Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies

With its slender neck and tapered strings, Captain Corelli’s mandolin makes for an incongruous, fragile objet de guerre among the artefacts, costumes, film clips and paper clippings in the Imperial War Museum.

Yet there it is – the real thing, or at least the one really played by fat-fingered Nicolas Cage in the film of Louis de Berniere’s wildly popular novel. Lying askew behind a glass case and only a couple of steps along from the Santa hat with which Jake Gyllenhaal covered his crotch in Jarhead, the instrument’s lyrical, timeless softness brings into sharp focus the spoils of war all around us, stopping us in our tracks as if to remind us that war sweeps all before it – music, art, youth, love.

The enduring and oddly glamorous power of war movies is the subject of a new exhibition at the famous south London museum. Usually a stickler for history, the IWM has given over a top corner space to a genre that has been used and even abused for many different agendas throughout the years – from the politically charged anger of Vietnam movies such as Platoon and Apocalypse Now, to the classic British jingoism of The Dam Busters and The Cruel Sea, to the satirical absurdities of Dr Strangelove or Oh! What A Lovely War.

All of these – and over 50 other movies feature in the exhibition, in clips or on posters or just in snatches of music as you wander the rooms. The Dam Busters theme plays out both as orchestrated in the movie (composed by Eric Coates) and then fades into the chants of England football supporters  warming to the theme in what must have been a rare victory.

Just as war itself affects every part of culture, so too war movies. The exhibition proves the spectre of war, and of people caught in its currents, haunts us still. The show mainly concentrates on modern wars, from 1914 til now, with Helen Mirren’s recent drone warfare drama Eye in the Sky being the most modern example – there’s an interesting interview with its writer, Guy Hibbert.

I was particularly moved by some of the artefacts – a water bottle used by a soldier during the D-Day landings, diaries from the trenches and the cameras used through the ages by reporters and film makers to capture the images that range from devastation, to triumph and tedium.

There, in a case, was Tim Hetherington’s DV camera, used to make his Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo, about a US regiment in Afghanistan. A war photographer and blossoming film maker, Tim was at college with me and I interviewed him about Restrepo in 2011, a few weeks before he went back to the front line in Libya – where he was killed in after a mortar explosion.

Real to Reel demonstrated the breath of themes covered by war movies – from morale boosters to anti-war meditation, to frontline documentary to doomed romance and, in a film such as John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, childhood memoir.

Here, in this audio piece, curator of the exhibition Laura Clouting and I wander the rooms of the Imperial War Museum’s new exhibit and muse over the clips, music and artefacts that form a patchwork history, a strangely fascinating blend of truth and drama, fact and fiction to stir the soul.

Movies do help us make sense of war, or at least the human emotions that conflict toys with, shatters and intensifies. All of which goes to explain the continuing popularity of the genre – it is humankind in extremis, a powerful conflation of fear, love, loneliness, power and courage. As a backdrop, war, perhaps sadly, has it all – no dramatist could think of anything more urgent, no character motivation more pressing than fleeing an enemy, or saving a life; standing up for honour, duty, country, comrades; escaping horror, searching for peace, or seeking out one last kiss.

Featured image: © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Peter Mountain 

Film still of Nicolas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. This love story is driven by the circumstances of the Second World War on the island of Cephalonia when Greek civilians and Italian and German soldiers clashed. The mandolin used in the film will be displayed in Reel to Real: A Century of War Movies.

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