Today's guest blog was written by Bryony Dixon, Curator of silent film at the BFI. She's been busy restoring one of the finest films of the British silent era ahead of a special screening at our museum.
The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927) Come for the ships and stay for the dazzling filmmaking skills of war hero, Walter Summers.
As The Guardian put it ‘The best British war film you've never seen’, this silent epic of naval warfare is a kind of blueprint for all great British films of the war at sea. Using real ships supplied by the Admiralty, Walter Summers and his team of expert advisors and writers (which included the great John Buchan) constructed a thrilling yet wholly accurate account of these two significant battles at the beginning of World War One. Britain was devastated by its first defeat at sea for a hundred years by the German Maximilian von Spee off Coronel in Chile and had to react quickly to re establish the Royal Navy’s supremacy. The winning of the war depended absolutely on the Navy’s ability to protect Britain’s food supply, protect her coast and colonies and support the Army. Battles on the far side of the war were as important as anything happening on the Western Front but these events have become obscure over a century. What the film does spectacularly well is to explain the events, clearly. Naval warfare can be complicated, so to see it in images helps us visualize that complexity and how the geopolitics, the ships, the commanders, the people, and the tactics all interrelate. The significance of guns, armour, engines, speed and weather, radios and coal supplies are all effortlessly integrated into the action, as is the tremendous national effort by all sections of society from dockyard workers to Lord of the Admiralty. The other remarkable thing about the film is its scrupulous fairness to the enemy – the film, which was distributed all over the world even played in Germany.
Perhaps because of its official support this silent film has survived where most others of that era have not. Film prints and negatives were donated to the BFI Archive in the 1940s so, although the material has suffered from the inevitable affects of time and decomposition, enough survived for us to make a restoration that does credit to the beautiful photography and stunning editing of the original work.
The work by the BFI National Archive’s restoration team was undertaken in association with Deluxe Digital. The process, in a nutshell, is that we inspect all the film material, frame by frame (over 300,000 of them) and then scan the best shots. Meanwhile in-depth research into the film’s history and context informs the eventual edit. It is crucial to know the provenance of the film material and how the film should have looked when it was released. Once scanned and conformed the long, time-consuming work of grading and clean up can be done before the final screening version is achieved.
In the case of Battles… the film had suffered extensive wear and tear during its 86-years with severe damage in some key shots as well as some missing inserts, such as letters and telegrams, which we were lucky enough to be able to retrieve from another copy. The missing main titles containing the credits for the producer and director were recreated from single frames containing a faint shadow, only just detectable, where one title card dissolved to another. We have made both a new 35mm negative and digital masters for permanent preservation for the nation.
And of course while all of this was going on we were working with the Navy and other sponsors to commission a new score by rising young talent Simon Dobson, working with the Bands of her Majesties Royal Marines who perfumed the premiere live and the recording we’ll be hearing at the show. The fleet 'playing' the ships involved in the two battles (which are credited unlike the human players) were all ships of the period and operated by crews many of whom would have been serving during the war at sea. In several montage sequences we get up close and personal with the engines, the guns and radio rooms and ships telegraphs. It is one of the best silent British films ever made, which on its own makes it worth seeing, but for those with an interest in naval history it is an almost unique chance to see the Royal Navy's warships in action. The screening takes place on 12 February where Bryony Dixon will join Quintin Colville, our Curator of Naval History, for a discussion around the project. You can book online here.