Monday, October 24, 2011

The Great War's Moving Picture Man

Let me begin by saying that I am not a writer, I am just a "movie man," as they called me out there.
                                                                 --Lieutenant Geoffrey Malins, How I Filmed the War, 1920. 

Another incredible figure from the war and cinema files: Lieutenant Geoffrey Malins, who was one of the British War Office's official "Kinematographers." From reading his extraordinary account, How I Filmed the War, which was published in 1920, it became clear to me that Malins felt immense responsibility both to Britons on the front and at home. He describes himself as being obligated to make the war real for those who have no firsthand access to it, and as being similarly charged with recording this cataclysmic experience for posterity. Thus, he had a duty to his country and somehow also to the war as an historical event.

Malins's sense of history unfolding around him is quite evident. He is aware of the role that he and his camera play in creating that history, furthermore, in 'making' the war in cinematic form. Although he rarely waxes deeply theoretical about his work, Malins was dedicated to capturing imagery and incident at all costs. His revelation of the dangers that he faced is striking and unsettling. Reading of his many treacherous ordeals and bitter hardships, it is hard for us to imagine his experience. For Malins too, it was difficult sometimes to maintain a sense of reality. Hearing soldiers singing Christmas carols amid the sound of guns and the hectic light of "star-shells" on Christmas evening, 1915, Malins writes that it  was hard to believe that "we were in the terrible throes of war" (64). And his encounters with "scenes" (unsurprisingly, a favorite term) of devastation seem to press past his ability to describe them in words or images. There are times, furthermore, when Malins's light touch on his drastic conditions make me wonder whether I'm not actually reading a P.G. Wodehouse story about (the incomparable) Jeeves and Wooster instead.

Malins in action amid the action

Malins's filming had to navigate a middle ground between the innocence of those at home who knew nothing of the war's true horror and the almost indescribable destruction and tragedy of the battlefields. The lens of his camera was directed at what lay immediately before him but also at the broader horizons of history, and Malins was under considerable pressure to film the war that the British government wanted the civilian populace to see. While his footage testifies to some of the visual realities of the front,  creating the portrait of a crisis, his memoir reinstates the man behind the movie camera. It allows us to perceive the more individualized emotional and physical experiences of an "Official War Office Kinematographer."

© Fiona Robinson

Sources and Further Reading

Malins's memoir, print version
Malins, Geoffrey H. How I Filmed the War: A Record of the Extraordinary Experiences of the Man Who Filmed the Great Somme Battles, etc. London: Imperial War Museum Department of Printed Books, 1999 (orig. published 1920).

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