Insight: The Guns of Loos

Turner Sims in partnership with the University of Southampton’s Film and Music departments presents a three-part series focusing on the film heritage of the First World War, titled Great War: Unknown War. With introductions to each film, expert insights and guests, including two of the country’s leading silent film score performers, the series of screenings and talks will show the role cinema played in memorialising the war after the armistice, and reflect on cinema’s continued importance to our present day understanding of the conflict.

Still taken from The Guns of Loos

In this blog post Dr Michael Williams, Associate Professor in Film at the University of Southampton gives us an insight into The Guns of Loos, the first film to be shown at Turner Sims in this exclusive three part series…

90 years ago, on 9 February 1928, the remarkable First World War drama, The Guns of Loos, received its press screening in London. Trade journal, The Bioscope, declared the film to be ‘as convincing a picture of modern warfare as has yet been shown on the screen’.

This British silent film portrays events surrounding the calamitous 1915 Battle of Loos, and features spectacular battle scenes and high drama on all fronts, as a munitions strike endangers supplies for soldiers at the front.

The film focuses on two soldiers, John Grimlaw (Henry Victor) and Clive (Donald McArdle), who find their mental and physical fortitude tested on the battlefield. The men are also fighting to win the love and respect of a Red Cross nurse, Diana, played by Madeleine Carroll, here making her screen debut. The ensuing events expose the impact of the war on all involved.

Two qualities were prominent in the film’s promotion: spectacle and authenticity, with some of the events based on director Sinclair Hill’s own war experience. Four guns were loaned to the production by the War Office including actually used in the Battle itself. Of the 250 men reported to have taken part in the re-enactment – filmed in West Thurrock – many were unemployed ex-soldiers supplied by the Ex-Service Men’s Association. Much was made of the presence of Daniel Laidlaw, the almost mythical ‘Piper of Loos’ who had won the VC and the Croix de Guerre for playing his regiment ‘over the top’.

To literally magnify the film’s impact, on some screens in Britain, the film was screened using the Magnascope process, where a special lens was placed in front of the projector to suddenly enlarge the image across the cinema auditorium, immersing the audience into the spectacle.

When shown a print of the film, David Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions at the time of the Battle, was reported to have exclaimed to its director: ‘In wartime this film would have been worth a division’. While the film might have had propaganda value, its 1928 audience, looking back on the war through the lens of the 1926 General Strike, would have been well aware of its topicality. While men had been dying at the Front in 1915, many were ill or dying at home due to poverty and poor housing conditions. War injuries were visible and commonplace in the 1920s, meanwhile, and awareness was growing of ‘shell shock’ – Piper Laidlaw even endorsed the nerve tonic ‘Phosferine’ during the film’s release. The film tells us as much about the post-war context as about the war itself.

The Guns of Loos can now be appreciated as a classic that we should all know about.

The manager of Stoll Studios, which made the film was clear on the film’s ambition: ‘with the advance of the art of cinematography we may expect to see something which will not only vie with foreign productions, but which will outstrip them, in story value, in acting, in direction and in photography’.

As part of the University of Southampton’s Great War: Unknown War series of events, audiences at Turner Sims on Sunday will be able to judge for themselves, when the film is shown with live music by renowned composer and pianist Stephen Horne, performing his original score, with percussionist Martin Pyne.

The Silent Film Fortnight is part of the University of Southampton’s Great War: Unknown War series of events marking the lead up to the anniversary of World War 1’s ending in November 2018. The Fortnight is produced by Turner Sims in partnership with the University’s Film and Music departments, and Faculty of Health Sciences, the British Film Institute (BFI), the Gateways to the First World War Centre, City Eye and the Cavell Nurses’ Trust.

To find out more about Silent Film Fortnight and book tickets please see below:

The Guns of Loos (1928)
Dawn (1928)
1918, At Home, At War

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