of what’s happening but so much else is occurring simultaneously that, as with real warfare, there is only time to reflect much later when it’s all over.

And much of this down to Nolan’s faith in his cast, who, with very little dialogue, must carry much of the impact of events merely in expression. Kenneth Branagh is actually sensational as the weary naval officer carrying the weight of the war on his shoulders, feeling every bit of his powerlessness. Yet the moment the little boats appear, Nolan focuses entirely on Branagh’s face as the joy, pride and incalculable relief pass across it. When the tears fill his eyes, don’t be surprised if they also fill yours.

For much of the film Tom Hardy has only experienced determination in his eyes to rely on while his face is covered by the mask of a fighter pilot but he still manages to convey the fear, concern, relief and almost total self-reliance that are the mark of aerial warfare. Mark Rylance meanwhile as civilian boatman Mr Dawson does that humble determined thing he does so well while nursing his own private heartache, and Cillian Murphy is excellent as a broken soldier who brings the tragedy of war to Dawson’s boat, unable to contain his trauma – arguably the consequences of this subplot is one of the few missteps in the film but doesn’t detract from Murphy’s performance.   

There are also a host of rising stars who add to this solid work from more established actors. First Fionn Whitehead as Tommy is the audience’s way into the film. With less dialogue than some of the supporting cast, Whitehead carries most of the soldier-journey conveying both the youth of the men fighting with the jaded weariness of the experienced fighter, seeing death and barely responding to it.

Harry Styles doesn’t disgrace himself or pull focus as a soldier prepared to clamber over anyone to be first in line for rescue, and the film frequently plays with the hero-villain divide, letting individual actions repel you while still appreciating the wider fighting hell they’ve gone through – it’s not all plucky good natured-heroism but something much more complex and human. There’s also excellent work from Jack Lowden as Tom Hardy’s fellow fighter pilot who finds himself frustratedly watching the action from another story while dealing with accusations of abandonment from the army.

The much-anticipated Dunkirk absolutely lives up to the hype and is a film that subverts the established war-movie model and makes it a thrilling but unsentimental experience until the very end, where it’s gets a little cheesy for 5 minutes. But Nolan’s skill is in reminding us that Dunkirk may have been a ‘victory of survival’ but it was far from the end of the war, and in a way, the fate of all the characters is a reminder that there was so much more to do. Dunkirk is an extraordinary war film that aptly celebrates an extraordinary moment in British military history where systematised war and the courage of fighting men met with the bravery of civilian little boats – there is certainly some kind of miracle in that.

Dunkirk is on general release from Friday 21 July in cinemas nationwide. For more information on BFI previews, visit their website. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Film Review: Anthropoid – BFI Southbank

Jamie Dornan & Cillian Murphy in Anthropoid

History is still too often the story of “great men” and Sean Ellis’s new film Anthropoid, which had its UK premier at BFI Southbank last week, considers whether the removal of a key individual can really change the course of events. It’s an idea we tend to take for granted, certainly in public history, and it’s one that’s used to propel any kind of historical fiction, asking us where we would have been without the Winston Churchills, Henry VIIIs and Nelsons of the world. And of course, as Anthropoid demonstrates, the inverse is true, there are also a series of “bad men” of history whose removal it is supposed would prevent all kinds of disasters, wars and genocides.

As a society, we like to tell stories that suggest progress and these are often driven by quite black and white versions of who the heroes and villains are. But real life is far more complicated than that, and key individuals, whether good or bad, are often at the heart of a large network of activities which will continue to exist without them. At the crux of Anthropoid is a debate about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Nazi final solution, with a reputation so fearsome he earned the soubriquet ‘the butcher of Prague’ and whether removing him would release or further enslave the citizens of Czechoslovakia.

Two soldiers, played by Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, are parachuted into a forest on the outskirts of Prague at the start of the film with orders from the exiled Czech government in London to kill Heydrich. They are met and welcomed into the local underground resistance led by the wonderful Toby Jones, who are initially unaware of their secret mission, but help the men to integrate into Czech society, giving them a family to lodge with, jobs and even fake girlfriends as part of their cover.

