- Geoffrey Malins’ camera, from Dan Snow’s Battle of the Somme. (2012, Discovery Channel). Clip published 9.11.2012.
… I set my camera up behind what I thought quite a safe screen, to film a general view of our front line, but I had hardly started exposing when, with murderous little shrieks, two bullets whizzed close by my head—quite as near as I shall ever want them. Dropping as low as possible, I reached up, and still turning the handle finished the scene. Then followed several pictures of scouts and snipers making their way across the ground, taking advantage of any slight cover they could get, in order to take up suitable positions for their work. By this time the light was getting rather bad, and as it was still raining hard I made my way back.During the return journey, an officer who accompanied me showed himself unknowingly above the parapet, and “zipp” came a bullet, which ripped one of the stars off his coat. “Jove!” said he, with the greatest of sang-froid, “that’s a near thing; but it’s spoilt my shoulder-strap”: and with a laugh we went on our way.
(Malins, G., (1920), Edited by Warren, L., How I filmed The War, extract from Chapter 1, Part 2)
Create A Ten Minute Film Inspired By People and Events of World War One
With the wealth of material recently published about World War One, have you felt motivated to make a film inspired by what you have seen or read? If so, then For The Fallen ‘Film Challenge’ is for you. The Challenge is open to both novice as well as professional film-makers. It is completely FREE to enter and you have until the 30th June, 2014, to complete your film.
The final edit must be no more than ten minutes in length (including opening and closing credits) and can be filmed on a traditional digital camera or even your iPhone. Full details of the Challenge and an application form can be downloaded here. The ‘Film Challenge’ is run by Viola Films, the Royal Engineers Museum and Blue Town Heritage Centre, Sheerness. This project has been made possible by monies received from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and IdeasTest (Creative People and Places).
If you do decide to enter, you may find my series of World War One articles, Stories From The Great War, a good source of inspiration for your film. Even if you do not wish to enter the Challenge, then I hope you will still find these articles a stimulating read. They are packed full of new material and images from this fascinating period in history and there are plenty more articles in the series coming very soon. Articles published on here so far are:
- Front line Post & War Horses – Stories From The Great War Part 1;
- White Feathers & Remembrance: Stories From The Great War Part 2;
- Very Adaptable Dames & The Crimson Field: Stories From The Great War Part 3 ;
- The Royal Marines – Stories From The Great War Part 4;
- Beatrix Brice Miller & “The Old Contemptibles” – Stories From The Great War Part 5;
- Lady Hardinge & Tin Town – Brockenhurst’s Military Hospitals – Stories From The Great War Part 6.;
- Gun Shells Into Vases & Rat Skins Into Wallets -The Art of Souveniring – Stories From The Great War Part 7.
Of course, Film Challenge entrants are by no means restricted to the above topics.Your final story choice is completely up to you and I would urge you to consult as wide a range of sources as possible. Be original, innovative and don’t be afraid to take creative risks. My articles are designed merely to help set you off on your own journey of discovery.
I am an experienced social historian and blogger. I spend quite a considerable amount of my time hunting for unusual stories, particularly at the moment relating to World War One both front line and Home Front perspectives. I know the research process very well, from initial find through to delivering a completed story.
Filming Under Fire: The War Photographers and Cameramen Who Captured World War One
There were many heroes in World War One and not all of them were soldiers. Professional photographers and cameramen also risked their lives everyday working in trenches along the front line, knee-deep in mud with bullets whizzing all around. These brave men experienced the same danger levels as their fellow soldiers and were equally at risk of death or injury. If it wasn’t for their heroic efforts, we may not have had such an extensive library of stills and film footage available to us today.
The opening quotation is taken from the edited memoirs of one of World War One’s most prolific cameramen, Geoffrey Malins (1886-1940). Malins, together with his assistant John Benjamin ‘Mac’ McDowell (1878-1954), were official cinematographers assigned to the Western Front by the War Office (British Topical Committee for War Films).
