Rather than focus on artefacts of war, IWM London's new exhibition instead turns focus to the portrayal of war in the cinema. After writing about it recently a select few R/E team members were lucky enough to be invited to the preview night - and we were impressed with what we saw.
Real to Reel marks the centenary of the release of The Battle of the Somme, a British documentary and propaganda film made during the opening days of the Somme campaign. This is where the exhibition starts; appropriate given both the recent centenary commemorations and filmmaking's own origins in documentary. Yet this starting point also serves as a sobering reminder of the truth behind all war films.
The exhibition moves into the fictional realm via the cinematic reinterpretation of Lawrence of Arabia (someone we've examined before), before covering a multitude of films and topics via a huge array of costumes, props, production notes and more.
Of course cinema is at the heart of the exhibition, and there are screens everywhere playing spectacular clips from the films. The centrepiece is a cinema screen showing various interpretations of the Normandy landings, leading up to the visceral opening of Saving Private Ryan. It is an engrossing trip through the history of film production, yet it is equally unsettling to watch on a human level.
Realm & Empire study the IWM’s archives for designs and functionality that we then recreate in a contemporary style. The costumes on display here, from David Niven’s RAF jacket in A Matter of Life and Death (1946) through to a tank helmet from Fury (2014), are exceptionally detailed recreations designed to take the viewer back to the war front. It’s interesting to see these designs recreated as direct facsimile.
The exhibition gives due credit to the sheer technical accomplishments of these films, but the most sincere message is about the human cost of war. It's a point that is reinforced with clarity throughout the exhibition, in particular with the exceptional closing display.
No exhibition would be complete without a trip to the gift shop, and here the IWM deliver again. There's an exceptional library of war films on offer (including the IWM’s restored and re-scored release of The Battle of the Somme), alongside film themed books, posters and much more.
The IWM's Real to Reel exhibition is something that we recommend you discover for yourself. It may be a different take on an evening out at the movies, but it is absolutely worth a ticket.