Studio Symphony Orchestra


As is common with important films from the past, in technical terms The Battle of the Somme was a victim of its own popularity.  In this film’s case, the scale of the demand for prints when it was first released is evident in the fact that the original negative was already in a badly damaged state by the time Imperial War Museums took charge of it in 1920.

This negative, alas, is no longer in existence having succumbed to cellulose nitrate decomposition many years ago, and the current restoration has been based on the next best, a master copy made by IWM in 1931.  Although this copy is complete, it faithfully captures all the scratches, breaks and blemishes which were present in the original; furthermore, due to the relatively primitive technology of the time, a conspicuous amount of detail had been lost in the printing process.  Also very apparent are a number of shots of markedly poorer quality and softer focus where the original negative had been damaged and replaced by inferior duplicate sequences.

Perhaps the most obvious problems to viewers of the unrestored Battle of the Somme were the severe flickering (or exposure variation) of the image, and a complete lack of detail in backgrounds and long shots, to the point where, for the viewer, the action of the film seemed to take place almost entirely in the foreground.  Making out anything in the distant shots required an uncomfortable degree of concentration which detracted from the experience of watching the film.

Digital restoration, a technique in which the original film is scanned frame by frame so that the images can be manipulated by powerful computer software, offers the ability to extract from each frame information hitherto lost in the shadows and highlights, and to repair blemishes caused by scratches, dirt and damage.  Dynamic defects, such as flickering, can also be minimised.  However, the quality of the images in The Battle of the Somme presented Dragon Digital Intermediate, the facility commissioned to carry out the work, with major challenges, particularly in panoramic shots across the battlefield where details in different parts of the image would appear and disappear from frame to frame as the exposure varied.  So severe were many of these problems that the restorers found that standard de-flickering and scratch removal software tools were unable to cope, and for much of the film they were obliged to work manually frame by frame, painstakingly adjusting the light levels in different parts of the frame and painting out major blemishes by hand.  There are some 80,000 frames in The Battle of the Somme!

The result, while inevitably still very much looking its age, is a startling improvement on anything seen since the film’s original release.  At last it is possible to see that a line of marching men are not merely passing in front of the camera, but winding in a huge column into the distance, that shells dimly exploding in a fog are in fact landing across clearly defined enemy lines, and that in the two brief shots of the actual attack, men are actually cut down by enemy fire.