Risk of serious injury and death. Staying alive and Death was always close-by war photographer and cinematographer. Staying alive and ahead of risks. Still no definite news. The heavy firing continued. I noticed several of our wounded men lying in shell-holes in “No Man’s Land.” They were calling for assistance. Every time a Red Cross man attempted to get near them, a hidden German machine-gun fired. Several were killed whilst trying to bring in the wounded. The cries of one poor fellow attracted the attention of a trench-mortar man. He asked for a volunteer to go with him, and bring the poor fellow in. A man stepped forward, and together they climbed the parapet, and threaded their way through the barbed wire very slowly. Nearer and nearer they crept. We stood watching with bated breath. Would they reach him? Yes. At last! Then hastily binding up the injured man’s wounds they picked him up between them, and with a run made for our parapet. The swine of a German blazed away at them with his machine-gun. But marvellous to relate neither of them were touched. I filmed the rescue from the start to the finish, until they passed me in the trench, a mass of perspiration. Upon the back of one was the unconscious man he had rescued, but twenty minutes after these two had gone through hell to rescue him, the poor fellow died. During the day those two men rescued twenty men in this fashion under heavy fire.
(Malins, G., (1920), Edited by Warren, L., How I filmed The War, extract from Chapter 14, Part 2)
McDowell was not Malins’ first assistant, this had been Portsmouth film-maker, Edward ‘Teddy’ Tong (1886-1962). However, after arriving on the Western Front in November 1915, Tong found the working conditions very difficult to deal with and was invalided home the following month with influenza. McDowell was Tong’s replacement, together Malins and McDowell shot one of the most iconic films of the war, The Battle of The Somme (1916).
McDowell, like Malins, was a risk-taker, putting himself in mortal danger to secure the perfect shot. According to the officer in charge of the two cameramen, it was noted that during filming: ‘Mr Macdowell [sic] ran considerable risks, I have seen Mr. Macdowell have very narrow escapes, notably from machine-gun bullets on July 1st when trying to cross ‘no man’s land’ behind the advancing infantry, and several times from shells, including one shrapnel recently at Guillemont. He has also been gassed (shell gas).’ (News on Screen, “John Benjamin McDowell (Mac)”. http://bufvc.ac.uk/newsonscreen/search/index.php/person/607 – Accessed: 4th April, 2014)
When The Battle of The Somme was shown in British cinemas, late Summer 1916, it attracted audiences of 20 million. This silent film was a mix of live action footage and dramatic reconstructions, although the latter was only discovered to be the case, by historians, many years later. According to writer and broadcaster, Francine Stock: ‘The film remains one of the most watched in British cinema history, even bigger than Star Wars (1977)’.
The judges for the Film Challenge don’t expect your own film-making experiences to mirror that of Malins, McDowell and Tong but could there be a story buried in the text of Malins’ memoirs just waiting for you to bring to life on-screen?
Finding Inspiration For Your Short Film
For some of you, finding inspiration for your project will be a fairly straightforward process, indeed your ‘light bulb’ moment may have happened some time ago. For others, these early stages of planning and deciding on your story may appear a little overwhelming. The important thing is not to panic, easier said than done I know.
There is plenty of help available to you via various on-line resources as well as through attending one/more For The Fallen masterclass(es) taking place over the coming weeks. However, it is not an entry requirement of the Film Challenge that you attend these masterclasses, the workshops are just there to offer you additional help. If you are attending, make sure you ask your tutors plenty of questions, be inquisitive, talk to fellow participants, exchange ideas (don’t be precious) and above all be ready to engage in the creative process with an open mind.
Being posted to the project’s website soon will be interviews with the masterclass tutors. There will also be online surgeries to help you with your scripts and answer any production queries you may have. This will be a particularly useful resource as the pre-production process begins to gather pace over the next few months. Also keep an eye on For The Fallen’s Twitter account (@InfoFallen) for regular updates relating to the Film Challenge as well as Tweets about interesting aspects of World War One history.
The range of written resources and material objects now publicly available from this period is vast. The source of inspiration for your film could come from a single line of text or a poem found in a handwritten diary/letter, an object in a museum, a photograph from a family album, a painting or illustration, a conversation with a friend or relative, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks or original film footage.
