Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies at IWM London

Kennington’s IWM London (Imperial War Museum) continues its innovative transformation into one of London’s most essential museums with its Real to Reel exhibition spanning approximately 100 years in scope, from the Great War to recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The exhibition is seen firmly from Western eyes, so most of the material comes from those wars fought by the British or the U.S. and its allies, but with over 200 pieces of memorabilia to look at, the range of material chosen from is extensive.

The first room contains the stunning War Office commissioned The Battle of the Somme (1916). This is a stark beginning as we are shown soldiers undertaking the savage and primitive tactic of going ‘over the top’ and being shot at by a lottery of bullets. The most visceral clips in the exhibition focus on this close-proximity of hellfire while the generals sit and plan from the safety of their base camps.

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film, 1916 British troops go ‘over the top’ into 'No Man's Land'. This scene was staged for the camera at a training school behind the lines. © IWM (Q 70164)

The first director to be focussed upon is Stanley Kubrick, whose fascination with war is demonstrated with descriptive display boxes containing Paths of Glory (1957), Dr Strangelove (1964) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) memorabilia including clapperboards, clothing some source material novels. World War II is clearly the most heavily drawn-from conflict in the exhibition but ever one to be different, Kubrick steered his gaze away from WWII favouring World War I, Vietnam and the threat of nuclear action as cinematic subjects.

The subsequent section shows how British films of the 1950s and 1960s such as The Dam Busters (1955), Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) used historical episodes as symbols of war, and then themselves become symbolic of war movies of their time. Demonstrating the seriousness and integrity which actors, producers and directors took to the people and campaigns they were portraying, we are shown notebooks and production notes of the time.  Knowing that their representations would be of huge import to the people watching this form of ‘entertainment’, the exhibition makes plain this intense drive to actualise the stories as truthfully as possible.

If WWII was the most filmed conflict in movie history, then the Normandy landings of 1944 is the most filmed military operation. An impressively large screen shows a multitude of representations of this event from newsreel footage, the much underseen Overlord (1975) and The Longest Day (1962), to the zenith of war sequences, the Omaha landings scene from Saving Private Ryan (1998). This sequence confirms that Spielberg has never before or since made a more meaningful contribution to the art of cinema.

Modern day campaigns are represented by Tim Hetherington’s astonishing Restrepo (2010) as is a tribute to the war photographer and filmmaker who lost his life documenting the Libyan Civil War. The final room includes the best prop of all with a photobook containing pictures of two cinemas in London showing queues going around the block on the opening weekend of Casablanca in 1942. The Warner on Leicester Square currently stands as the Vue Leicester Square and the Regal, previously on the site of the recently closed Odeon Marble Arch.

A long queue stretches out from the entrance of the Odeon Cinema in wartime Reading, as people buy tickets, 1945. © IWM (D 25326)

Overall, Real to Reel is a good overview of the history of war movies but perhaps disappointingly, the films and exhibits largely ignore the contributions of non-English language cinema, the inclusion of which would have made this a five-star experience. What perspectives could be yet be gained from an exhibition from the cinema of Bondarchuk, Klimov, Wajda, Kurosawa, Pontecorvo, Renoir, Rossellini, Jancso and Kwang-Hyun Park?


Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies runs at IWM London until 8 January 2017


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