Since I already own the VHS version, I wan’t sure whether I should invest in the new DVD of The Battle of the Somme. I’m glad I did, though. The picture quality is crisp and clear, and finding scenes is much easier than with VHS, of course – but the main advantage is the audio.
The DVD comes with a specially composed new orchestral score, but offers you a choice. There is also a musical arrangement based on the tunes recommended for pianists and orchestras accompanying the film back in 1916. These are mostly light classics, marches and contemporary songs, and are very revealing about how the film was initially presented to audiences. For example, the “Over the top” sequence is set to Suppé’s bracing Light Cavalry Overture. A sequence showing captured German trenches is accompanied by the march Bravo, Territorials and so on.
So far I’ve only watched the film through with this audio track, but I took a peek at how the “Over the top” sequence went with the modern orchestral score. There it’s all doom-laden grimness, the feelings of 1916 overlaid with twenty-first century hindsight. The difference the changed soundtrack makes to the meaning of the film is immense.
There is also an audio commentary by Roger Smither of the IWM. Once again, I’ve only listened to a few minutes of this, so far, but it’s immensely interesting, giving details of when and where sequences were shot, and the extent to which the film reflects the reality of the battle. He’s also good on the soldiers’ response to being filmed. Even some of the German prisoners smiled cheerfully for the camera.
Last October I heard a good talk at Birmingham by Andy Robertshaw, one of the team researching the film, explaining what they had discovered about the making of it. Much of this information is included in the DVD’s audio commentary, and there is also a new book on the subject.
The IWM has also made available detailed notes on the film, at http://www.iwm.org.uk/upload/package/100/Somme%20DVD/index.html