Big screen: A group of Leeds University students have been researching films about the great War and learning new skills at the same time. Chris Bond went to find out more.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp has been described as Britain’s answer to Citizen Kane.
However, the 1943 film - made by the brilliant British film-making team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger - caused more than just a stir when it first came out, with Winston Churchill reportedly so incensed that he tried, and failed, to get it banned.
The film is a technicolor epic that chronicles the military career of a fictitious soldier called Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy from the turn of the century to the Second World War.
At the time of its release the Second World War was still raging and its portrayal of a military dinosaur, a blustering figure with a walrus moustache - someone who is more concerned with decency and fair play than with the grim reality of modern warfare - didn’t go down well with the powers that be.
Not only that but the hero’s best friend, even as two world wars were being fought, was German. All of which, Whitehall believed, was inappropriate for wartime audiences.
But the film, now regarded as one of the most important British movies from the period, evaded the chop and later this month it kicks off a new film project called WWI Through the Lens.
As part of the University of Leeds’ First World War centenary project, the Centre for World Cinemas has teamed up with Hyde Park Picture House to explore how the Great War has been portrayed on film over the past 100 years.
The project, which began last year, was timed to coincide with the centenary of the First World War and the Hyde Park Picture House.
The collaboration revolves around a small group of students who are selecting and researching a dozen films that will be screened, one a month, at the historic cinema during 2015.
As well as sourcing the films the students have been tasked with setting up a website for the project, coming up with a marketing campaign and organising events with local schools.
Professor Paul Cooke, Centenary Chair in World Cinemas at the University, points out that the emphasis is on the students to make the project work.
“We want to develop opportunities for our students to gain relevant professional experience and to put the research skills they are developing as part of their university studies to practical use,” he says.
The project is being overseen by PhD graduates Luke Postlethwaite and Rachel Green who are acting as mentors to the students.
“The university has a lot of academics interested in the First World War and the centre for World Cinema has a lot of film experts, so the idea was to link up the university with the Hyde Park Picture House.
“It’s the first time the two places have worked together on this kind of collaboration,” explains Luke.
Among the other films due to be screened this year are Hedd Wyn, an anti-war biopic and the first Welsh language film nominated for an Oscar, and Joyeux Noël, a French film about the Christmas truce of 1914.
“It brings together well known films from Hollywood or done by British directors, with lesser known films from all over world to give an insight into how different countries and cultures dealt with the war,” says Luke.
The project will also feature short films and documentaries as well as more mainstream movies. “It’s way of discussing what the First World War means to us today,” he says.
It’s also a way, says Rachel, of looking at the how the war has been portrayed on screen from 1918 right up to the present day and how attitudes have changed.
“When the students selected the films we were keen to look at different aspects of the war not just life in the trenches and the big battles, so things like families and mental health.”
There’s also an important practical element to what they are doing, says Luke. “With the job market and economy the way it is the job of universities is to prepare them for what they do next, so with this they’re getting all these transferable research skills which is really important.”
Martha Clowes, Milli Cooper, Alex Paddock and Tom Jacob are the four University of Leeds students involved in the project.
“First of all we each compiled a list of First World War films and when we compared our lists there were a few similar ones that we were all quite interested in,” says Martha. “But a lot of these clashed with the Leeds Film Festival, so films like J’Accuse and La Grande Illusion would have had the same audience going to see them.”
After coming up with an agreed list they researched the films and created different themes for each month that could tie in with different events, like International Women’s Day.
Some of the more obscure films have presented particular challenges, like finding out who has the copyright and whether they can screen them.
“Hedd Wyn is quite an obscure one but we managed to find the rights to that,” says Milli. “Also, if we don’t know where to go for some of the more obscure films then Wendy [Hyde Park Picture House manager, Wendy Cook] has been able to help us out.”
The project is part of their course and the students are being marked, in part, on their ability to come up with a good marketing campaign which is why they’ve created their own ‘Through the Lens’ website and started a blog.
“Working on the website has been a useful learning experience and it’s good to have on your CV,” says Alex.
They have found it interesting because it’s taken them out of the classroom and given them some practical experience as well as the chance to develop new skills.
“It makes a nice change from what a normal course would be because we’re not just spending time at the university, we’re able to come here to the Picture House or go off and do research.”
But, as Alex points out, they’ve also learned more about the war itself and how it affected people.
“We’ve tried to address the fact that the war wasn’t just about Britain and Germany, because it was much more widespread than that. For example there’s a couple of Australian films we’ve thought about showing linked to Gallipoli.”
Milli agrees and says that doing the research has opened their eyes to the scale of the devastation.
“I knew about the war but I didn’t realise just how much of an ordeal it had been for people, not just in Britain but in lots of other countries, too.”
What did they discover through the films, have attitudes towards the conflict altered over time? “At the beginning you can see how people supported what was going on,” says Martha, “but it’s interesting how people’s views changed because I’d never thought before about using film from different periods to look at one thing.”
Part of their research also involved reading people’s letters from the war which, as Tom says, brought home the reality of the conflict. “Once you start reading someone’s letters sent home to a mother, or a loved one, it gives you an insight into their story and the fact that these were real people.”
* WW1 Through the Lens is being launched on January 25 at the Hyde Park Picture House with a special screening of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. For more details visit http://ww1throughthelens.wordpress.com/.
Five films that have shaped our view of the great war
All Quiet On The Western Front (1930) - Based on the Erich Maria Remarque novel of the same name, it is a haunting tale of German soldiers in the First World War.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) - A technicolor epic that is considered by many people to be one of the greatest British films ever made.
Paths of Glory (1957) - American anti-war film directed by Stanley Kubrick. It stars Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, the commanding officer of French soldiers who refuses to continue a suicidal attack.
Gallipoli (1981) - The story of a group of young men who enlist in the Australian Army and are sent off to fight the Ottoman Empire.
Regeneration (1997) - A film adaptation of Pat Barker’s novel it features officers being treated for various war traumas.