There have been a number of poor reviews which largely hinge on the slightly misconceived notion that this a straightforward thriller in the style of Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie, which took a more ‘Mission Impossible’ approach to a botched assassination attempt of Hitler. But while the content and setting of Anthropoid draws obvious comparisons, Sean Ellis – who wrote, directed and acted as cinematographer – is aiming at something slightly different, with the big action scenes serving only to punctuate a taut exploration of a much wider organisation. While the assassination attempt is the film’s core driver, its purpose is to understand the context in which such a plan came about and the emotional and physical costs to the extended network of men and women it affected.

The first hour is entirely concerned with these preparations as Jan (Dornan) and Josef (Murphy) scout locations, secretly photograph Heydrich’s route to work and spy on his daily routine. It is pure character study as the two men begin to come to terms with the task they have to perform. For interest, Ellis has given them contrasting personalities, and during the Q&A that followed last week’s showing, explained that while his background research was extensive, such aspects of character are hard to know which gives the actors plenty of artistic licence.

Murphy’s Josef is the more serious and soldierly of the two, given a direct order that he doesn’t question and leads the scientific process of deciding how and when to strike. He is acutely aware at all times of the dangerous position they’re in, trying to blend into a tightly-wound society while keeping his emotions in check. But there’s also a paternal element to his character which Murphy brings out quite subtly in the protection of the weaker Jan from the full horror of their exposed position and maintain motivation despite objections from other resistance fighters. One point of ambiguity however is the relationship he forms with Lenka (Anna Geislerová) which he initially resists and sees only in terms of fulfilling his cover story. You’re supposed to believe he then falls for her, so as Ellis explained as the film plays out the two leads almost swap character traits, with Josef becoming softer. Some ambiguity is fine, but the idea that he suddenly melts was not entirely convincing, as Murphy’s performance is so restrained it seemed more likely that he respects Lenka for the danger she puts herself in for his sake and sees someone matching his level of sacrifice, but doesn’t actually fall in love with her.

Dornan on the other hand plays a character whose emotions are much closer to the surface and falls quickly in love with Marie (Charlotte Le Bon). Without any back-story, it’s hard to know what previous role Jan had that got him selected for this mission because he responds quite badly to combat pressure, certainly in the first half of the film as his hands shake when he tries to fire, and Josef has to calm him during panic attacks. Dornan does all of this pretty well and audiences will find his warmer character engaging, but it’s a bit hard to believe he would have been chosen for such a specialist and highly significant mission. What is interesting, however, is seeing his confidence grow in the second half of the film as the fall-out from the assassination leads to a siege that separates the two leads, and here Jan demonstrates more considerable military poise, strategy and bravery under pressure than expected.

Ellis is wearing a lot of hats in this production and some fit a little better than others. Given his photography background understandably the cinematography is very striking. Using Super 16mm film it has both a period and punchy feel which adds to the drama of the action scenes while underscoring the more introspective moments. At the Q&A, Ellis talked about recreating shots of Prague from wartime photographs and, because the city has changed, using digital effects to subsequently recreate some of their atmosphere. The linking shots are some of the best seen in a war film with noticeably beautiful images of Prague enveloped in haze and cloud standing out.

It’s clear how much research Ellis has done and this project has taken several years to come to fruition, so the balance of introspective and high action moments actually work quite well. If you don’t go to this expecting a thriller as several critics appear to have, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the intricacies of the wider story. However, while the writing is largely pretty good, it feels overlong because the central assassination takes a while to occur and although the groundwork for that is interesting, it’s in the audiences mind as the main event, so some of the subsidiary stories around the romance and resistance in-fighting feel like distractions.

Most of the other characters are also too thinly drawn to add much to the plot or to create much investment in their cause, with the excellent Toby Jones essentially wasted in a small role as the group leader. There is clearly a huge amount of politics between the on-the-ground resistance and that directed from the relative safety of London, so more suspicion of the two parachutists and their motives for doing this would have added texture, particularly in the first hour rather than focusing on the somewhat dreary love interests.

