Real to Reel: Imperial War Museum’s new exhibition explores war on film

A new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London looks at the representation of conflict in film, with props, models and costumes from some of the past century’s most famous war films…

Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies opens on July 1 and is part of a series of events marking the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. The show also marks 100 years since the release of Geoffrey Malins’ documentary about the conflict.

“The Battle of the Somme [Malins’ film] was a cinematic sensation,” explains Imperial War Museum curator Laura Clouting. “It was seen by about 20 million people [around half the UK population at the time] and it really legitimised cinema as a way of showing war.”

In the century since, directors from Stanley Kubrick to Steven Spielberg have achieved commercial success and critical acclaim with films about famous conflicts. From harrowing documentaries such as Hitchcock’s Night Will Fall and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, to big budget blockbusters dramatising true accounts, film has helped audiences with no direct experience of conflict understand the experiences of civilians and soldiers during war time.  “For so long, cinema has been a way to understand conflict through film-makers’ impressions and their creative art,” adds Clouting.

De Vry camera used to capture silent film in conflict; slate board used by Sergeant L. Harris of No.5 Army Film and Photography Unit during the Allied advance through Europe in 1944 and 45 and an image of AFPU cameraman Sergeant George Laws

Real to Reel begins with a look at some of the real life people and stories that have inspired film-makers. From T.E. Lawrence to Adolf Hitler and Violet Szabo, wartime heroes, villains and dictators have provided compelling source material for directors. A section on the work of Stanley Kubrick highlights his meticulous approach to research and features production sketches from Dr Strangelove, notes from a meeting with a Vietnam war correspondent which informed Full Metal Jacket and press photographs that informed some of the film’s scenes and settings. (Most of the film was shot in Beckton, with 200 palm trees brought in from Spain to create a set resembling the city of Hue). Another display considers the dilemma facing directors and actors portraying Hitler – whether to show him as ‘a human being with feelings and emotions, or an evil monster, an aberration beyond explanation.’

Alongside this is a brief look at the role of animated films during war time – between 1942 and 1945, up to 93% of Disney’s output was focused on making instructional videos and propaganda for the US government. There’s a clip from Donald Gets Drafted (a training video for new recruits starring Donald Duck) as well as Victory Through Airpower, a feature film promoting the use of aircraft to defeat enemy forces. As Clouting points out, animation was used to inform and educate both the military and the general public.

Exhibition View of "Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies". (LEFT) Replica motorbike from The Great Escape, Object: IWM (RIGHT) Patton costume worn by George C. Scott, Courtesy of Angels Costumes Photographed 28th June, 2016.
Exhibition View of “Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies”. (Left) Replica motorbike from The Great Escape, Object: IWM (right) Patton costume worn by George C. Scott, Courtesy of Angels Costumes. Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum

One of the most fascinating parts of the show is a section which highlights the logistical challenges of recreating large-scale battles. There are detailed storyboards for action sequences from the Battle of Britain, which took 42 weeks to film and involved over 200 pilots and 3000 crew members, the scale model submarine used to film Das Boot and a miniature house used to film Hope and Glory, a drama by John Boorman based on his experiences of growing up during the Blitz. It’s odd seeing these models in the flesh – on screen, they appear vast and almost indistinguishable from real houses, ships and aircraft but up close, they are small and fragile. You can see the joins, the glue and brush strokes, as well as visible wear and tear from filming.

Costume design also features heavily: outfits on display include James McAvoy’s uniform from Atonement, Liam Neeson’s suit from Schindler’s list and the costume worn by Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (shown alongside clothing worn by the real T.E. Lawrence). The show explores the role of costumes and props in furthering our understanding of characters and explores common character tropes in war film. A toy and suitcase from Empire of the Sun symbolise the loss of childhood innocence, while the Santa hats worn by Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead represent the familiar story of the soldier struggling to deal with the tedium of war.

Das Boot_Bavaria Film
Model of German Type VII U boat used in the filming of Das Boot © Bavaria Film

Clips from featured films are displayed throughout the gallery alongside video commentary from writers, directors and production designers. Sarah Greenwood, the production designer on Atonement, discusses transforming a beach in Redcar to resemble Dunkirk for the film, while Gavin Hood, the director of Eye in the Sky, reflects on the complexities of representing the controversial practice of using drones.

The show ends with a look at the enduring appeal of war films and their critical and commercial reception. In a room dressed to resemble a movie theatre, with a blue velvet curtain and plush red carpet, props from Casablanca sit alongside a replica of the motorcycle ridden by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, Mark Rylance’s BAFTA for his performance in Bridge of Spies and large-format posters for famous productions.

Storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now, which was set to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Nothing can ever truly convey the brutal reality of war, but Real to Reel is a reminder of how important film has been in shaping our perceptions of  conflict – perhaps more so than any other medium. With a vast range of objects in a very small space, the exhibition struggles to cover any one theme in real depth but it does raise some thought provoking questions about film’s role in portraying war, while shining a light on the process of making films about conflict, and our enduring fascination with the genre.

Exhibition View of "Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies". (LEFT) David Niven's RAF service jacket from A Matter of Life and Death, Courtesy of Angels Costumes (CENTRE) Marlene Dietrich Evening Gown worn while entertaining troops on USO tours. Loan Courtesy of FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, Los Angeles; Department of Recreation and Parks, City of Los Angeles Photographed 28th June, 2016.
Exhibition view of Real to Reel, featuring David Niven’s RAF service jacket from A Matter of Life and Death (left) courtesy of Angels Costumes and Marlene Dietrich evening gown worn while entertaining troops on USO tours (centre), loaned courtesy of FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, Los Angeles

Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies is open at the Imperial War Museum until January 2017. For details, ticket prices and opening times see

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