Filtering the truth of war through the lens of cinema

HISTORY: Ever since they met in 1911, the moving image and war have had a contentious relationship

War and art have long been close partners, with victorious leaders often commissioning paintings, sculptures, and buildings to commemorate battle successes.

War was an early adopter of photography – with images from the Crimean War in the 1850s, and a decade later the American Civil War, bringing the first haunting images of corpse-strewn battlefields.

But it was not until the advent of moving images that the dreadful reality of combat could be shown in all its horror. And almost simultaneously, just as photography had already been employed for propaganda purposes, cinema became both a witness, advocate, warning, and manipulator when it joined war on the battlefield.

War and Peace, a film by Martina Parenti & Massimo D'Anolfi
War and Peace, a film by Martina Parenti & Massimo D’Anolfi

Public hanging

In War and Peace, Massimo D’Anolfi and Martina Parenti take a thorough, almost investigative approach to exposing the role of cinema in warfare from the early 20th to the early 21st century.

Although not as long as Tolstoy’s classic of Napoleon’s campaign against 3Russia of 1812, at 2 hours and 8 minutes, this skilfully crafted documentary feels a little long, and this reviewer watched it in four chunks, corresponding to its four chapters. Seen in a cinema, a darkened screening room with a hushed audience, it would be impressive and perhaps not feel quite so long.

The directors are at pains to paint the full picture of cinema and war – from researchers picking out rolls of nitrate film from stacks in a chilly shed, to restorers painstakingly copying, repairing and colour correcting (or at least tone – from sepia to black and white) some of the earliest documentary evidence of war in the raw, shot by Italian cameramen in Libya during the now forgotten Italian-Turkish War of 1911.

For those accustomed to the more professional and slick moving images of trench warfare on the Western Front shot by British and French news professionals during the First World War of 1914-18 (particularly since the release of Peter Jackson’s extraordinary colourised Great War images They Shall Not Grow Old), there is something quaint about the jerky figures of Italian marines wading ashore in Tripoli, unopposed by anything more threatening than a gentle wave.

Most of the 1911 footage is of exercises, behind the lines trench digging and after-the-bombardment scenes of ruins – basic propaganda for a war that divided opinion in Italy and was opposed by the then Socialist, Benito Mussolini. But shocking images of the «Public hanging of 14 men during the Italian-Turkish War» taken from an British Pathé newsreel of 1911, shows in gruesome detail the deaths of those who opposed the imperial ambitions of even such a minor player in colonial intrigues as the Italians.

The notion that detailed footage and close ups of 14 gently swaying bodies, suspended on a long pole, could be aired today in primetime TV news would shock most people. One has to perform some mental acrobatics to put oneself in the world of 1911 and understand that a newsreel was the news medium par excellence of its day. Perhaps audiences then felt a similar physical distance from those dead rebels as we feel today the distance of time and visual aesthetic.

it was not until the advent of moving images that the dreadful reality of combat could be shown in all its horror

White bombs, black bodies

It is a concern with aesthetics, technology and image management or manipulation that drives War . . .

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Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
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