One of the most interesting aspects of this film is actually seeing the consequences of their actions play out, which links back to this crucial underlying question of whether removing one key person from history really changes anything. The rapid escalation of violence after the assassination, the brutal torture and efficient round-up of the extended network and how this act was utilised to justify further bloody incursions into Czechoslovakia implies that the costs and consequences were far higher than the resistance had prepared for. Try watching this in a double bill with the excellent Conspiracy a BBC film from 2001 with Kenneth Branagh as a chilling Heydrich at the Wannsee Conference and this may alter your perspective. Anthropoid leaves you to decide whether the removal of “bad men” would significantly change the course of history, but it undoubtedly highlights the real bravery and heroism of the small group of people who tried.

Anthropoid was premiered at the BFI Southbank with Q&A. It opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday 9 September. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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

Real to Reel - A Century of War Movies - IWM

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 


Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care – Science Museum

Wounded Exhibition - Science Museum

“Is there anything new to learn about the First World War, don’t we know everything already” I was once asked at an interview. One of the most positive aspects of the raft of Commemoration events that have emerged in the last two years – from exhibitions, plays, books, stories and other engagement activities – is this diversity of war experience that has, really for the first time, contextualised the terrible experience of soldiers with other contributors to the war. This has incorporated battle zones beyond the Western Front and life at home, as well as exhibitions on the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy which were my own research focus. All of this has given the public a much wider sense of what the war meant and its far reaching effects on society.

Adding to this welcome new crop of voices is a brilliant new exhibition at the Science Museum focusing on the medical profession during and shortly after World War One, and the development of treatments and facilities to help injured servicemen both at the Front and in the UK. The main section is divided into three colour-code blocks to aid navigation, focusing first on the physical journey of a wounded soldier from the front through the various treatment points and eventually back home to Britain if the injury was severe enough; second it looks at the scientific and technological advances in medicine that the war created and the ways in which innovation and the repurposing of old ideas took place, before finally considering the long-term work taking place at home in plastic surgery, prosthetics and support for mental breakdown.

But the exhibition opens with a brief introduction to the period before injury and we’re shown examples of shells and shrapnel that were designed to cause maximum damage and destruction to the trench systems of the Western Front and the human flesh within it. The randomness of war is something that comes across strongly and a small display of “lucky charms” and amulets is a powerful example of how much reliance soldiers placed on concepts of chance and mystical protection in a highly uncertain and dangerous environment. Nearby is a bloodied stretcher which crucially sets the scene for this exhibition – it is the first artefact we encounter and would have been the wounded soldier’s first contact with medical assistance.

Round the corner and the orange-painted display cases chart the process of moving injured men to various treatment stages depending on the severity of their wound – including the roles of Regimental Aid Posts and Casualty Clearing Stations – a structure that was overwhelmed by the 400,000 casualties received during the first 140 days of the Somme campaign the exhibition tells us, which led to numerous inventions to speed the transportation of wounded men. Items such as the Colt Stretcher, a hammock-like structure, made manoeuvring easier in narrow trench systems than its flat-wide predecessor, while further up the line motorised ambulances and wheeled transportation trolleys were increasingly common in the wake of the 1916 campaigns. One of the best exhibits is a scale model of a transport train kitted out with bunk-beds that can be flattened against the wall for moving masses of men at once. This section is a meaningful and well executed explanation of the process of developing treatment offered to men at the Front.

The blue section has a slightly unclear starting point but offers a number of mini-stories of progress in the development of particular scientific advances. There’s another incredible model of a complex and tight trench system showing wounded men being evacuated while others are being treated on the spot in dugouts or resting on fire steps. You can move around this section in any order and looking at the development of equipment of blood transfusions, field dressings with iodine given to each man in his pack, splints for broken legs, gas masks and protectors, and oxygen masks used by multiple people at once. Each area focuses on the scientist or inventor who developed these vital instruments, giving them a necessary moment of recognition in the history of medical technology still in use today, as well as reminding us that the Allies were engaged in all kinds of vital war work, not all of it wearing a uniform on the battlefield.

