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How I Filmed the War

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How I Filmed the War
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Author(s): Geoffrey H. Malins
Date Published: 2013/04
Page Count: 264
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-109-0
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-108-3

How the Great War came to the cinema screen

Everyone familiar with motion picture footage of the First World War on the Western Front will certainly have witnessed the talent, daring, uniquely invaluable and enduring work of the author of this book, Geoffrey Malins. Malins was one of two ‘Official War Office Kinematographers’ authorised to film the allied armies in action in France. There have been comments detrimental to Malins’ character, he might have been guilty of embellishment as regards his own actions (no strange phenomenon in a military memoir) and he certainly downplayed the role of his colleague J. B. McDowell to the point of invisibility, but it is pointless to concentrate on the imperfections of the man when balanced against his indisputable achievements. One thing is certain, our knowledge of the Great War would be poorer without Malins. Here was a ‘movie man’ prepared to go into the danger zone to record the reality of the war of wire, the blood and trenches the ordinary ‘Tommy’ knew, while dragging around the most cumbersome equipment. His most famous film, ‘The Battle of the Somme,’ filmed in 1916 and considered to be excessively graphic by many at the time, was viewed by over 20 million people and is shown on television to the present day. Despite producing some now well known fake ‘over the top’ sequences, Malins was responsible for the iconic footage of the blowing of the Hawthorn Crater and anyone interested in the Great War and the earliest days of war cinematography will be fascinated to read the story of how it came about. The exploits of Malins and his colleagues make no less gripping reading.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

Time: 7.19 a.m. My hand grasped the handle of the camera. I set my teeth. My whole mind was concentrated upon my work. Another thirty seconds passed. I started turning the handle, two revolutions per second, no more, no less. I noticed how regular I was turning. (My object in exposing half a minute beforehand was to get the mine from the moment it broke ground.) I fixed my eyes on the redoubt. Any second now. Surely it was time. It seemed to me as if I had been turning for hours. Great heavens! Surely it had not misfired.<br>
Why doesn’t it go up?<br>
I looked at my exposure dial. I had used over a thousand feet. The horrible thought flashed through my mind, that my film might run out before the mine blew. Would it go up before I had time to reload? The thought brought beads of perspiration to my forehead. The agony was awful; indescribable. My hand began to shake. Another 250 feet exposed. I had to keep on.<br>
Then it happened.<br>
The ground where I stood gave a mighty convulsion. It rocked and swayed. I gripped hold of my tripod to steady myself. Then, for all the world like a gigantic sponge, the earth rose in the air to the height of hundreds of feet. Higher and higher it rose, and with a horrible, grinding roar the earth fell back upon itself, leaving in its place a mountain of smoke. From the moment the mine went up my feelings changed. The crisis was over, and from that second I was cold, cool, and calculating. I looked upon all that followed from the purely pictorial point of view, and even felt annoyed if a shell burst outside the range of my camera. Why couldn’t Bosche put that shell a little nearer? It would make a better picture. And so my thoughts ran on.<br>
The earth was down. I swung my camera round on to our own parapets. The engineers were swarming over the top, and streaming along the sky-line. Our guns redoubled their fire. The Germans then started H.E. Shrapnel began falling in the midst of our advancing men. I continued to turn the handle of my camera, viewing the whole attack through my view-finder, first swinging one way and then the other.<br>
Then another signal rang out, and from the trenches immediately in front of me, our wonderful troops went over the top. What a picture it was! They went over as one man. I could see while I was exposing, that numbers were shot down before they reached the top of the parapet; others just the other side. They went across the ground in swarms, and marvel upon marvels, still smoking cigarettes. One man actually stopped in the middle of “No Man’s Land” to light up again.<br>
The Germans had by now realised that the great attack had come. Shrapnel poured into our trenches with the object of keeping our supports from coming up. They had even got their “crumps” and high-explosive shrapnel into the middle of our boys before they were half-way across “No Man’s Land.” But still they kept on. At that moment my spool ran out. I hurriedly loaded up again, and putting the first priceless spool in my case, I gave it to my man in a dugout to take care of, impressing upon him that he must not leave it under any circumstances. If anything unforeseen happened he was to take it back to Headquarters.<br>
I rushed back to my machine again. Shells were exploding quite close to me. At least I was told so afterwards by an officer. But I was so occupied with my work that I was quite unconscious of their proximity. I began filming once more. The first lot of men, or rather the remainder of them, had disappeared in the haze and smoke, punctured by bursting shells. What was happening in the German lines I did not know. Other men were coming up and going over the top. The German machine-gun fire was not quite so deadly now, but our men suffered badly from shell-fire. On several occasions I noticed men run and take temporary cover in the shell-holes, but their ranks were being terribly thinned.<br>
Still more went over, and still a stream of men were making for the mine crater; they then disappeared in the smoke. The noise was terrific. It was as if the earth were lifting bodily, and crashing against some immovable object. The very heavens seemed to be falling. Thousands of things were happening at the same moment. The mind could not begin to grasp the barest margin of it.<br>
The German shells were crashing all round me. Dirt was being flung in my face, cutting it like whipcord. My only thought was whether any of it had struck my lens and made it dirty, for this would have spoiled my film. I gave a quick glance at it. It was quite all right.<br>
Fearful fighting was taking place in the German trenches. The heavy rattle of machine-guns, the terrible din of exploding bombs, could be heard above the pandemonium. Our men had ceased to flow from our trenches. I crept to the top of the parapet, and looked towards the left of the village of Beaumont Hamel. Our guns were bursting on the other side of the village, but I could distinguish nothing else as to how things were going.<br>
I asked an officer who was standing close by.<br>
“God knows,” he replied. “Everything over there is so mixed up. The general said this was the hardest part of the line to get through, and my word it seems like it, to look at our poor lads.”<br>
I could see them strewn all over the ground, swept down by the accursed machine-gun fire.<br>