It could even be a building, ruin or notice that you come across whilst out walking. This has happened to me quite a lot, in fact the subject matter for some of the best articles that I have written were found this way. Take a picture of what has captured your interest so that you can refer back to it at a later stage and make sure you make a note of the location too. It is all too easy to get carried away with the thrill of an exciting find, only to discover when you get back home that you have forgotten where you found it in the first place. Archivists and librarians don’t like ‘woolly’ descriptions of locations or objects when they are trying to help you with your research. There are so many brilliant stories out there from this period, just waiting to be retold by you.
Once you have found several possible story leads, follow-up the find by researching the item’s back-story. Where possible, look at contemporary source material first (as a case study see my recent article ‘Beatrix Brice Miller and “The Old Contemptibles“). Since many newspapers and publications are now digitized, accessibility is less of an issue these days. Textbooks are useful but there is nothing more exciting than reading contemporary texts. A word of advice though, it can be all too easy to get bogged down with this topic, don’t get side-tracked by complex academic texts detailing military manoeuvres (unless of course this is your bag!).
Keep to the simple facts of your story, you can ‘flesh it out’ at a later stage. Deciphering handwriting from this period is sometimes a challenge even to the experienced historian but don’t be put off engaging with diaries or letters, it can be a very rewarding experience.
The Film Challenge – A Few Tips And Hints Before You Begin
Although there is a limited amount of time in which to complete your film, the Challenge is just that and not a race (remember the parable of the tortoise and the hare? We all know how that story ended!). Focus upon enjoying the collaborative experience, yes you may find it frustrating and at times stressful but whatever happens along the way, you will reach the end with more knowledge than when you began. That in itself is a reason to take part. Whether you are a seasoned professional or a first-time film-maker this might be the start of a whole new creative chapter for you.
The rules of the film challenge are clear. Make sure you read them thoroughly before hurling yourself into the planning process. The judging panel are not looking for a historical film, a straight rendition of a real-life event or biopic of an individual (remember, the time limit for your film is ten minutes). However, your inspiration must come from real people and events in World War One, whether on the front line or at home, military or civilian.
How you interpret your story is entirely up to you, this is where your creativity will need to ‘kick-in’. The restrictions you will encounter are part of the challenges you should embrace. Think about your available resources (material and human), equipment, budget, timeframe etc, etc.
The ‘Film Challenge’ is about finding an interesting story angle and translating it to screen in an innovative way. Challenge your audience to look at and experience World War One in a new way. If you enjoy period films or fancy having a go at making one, then this IS permissible within the Challenge’s rules you just need to think ‘outside the box’ as to how you going to make it happen. Make sure that the final edit fulfils the entry requirements. How you interpret the rules is up to you. If you are unsure, get in touch with the For The Fallen team for clarification.
Don’t forget there are many different genres of film-making, horror, thriller, comedy, drama, documentary, drama-documentary, etc. just make sure that the style you select is the most appropriate for re-telling the story you have chosen (the For The Fallen team will guide you on this). Who knows, the films that you make now, may be watched in another hundred years’ time and will become an important digital record of your response to the Centenary commemorations just like Malins’ body of work?
I was kneeling filming the scene, when I heard a shell hurtling in my direction. Knowing that if I moved I might as likely run into it as not, I remained where I was, still operating my camera, when an explosion occurred just behind me, which sounded as if the earth itself had cracked. The concussion threw me with terrific force head over heels into the sand. The explosion seemed to cause a vacuum in the air for some distance around, for try as I would I could not get my breath. I lay gasping and struggling like a drowning man for what seemed an interminable length of time, although it could have only been a few seconds.
At last I pulled round; my first thought was for my camera. I saw it a short distance away, half buried in the sand. Picking it up, I was greatly relieved to find it uninjured, but choked with sand round the lens, which I quickly cleared. The impression on my body, caused by the concussion of the exploding shell, seemed as if the whole of one side of me had been struck with something soft, yet with such terrible force that I felt it all over at the same moment. That is the best way I can describe it, and I assure you I don’t wish for a second interview. Noticing some blood upon my hand, I found a small wound on the knuckle. Whether or no it was caused by a small splinter from the shell, I cannot say; in all probability it was, for I do not think striking the soft sand would have caused it.