The final section will be the hardest for some to see, although a very necessary part of our understanding of the consequences of the First World War. It looks at rehabilitation and surgical innovation to help those permanently disabled or disfigured by the conflict, returning home to a society largely unprepared to see what war had done to its citizens. Most moving and fascinating are the work of Henry Tonks whose pastel sketches show mutilated faces transformed by plastic surgery. Tonks worked with surgeon Harold Gillies – whose story was dramatised in a so-so 2014 play called Dr Scroggy’s War at The Globe – in wards devoted to facial repairs in Cambridge and Sidcup. There are also examples of prosthetic limbs including legs and arms with replaceable hand sections depending on the sort of manual work the individual needed to do and whether they could afford a slightly more elaborate full hand. As with much innovation in the First World War a single change would have a knock-on effect for other developments and here we see examples of new cutlery and crockery developed for those with prosthesis.

As an addendum to the main exhibition, there is a short display at the end focusing on modern conflict in Afghanistan which cleverly draws a direct comparison between some of the medical items and personal charms from the First World War with similar pieces still used in combat zones today. As with aeroplane technology almost everything it could do were conceived from 1914-1918, and what came next was largely refinement, much is true of the medical innovations on display here, really emphasising how crucial the war was in setting in motion things we take for granted today.

Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care is a fascinating and welcome addition to programme of diverse and inclusive events honouring the Great War, and one that is not to be missed. Much work has gone into coordinating pieces from other museums including the Imperial War Museum (whose own rather lacklustre new galleries launched events in 2014), the Wellcome Collection and several medical museums. The timely launch of this exhibition, a century on from the Somme campaign, captures a new wave of interest in the war, demonstrated last week by Rufus Norris and Jeremy Deller’s moving We Were Here project placing volunteers dressed as First World War soldiers all over the country, each handing out a card with the name of a man who died, to mark the anniversary of the breath-taking brutality of the first day of the Somme, as well as the poignant all-night Vigil and services at Westminster Abbey which included two beautiful and evocative readings of original testimony by actor Luke Thompson (Reading 1 from 33 minutes in and Reading 2). So the answer to that original question is of course we don’t know everything about the First World War. And with the range of Commemoration activities that have grown up around this 100 year recognition touching on all kinds of experience of the Great War, it’s clear that there is still so much more to learn.

Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care is at the Science Museum (first floor Mezzanine) until 15 January 2018. Entrance is free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Artist and Empire – Tate Britain

Edward Armitage's Retribution, 1858Empire is a bit of a dirty word and something we don’t really like to think too much about. But in the last ten years historians have increasingly turned their attention to reconsidering the Empire and its meaning in an attempt to understand what Britishness means in the twenty-first century. In effect the British Empire began in the sixteenth-century and fell into decline after the First World War as countries won their independence. Our modern perception is that Empire meant slavery, subjugation and looting of other countries but as with most historical events it is never as simple as it looks, and while it existed for more than 350 years, it also led to cultural exchange, technological advancement and engagement with the world that benefited both Britain and its conquered territories. Tate Britain’s big winter exhibition Artist and Empire tells this story through painting, sculpture and map-making, and while it doesn’t decide whether Empire was ultimately good or bad, it has brought together one of the most fascinating collections about this defining era in British history.

Thematically arranged, it begins with cartography, because the first thing you need to do when you conquer somewhere is make a map of your new territory, and this initial room contains some fascinating examples of early scientific exploration from as long ago as the sixteenth century accompanied by enormous portraits of explorers including a fine centrepiece of Thomas Cavendish, Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins painted in the 1600s. There are also examples of original maps made within Britain including siege plans for Enniskillen Castle by an English soldier called John Thomas, which may explain where this love of capturing and subduing lands came from. From the start it’s clear that this show will take a multi-country perspective and pieces depicting Ireland, America, Africa, Australia and India sit side by side as astonishing examples of the Britain’s reach at any given time and the millions of people it affected.

