The Big Push on the Big Screen

24 Aug

This week in 1916 a blockbuster film had its first general release in London’s cinemas. The film went on to be the most popular film in British cinemas until 1977.  It showed genuine footage of men in battle on the Western Front in the Battle of the Somme.

The film was made by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, who mixed short sections of mocked up battle scenes with plenty of genuine footage of guns firing, troops moving around in the trenches, men attacking over no-man’s land, the wounded and the explosion of the mine under Hawthorn Ridge (on top of which was a german redoubt).


After a few private showings, the Battle of the Somme film opened in 34 cinemas across London on 21 August 1916. The next day, the Times reported that:

Never before has there been so large a demand for a long film. Managers of cinema houses have to make their arrangements many months ahead, and  in order to show the war pictures they have had to cut out of their programmes films rented many months ago for exhibition this week. […] The early arrangement of programmes has in some cases had the unfortunate effect of associating the war pictures with fimls of a light and trivial character, but this could hardly be avoided. One cannot imagine, however, that an audience which has seen men “go over” the parapet, and tumble back dead or wounded into the trench, can afterwards have the heart to laugh at picture theatre inanities.

A week later it was released across the country. Every copy of the film was reportedly in use that week. By the first week of Setember, the film was showing in more than 1000 ‘picture theatres’ across the UK.

Advert for the Somme film at the Philharmonic (Times 25.9.1916)

Famously, 20 million tickets for the film were sold in its first six weeks (in a nation of 45 million people). The next film to sell so many tickets was Star Wars in 1977 – more than 60 years later!

Most other films shown at the time were short pieces or serial shows – much more like TV programmes (soaps, news, dramas, comedies, etc) than what we see in the cinema today. The most popular of these attracted audiences of 10 million each week for their installments, which means that the success of The Battle of the Somme was as much in the continued demand for it (presumably more than 20 million tickets were sold over the month or so it was on, probably including many repeat attendances) as in the numbers watching in any one week – although the demand in late August was clearly vast. The film provided people in London and across the UK with a view of the battlefields like they had never had before. It interested millions and shocked a great number of them.

Frances Stevenson (Lloyd George’s secretary) wrote in her diary after a private showing on 4 August:

We went on Wednesday night to a private view of the ‘Some films’ i.e. the pictures taken during the recent fighting. To say that one enjoyed them would be untrue; but I am glad I went. I am glad I have seen the sort of thing our men have to go through, even to the sortie from the trench, and the falling in the barbed wire. There were pictures too of the battlefield after the fight, & of our gallant men lying all crumpled up & helpless. There were pictures of men mortally wounded being carried out of the communication trenches, with the look of agony on their faces.

A photograph taken while filming. The caption in the film reads “British Tommies rescuing a comrade under shell fire. (This man died 30 minutes after reaching the trenches.)”

Similar films made in 1917 were nowhere near as successful, and people drifted back to the usual serial or comedy films (such as those of Charlie Chaplin). The Battle of the Somme was the great success in the war-documentary genre in the Great War. It was shown at a point when the images it showed were new and shocking, but (perhaps) before the failure of the Allies to win in 1916 made the war seem to grind on interminably.



The Times


Nicholas Hiley, ‘ ‘At the Picture Palace’: The British Cinema Audience, 1895-1920’, John Fullerton (ed.), Celebrating 1895: the centenary of cinema

Nicholas Hiley, ‘Introduction’ in Geoffrey H Malins, How I Filmed the War

Nicholas Reeves, ‘Cinema, spectatorship and propaganda: ‘Battle of the Somme’ (1916) and its contemporary audience’ in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 17, No. 1.

Rachel Low (ed), History of British Film, Vol 3 (1914-1918).

Trevor Wilson, Myriad Faces of War


Posted by on 24 August 2012 in Events, Ordinary Londoners


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

12 responses to “The Big Push on the Big Screen

  1. GP

    26 August 2012 at 4:39 pm

    Reblogged this on misentopop.

  2. lochgarry

    26 August 2012 at 5:47 pm

    Thanks for the post. This was one piece of history that I did not know about, Black and white images bring out the true horrors of war.

  3. Stephen Liddell

    26 August 2012 at 6:44 pm

    Wonderful post about one of our most tragic periods of history. Given the population and the fact that every able bodied man was probably overseas it was seen by almost everyone in the country.

    I wonder if there were any dissenters who objected to the film given the terrible casualties and the sensibilities of the time.

  4. View from the Mirror

    26 August 2012 at 7:33 pm

    Great article… and very sobering images.

    I recently wrote a piece about a now vanished London Station…. which was bombed in WWI by a Zeppelin airship, thus bringing the Great War directly to the capital’s streets:

  5. jalal michael sabbagh

    26 August 2012 at 8:47 pm

    Great piece of history ,and true heroism .Excellent post.Jalal

  6. theinfinitejourneyblog

    27 August 2012 at 12:14 am

    I love these photos. Old war photos always bring be back to my childhood and make me wonder what it would have been like to live during that era. Thank you for this post

  7. Bruce

    27 August 2012 at 8:54 am

    I like the post. I didn’t know that real footage was used in films so far back. Getting the actual images would have been an achievement on its own given the photographic tools of 1916. I recently looked at a couple of portraits of a great uncle of mine (Australia). He was from a small country town in Nabiac, NSW Australia. The portraits are of him, in army uniform and taken in France 1917 and 1918. They were studio shots with a postcard reverse and sent to his sister at home. His sister was to become my Grandmother. I wondered in what battle my great uncle was fighting for Queen and country. Perhaps it was the one in your post. I also wonder now, after reading this article, whether the real footage, as with Vietnam, helped to shorten the war. Bruce.

  8. aditamaphoto

    27 August 2012 at 9:53 am

    great article…
    two thumbs . .

  9. anubhav3090

    27 August 2012 at 10:20 am

    nice info abt the movie. astonished to know about such a large public appraisal for a long movie at that time. good work.

  10. littlecitybot

    27 August 2012 at 3:46 pm

    wow! great photos. i love historically-based pieces. thanks for sharing! x

  11. sjudemnlentreany1983

    20 September 2012 at 9:14 am

    Reblogged this on Laurie Hines Journal.

  12. willmbmarquezx

    9 October 2012 at 2:59 am

    Reblogged this on Will Marquez Post.


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