Tag Archives: Laura Rossi

The First World War on film: at the BFI and beyond

Anniversaries are bittersweet at the best of times, but this summer marks an especially painful date. It is 100 years since the Battle of the Somme, the largest battle of the first world war, in which more than a million men were killed or injured. The date was marked publicly in the UK this weekend with tributes across the country.

Many people who read this site will know that relatives of their lost their lives in the First World War – almost all of us will have heard family tales of hardship and resilience from those four bruising years. The power of cinema, even during the war when it was only around twenty years old, is that it can show us the small human stories of the home front, as well as the epic tales of the battlefield. In fact, it can tell us the intimate, personal incidents of the trenches, as well as the soothing narrative of stoicism and sentiment back in Blighty. And on the cinema screen, these experiences can be shared with a crowd, and something therapeutic happens when we face our fears together. This summer, you can see some of the contemporary films from WWI, back on the big screen, and at the bottom of this post you will find a two-for-one ticket offer too.

The Battle of the Somme (1916)
The Battle of the Somme (1916)

Back in 1916, millions of Britons flocked to the cinema to see The Battle of the Somme, a documentary that showed the families at home what their boys were facing on the front line. It’s haunting, sometimes terrifying, and always fascinating work – a letter home from the trenches to reassure and inform. A hundred years later, it has lost none of its power. If you want to know more about the film, I highly recommend Lawrence Napper’s article in the current issue of Sight & Sound, in which he calls it “one of the most extraordinary documents of our cinematic history”. Luke McKernan’s excellent Picturegoing site has also posted a contemporary review of the film, which says that it “shakes the kaleidoscope of war into a human reality”.

The Battle of the Somme is back in cinemas and concert halls across the world, to mark the centenary, with live orchestral performances of Laura Rossi’s wonderful score. You can read more about that, and find a screening near you, on the official website here. There will be 100 performances in the tour, so there is very likely to be one near you.

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The Guns of Loos (1928)

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British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 3

Jane Shore (1915)
Jane Shore (1915)

On Saturday, outside events threatened to intrude the sanctity of the festival – and we weren’t complaining. First, the morning’s historical presentations were timed around a break for an update on the Labour leadership decision. Is victor Jeremy Corbyn a silent movie fan? Here in “red” Leicester (that joke TM Peter Walsh) we assume he would be an Eisenstein man. And in the afternoon, we segued neatly from checking the football scores to taking our seats for The Great Game (1930), a rollicking good film, albeit a talkie, set in the world of soccer and strangely apt for the modern game. At night, we watched a film set during the Wars of the Roses, just a few feet from Richard III’s tomb. Perhaps it was all just meant to be …

Believing in fate is a double-edged sword, though. We started the day with a thoroughly intriguing film that danced with the dangers of destiny. The tale of a doomed ship, Windjammer (1930) was a haunting film that was shot as a silent documentary record of the final journey of sailing ship the Grace Harwar, but then had dramatic “talkie” scenes of life below-deck added to make it more palatable to the general public. Those fictional scenes added a plot, one that echoed the real-life tragedies that had taken place on board the Harwar on that long and difficult last voyage. The very handsome Tony Bruce plays a posh boy, Jack, who was travelling home after having his heart broken in Melbourne – and sad to say he meets a watery end. The scenes of the boat battling the waves are both beautiful and terrifying – the chat among the crew crude but naturalistic. More than a curio, but a curious beast all the same. And we were grateful to Laraine Porter’s exquisite introduction setting a complex film in its proper context.

More terror at sea in a very poignant presentation from Bryony Dixon on the films that tell the story of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. From newsreels of the aftermath of anti-German riots, to Winsor McCay’s stunning propaganda animation, this was an engrossing selection of films, rendered all the more powerful by the witness testimony Dixon read as the films played, and Stephen Horne’s sensitive accompaniment.

Continue reading British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 3

Don’t miss the British Silent Film Festival

High Treason (1929)
High Treason (1929)

Are you currently perched on a plump suitcase, train tickets in hand, perusing the Leicester Phoenix listings and counting the days on your fingers until the British Silent Film Festival begins on Thursday? Well why not?