Eddie Izzard would tell you that claiming ownership of somewhere also requires that you stick a flag in it – “no flag, no country” – so the exhibition also brings you right up to the twentieth-century with some handmade Asafo Flags from West Africa designed by the Fante a Ghanaian people showing collaboration between local culture and the British invaders with some incorporating elements of the Union flag. As they hang from the ceiling they seem to entirely represent the contradictory thoughts about Empire, hinting both at tales of repression, occupation and acquisition, as well as the development of local alliances that led, for a time at least, to mutual systems of government.

One of the major consequences of the Empire was its scientific output and the second room considers its effect on the collections of natural history, art and literature. From exploratory voyages which recorded new species of animal and plant life to the development of the ‘Grand Tour’ for aristocratic young men around Europe, the engagement with the effects of Empire was considerable. This room includes beautifully detailed botanical drawings such as those by Lady Anna Maria Jones who collected and drew Indian plants while stationed there with her husband in the late 1700s. This is brilliantly balanced by related bird drawings by Shaikh Zain-ud-Din who was commissioned by Lady Jones among others to add to her collection, and this is another fascinating aspect of this exhibition, it’s not just the British perspective on foreign lands but the increased appetite for locally produced works of art and cultural objects.

The interest in new species is an opportunity to show Stubb’s superb painting of A Cheetah and a Stag with Two Indian Attendants which became part of the Duke of Cumberland’s menagerie and took part in stag hunts at Windsor.  There’s also the Stubbs Dingo, as well as John Lewin’s Tasmanian Tiger, placed alongside discussion of Joseph Banks who voyaged with Captain Cook. The trafficking of goods and animals (as well of people) back to Britain was part of a cultural influx at home too, meaning it wasn’t just the people who travelled around the Empire who experienced its effects, signalling a huge shift in the movement of goods around the world.

No study of Empire is complete without mention of the military campaigns that effected the subjugation of other lands, and the next room considers the grandiose, and often misleading, statements about the heroism of the army. From virtual nonsense including Benjamin West’s The Death of General James Wolfe which falsely imagines the great leader succumbing on the battlefield surrounded by his men and a Native American, to George William Joy’s depiction of the death of General Gordon, military heroes are given a saint-like composure, likening their demise to religious imagery of sacrifice – essentially rewriting history and the nature of conflict to suit the iconography of the Empire.

In the following rooms, the merging of British and local cultures becomes more apparent as several portraits show the exchange of costume, with famous faces such as T. E. Lawrence in tribal wear and John Foote in beautiful India muslins painted by Joshua Reynolds. But this influence worked both ways as British style portraits and customs were adopted. We can see this in Simon de Passe’s portrait of Pocahontas in European dress. Ethnographic studies of different cultures also became increasingly popular and many of the pictures in the final rooms document the nature of tribal life including portraits of Maori chiefs, the King of Matabeleland and leather goods from Nigeria. This again implies the dual nature of Empire, both as a scientific and cultural exploration of the rest of the world leading to the exchange of knowledge and experience for all involved, but still with the knowledge of Britain as an invading force detailing the wonders of its new territories.

As you leave this exhibition, which took me about two hours to see everything properly, it’s difficult to form any certain conclusions on the experience of Empire. The Tate has been very careful not to take a clear line on this and while it had terrible consequences for many, this is a fascinating and revealing walk through its history. Somewhat unintentionally, by placing so many pieces from around the world next to one another so that you move from the Caribbean to Australia from South Africa to North America in a few steps, you can’t help but be a little bit awed that Britain managed to keep control of all of that simultaneously and for so long. The rights and wrongs aside, the very fact of its existence is overwhelming. As much about scientific exploration as it was about subjugation, the concept of Empire is one that will continue to trouble us, and as this fascinating exhibition makes clear, the British Empire was far from black and white, it was full of people, cultures and colours that tell us so much about being British in the twenty-first century.

Artist and Empire is at Tate Britain until 10 April. Tickets are £16 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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