Look at this video. Not all of it, it’s very long, considering today’s attention spans. Then read on.
This is The Battle of the Somme – a British propaganda film that came out as the epochal battle raged in France. I’m researching this battle for a fiction piece, and this primary documentation is some of the earliest and greatest evidence of World War I.
The dying are dragged through trenches, the land explodes with enormous howitzer shells. Machine guns rattle silently through coils of barbed wire in no man’s land.
But what really strikes me was much more surprising, in my eyes.
The naked glares of the soldiers who are caught by the camera left me flabbergasted. These long-dead warriors, dirty-faced and young, are curious and befuddled by the camera. There is none of the vamping and self-conscious posing of the 21st century film auteur who records moments in every home, every day, on every bus on every street.
Sure, 1916 shows some glimmers of awareness. Some soldiers cheer and smile and wave their helmets at the camera. But even in that there is a weird innocence which says… something. I’m not sure what.