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.
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.
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.
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