(Malins, G., (1920), Edited by Warren, L., How I filmed The War, extract from Chapter 4, Part 1)
- Conditions in the trenches, from Dan Snow’s Battle of the Somme (2012, Discovery Channel). Clip published 9.11.2012.
Key World War One War Cameramen And Photographers
- Tom Aitken (photographer). Originally worked as a journalist on a Glasgow newspaper. He was assigned to the Western Front in December 1917 and worked alongside McLellan;
- Christina Broom (photographer). Thought to be Britain’s first female press photographer. Broom was self-taught and began her career in 1903, whilst in her 40s. Unlike her male contemporaries, Broom did not work on the front line. Instead she remained in Britain and charged soldiers tuppence for her photo postcards. These keepsakes were very popular during the early twentieth century for the soldiers to give to their family and sweethearts. Broom also photographed Rudyard Kipling’s son, John;
- Ernest Brooks (photographer). Brooks was the first British official war photographer. Assigned to the Western Front in 1916 direct from the Daily Mirror. He used a hand-held camera to capture his subject matter;
- John Warwick Brooke (photographer). He worked at the Topical Press Agency and was the second official war photographer to be assigned to the Western Front in 1916. Between 1916 and 1918 he took over 4,000 photographs;
- John Benjamin McDowell (cinematographer and photographer). He worked with Geoffrey Malins on the Western Front but for reasons unknown has been airbrushed out of Malins’ memoirs How I Filmed The War (1920);
- David McLellan (photographer). He worked on the Daily Mirror. He was assigned as an official war photographer and sent to the Western Front in December 1917, remaining there until the end of the war;
- Geoffrey Malins (cinematographer and photographer). Apart from his body of work as a photographer on the Western Front, Malins worked with his assistant McDowell on the 1916 film The Battle of The Somme. The film was commissioned by War Office (British Topical Committee for War Films) and combines live action footage with dramatic reconstructions. When the film was shown in British cinemas in late summer 1916, it was extremely successful, reportedly over 20 million people watched it;
- Edward ‘Teddy’ George Tong (cinematographer). Tong’s time on the Western Front was brief (November-December 1915). He worked alongside Malins but couldn’t cope with the conditions in the trenches and was invalided home with influenza, being removed from his post as ‘War Office Official Kinematographer,’ in August 1916. He was replaced on the Western Front by McDowell. Tong was eventually medically discharged from service in December 1917 on the grounds he was suffering from neurasthenia (morbid condition of the cerebral nervous system). He did continue to make films until 1934 when he retrained to become a master baker.
- Tom Aitken’s photographs (National Library of Scotland);
- Christina Broom. The Museum of London have recently acquired 2,500 of her images for their collection. For more information about this acquisition and examples of Broom’s photographs see the following: article one and article two;
- Ernest Brooks’ photographs (National Library of Scotland);
- John Warwick Brooke’s photographs (National Library of Scotland);
- David McLellan’s photographs (National Library of Scotland);
- Geoffrey Malins – for further biographical information and photographs (Imperial War Museum);
- Full text of How I Filmed The War by G. H. Malins (1920) is available to download for free from Project Gutenberg;
- Francine Stock ‘Why was the Battle of the Somme film bigger than Star Wars?’ (BBC iWonder, 2014) ;
- John Benjamin McDowell – for a full biography see his entry on the British Universities Film and Video Council (B.U.F.V.C) database;
- Edward ‘Teddy’ George Tong – for a full biography see his entry on the British Universities Film and Video Council (B.U.F.V.C) database;
- Take a virtual tour of the trenches (BBC Website) .
The Modern War Photographer And Film-Maker
- Director Sebastian Junger’s documentary tribute to award-winning British war photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington who was killed in 2011 during the Libyan civil war. Storyville: Which Way is the front line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington. Available on BBC iPlayer until Monday 7th April, 2014
- Patrick Kingsley’s interview with the Guardian’s war photographer, Sean Smith, ‘War photographers are not addicted to danger: A Guardian war photographer explains the risks and rewards of working on the front line.’ (22.4.2011).