Written by Laura CloutingOctober 28, 2016

Why exactly do we all find war films so fascinating? Throughout the years the genre has reigned supreme, offering us serious, sinister and even screwball insights into life on the battlefield from the comfort of our own homes. Taking an insightful look at the genre is the Imperial War Museum’s latest exhibition; Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies. Bringing together over 200 objects from several iconic war films,as well as screening AtonementCasablanca and Full Metal Jacket in collaboration with The Nomad, the exhibition will be a fascinating look at this complex movie genre. We spoke to Laura Clouting, curator of the exhibition, about how it came to be conceived, and what to expect.

© IWM (BU 8353) web use

© IWM (BU 8353)
Sergeant George Laws, cine cameraman and photographer with No 5 Army Film and Photographic Unit, poses with his cine camera for a final picture before leaving the North West European theatre in June 1945. Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies will explore real footage from combat zones which was seen by cinema audiences, as well as fictional recreations of war. 

How was the idea for this exhibition conceived, and how has the process of pulling together the displays unfolded? Have there been challenges, logistical, academic or otherwise?

The experience of fighting in and living through conflict is a remote and alien experience for most of us.  Cinema bridges that gap.  IWM was keen to explore the highly subjective interpretations of past violence, and movies are a striking way in which we form impressions of what war is or was like.  IWM’s exhibition Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies deliberately casts a wide view across cinema’s seeming obsession with such movies. The show is a rich mix of loans from the filmmaking world and objects from IWM’s formidable collection.  We delve into the inspiration behind, practical production of, and reception upon release of war films.  Some of them have proven highly divisive, which is fascinating in itself.  Choosing which films to explore was rather agonising – there are simply so many to choose from!

How have you found the reception to the show, from your colleagues in the museum sector, the public, and the press? Any surprises?

It’s been great.  We’ve had some fantastic feedback in the press and from the visiting public who have enjoyed an immersive journey through a both familiar yet complex, and certainly vast, subject matter. The exhibition deliberately doesn’t rely on prior knowledge of the movies, but gives the seasoned film fan a unique chance to see some exceptional loans and classic clips in a dramatic environment.  Everyone loves the soundscape, a blend of famous themes.  Curators love going to see shows in other museums!  We’ve had some lovely feedback from colleagues in other institutions, along with commendations for our bravery in broaching something of a museum nemesis – making exhibitions about film is notoriously tricky.  Visitors might be surprised by the diversity of films we cover, which even includes some war-related Disney animations.

What have the reactions been from the filmmakers, actors and the film studios linked to the exhibition?

We had the privilege of meeting some incredibly talented and rather fun people during research for the exhibition. Hearing how costume designer Phyllis Dalton transformed actor Peter O’Toole into Lawrence of Arabia, how producer David Puttnam mustered the resources to make The Killing Fields and Memphis Belle, or how costume designer Joanna Johnston worked alongside acclaimed director Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan was a real delight.

There are many ways of tackling this weighty subject on camera. What, for you, might constitute a successful, important or classic war film? Does it depend on when the film is/was produced? How do the films in the exhibition measure up? 

Some films seem to have been ‘born’ classics.  I think you can only measure a movie’s success as a classic by how it endures over time.  The exhibition explores a huge array of what I think can safely but subjectively deemed stars of the cinema: Full Metal Jacket, Ice Cold In AlexLawrence of Arabia, and so on.  The circumstances into which a film is released can arguably alter its impact though.  Would Morocco-set Casablanca have made quite as much of a splash in 1942 had the Allied invasion of North Africa not occurred mere weeks before its release?  Who knows.  As for the war movie genre, we’ve gone way beyond the standard battlefield blockbuster to look at the ways war can worm its way into what might ostensibly seem to be, for example, a love story.  Atonement is a great example of this.

Atonement (c) Universal web use-2© Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey.
Film still of James McAvoy starring as Robbie Turner in Atonement. A uniform worn by James McAvoy in this film will be displayed in Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies.

Tell us about the process of selecting the films to be screened with the Nomad at the IWM and the aims behind the decision to hold pop-up cinema events in the impressive atrium at the heart of the Museum?

This exhibition offers a great opportunity for us to concurrently screen some classic movies at the museum, and our dramatic Atrium space seemed to be the perfect choice for this. We’re really excited to be working with The Nomad to screen three very different movies where war has a central bearing on the story – CasablancaAtonement and Full Metal Jacket – so we hope there will be something for everyone.

In the current climate of global conflict and 24hr live media coverage, what do you think the impact is on the war film genre, both documentary and feature?

Cinema was the precursor to the war zone reportage that we have at our fingertips today.  During the First World War, millions of people crowded into cinemas across the country to see a feature-length documentary of real scenes shot at the front during the Battle of the Somme.  IWM has preserved this famous film which was released while the battle still raged.  People were able to see for themselves some of the conditions and dangers faced by their loved ones fighting in Britain’s ‘Big Push’, giving cinema screenings of the film a real intensity in 1916.  But real combat cameramen can only go so far in capturing real scenes of danger before they too are endangered.  That’s where fictional films set on the battlefield step into the void, to imagine and show us what war might be like.  Many claim to tell ‘the real story’ of past wars.

© IWM (D 25326)
A long queue stretches out from the entrance of the Odeon Cinema in wartime Reading, as people buy tickets, 1945.

How has the role of the IWM and its place in cultural affairs evolved over the last 15 years, since 9/11? Is there a shift, conscious or otherwise, in the kinds of discussions being had in your sphere? Are the visitor demographics changing, diversifying, increasing?

The museum was founded while the First World War was still ongoing to collect and protect a record of that ‘total’ war. It has kept evolving ever since.  While the world wars constitute a large part of what the museum is all about, we are really interested in the experience of people have endured or inflicted violence in war and conflict in more recent times, and we’re equally as interested in the civilian experience as well the military.  Our exhibition Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies reflects how warfare itself has evolved, with a feature that includes Eye In The Sky, a very recent film about using drone weapons.  Our visitors come with different interests and perspectives and we reflect that in our exhibition offerings.  A seismic recent shift is that we no longer have any living memory of the First World War. We work hard to effectively explain and evoke events that shaped and shattered lives which may feel remote or, given the violence inherent to our subject matter, very difficult.