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Monday, January 27, 2014

'First World War Centenary Collection: The Somme' DVD: A Battle that Will Live in Infamy

First World War Centenary Collection - The Somme DVD
BFS Entertainment's recent DVD release of  "First World War Centenary Collection: The Somme" is a nice follow-up to the BFS DVD release of the Daniel Craig WWI, a.k.a. "The Great War," drama "The Trench" that Unreal TV reviewed in November 2013.

"The Trench" portrays the numerous hardships and anxiety that a group of British soldiers endured in said deep ditch in the months leading up to said Battle of the Somme, which occurred on the WWI Western Front beginning on July 1, 1916. This bloodbath was predicted to last one day but went on for five months.

The much more difficult than expected task regarding driving German forces back in the battle has prompted calling the first day of that campaign the worst day in British military history. Both the number of killed or wounded soldiers and the percentage of the total force that those statistics represented were painfully astronomical.

"The Somme" from 2005 is the first of the three documentaries in the "Centenary Collection." British actress Tilda Swinton of the recent big-budget "Narnia" films, "We Need to Talk About Kevin," and numerous other classics narrates.

This film evokes memories of a series of documentaries on the Great War's sequel WWII that ran on basic cable several years go. That series interspersed actors reading excerpts from the diaries and letters of soldiers with animated maps and archival still photos and film footage.

Similar to "Trench," we meet the featured soldiers in "Somme" in the period leading up to that battle. Although most of the focus is on the British troops, the scope extends to a German soldier and a French nurse.

The most memorable of this group is a sincere 16 year-old British soldier whose letters home include an account of revealing his true age, which was too young to allow him to officially serve in the military, to a surprisingly supportive Army chaplain. Another letter from this lad, who is literally in the trenches, makes an uber-sweet request for his Bible and his football (my people call it soccer) boots if his mother can afford the postage required to send those items.

A more poignant aspect of the story of this soldier is how his service changes him. It is highly unlikely that he places any value on either a Bible or football boots in the post-war period.

The second documentary "Battle of the Somme: The True Story" is a perfect follow-up to "Somme." British actor Julian Richings, who is perhaps best known to American audiences as "Death" on "Supernatural," narrates this one.

"Battle" is an awesome variation of the equally awesome American debunking series "Mythbusters" in that it uses entertaining experts to determine the extent to which the propaganda film "The Battle of the Somme," which successfully rallied British support for WWI at the time, was staged. This effort also involves using forensics techniques and good old-fashioned research to identify some soldiers in the earlier film.

The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, is of the original "Battle" film. It provides a wonderful sense of both that film and its subject.

The techniques of the modern team included comparing the depicted terrain with that of the battlefield and using basic common sense regarding the credibility of some segments. Two brothers who had relatives who fought in The Somme assisted with this project.

The researcher also consulted with an facial-comparison expert regarding whether a widely publicized identification of a heroic soldier in the 1916 film is accurate. This expert additionally tackled the task of putting a name to the face of an unidentified officer in another segment.

Another memorable moment centers around an expert lip reader determining what the soldiers are saying in this silent film. The results are not surprising and validate that life in the trenches is not exactly as portrayed.

Seeing more footage from the battle helps bring it home that much more, and discovering that not all of it is accurate is a good reminder that even material that your side produces may be propaganda.

The third film in this trilogy is "Instruments of Death: The Great War - The Somme 1916."  This documentary focuses on the hardships related to living in the trenches, military strategies of the era, and the weapons of mass and individual destruction from that battle. There is every reason to believe that this one is as good as the other two, but it is the one from this group that is being saved to watch in the not-too-distant future.

The final debriefing regarding this trio of documentaries is that they do an exceptional job bringing a devastating battle to life. They make most of us aware of both how little most of us know about the Western Front and the value of learning more about what easily makes the list of one of the most momentous events of the 20th (or any) century.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Somme" is encouraged to email me; you can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.

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