The four-day event is nearly upon us, and this is your friendly reminder to get your gorgeous selves to Leicester next weekend for some hot silent film action. This year the festival is back in the city of its birth, and most of the films will be shown at the Leicester Phoenix cinema and art centre. The schedule is out now, and the selection looks fantastic, with everything from rare historical footage of the sinking of the Lusitania to a programme devoted to Buster Keaton; the splendour of Michel Strogoff starring Ivan Mosjoukine and the antique charm of early screen advertising. If you read Charles Barr’s recent Hitchcock Lost and Found, you’ll no doubt be intrigued that a film the young Master of Suspense worked on that had previously been thought lost, Three Live Ghosts (1922) has been unearthed in a Russian archive and will play at this year’s festival.

Michel Strogoff (1926)
Michel Strogoff (1926)

There is a focus on the transition to sound in Britain, so there are some early talkies in the mix as well as the silents, and there are fancy-dan screenings in the evenings, with the chance to hear brand new scores by some of our favourite musicians.

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Laura Rossi interview: ‘The music makes the images come alive’

Jane Shore (1915)
Jane Shore (1915)

Jane Shore (1915) has been described as the first British epic, and one that rivalled the best productions coming out of Hollywood at the time. A cast of thousands is used to great effect by producer/cinematographer Will Barker (founder of Ealing Studios) in this ambitious retelling of the story of Jane Shore: one of the many mistresses of King Edward IV who described her as one of “the merriest, the wiliest, and the holiest harlots” in his realm.

The BFI has made a stunning new print of the tinted version of Jane Shore (recently discovered in its archives) for its centenary. Composer Laura Rossi has written a new score for the film, which is being performed on a tour of the UK. Here, she answers a few questions about the project, and her writing process.
How did this commission arise and how did you choose the film?

Classic Cinema Club – Ealing wanted to commission me to score a silent film for a live music and film screening at their cinema club. We decided it would be good (as I also live in Ealing) to try and find a silent film made at Ealing Studios. I approached Bryony Dixon at the BFI, who dug out a few films for me to view in a BFI basement room on an old Steenbeck machine.

I was taught how to use the machine and change the reels. It was a very magical day watching reels of footage filmed over a hundred years ago. Jane Shore seemed the perfect fit – a film made at Ealing Studios by the studio founder Will Barker.

For this centenary tour the BFI made a specially restored digital print of the tinted version of the film which looks stunning. We were lucky enough to secure a grant from PRSF Women Make Music fund for the commission and first performance, and an Arts Council grant to help fund the tour.

What do you think is so special about watching a silent film with live music?

Watching a silent film with live music is such a magical experience and can be enjoyed on many levels. The music makes the images come alive and fills the auditorium, giving a four-dimensional experience.

It’s not just about watching the film, but also being transported back to this era. It’s fascinating to see how people acted then, the exaggerated gestures, and the early techniques of making films.

Continue reading Laura Rossi interview: ‘The music makes the images come alive’

The Battle of the Somme – on tour

However many big-budget war films come and go, real footage of frontline combat is still shocking. How much more powerful would such images have been 95 years ago, when The Battle of the Somme (1916) was released, and watched by 50% of the British population? JB MacDowell and Geoffrey Malins’s documentary was intended to boost morale, but its scenes of wounded and dead soldiers, not to mention the contentious “over-the-top” sequence, make it a more complicated, thought-provoking and mournful piece of work. One of the “over-the-top” scenes was staged, but so much else is horribly real here – and the film was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2005.

The Battle of the Somme‘s footage may be familiar to you as it has been mined for many a first world war documentary, but it is an entirely different experience to watch it all, in one sitting. This upcoming short UK tour offers a very special opportunity to do just that. Composer Laura Rossi’s orchestral score for the film will be performed at four special screenings of The Battle of the Somme in 2011 and 2012, by four different ensembles:

For more details, and to listen to clips of the score, visit Laura Rossi’s website. To find out more about the film, read this post from The Bioscope. Also, the Times reviewed the premiere of the score, when it was performed in the Queen Elizabeth Hall with the film in 2006. The Battle of the Somme is also available on a DVD produced by the Imperial War Museum, with two scores, both Rossi’s and a recreation of a likely contemporary soundtrack, by Stephen Horne, based on cue sheets.

If you want to contribute to the the tour, you can do so here, on the crowdfunding website, We Did This.

Hat-tip to the Bioscope for alerting me to this one.