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Malins, Geoffrey Herbertlocked

(1886–1940)
  • Roger Smither

Malins, Geoffrey Herbert (1886–1940), filmmaker and adventurer, was born Arthur Herbert Malins at 27 Russell Street, Hastings, Sussex, on 18 November 1886, one of six surviving sons of Frederick William Malins (1856–1921), a hairdresser, and his wife, Annie Maria, née Jackson (1855–1929). He was reticent about his origins, probably reflecting a determination to make his own mark on the world, and not be tied down by others' preconceptions. He omitted details of his early life from both his published memoirs, gave his age on the record in various contexts implying dates of birth from 1884 to 1889, and allowed stories to circulate of his birth in Boston, Lincolnshire. He adopted the name Geoffrey professionally. He sought success as an artist, the profession he gave when he married, at Eastbourne, on 27 March 1909, Caroline Elizabeth (1881–1947), daughter of Samuel Saywell, furnisher. They had two daughters.

Malins worked as a photographer in Hastings and Eastbourne, and then in London. In 1910 he got a job as a cameraman for Clarendon, a Croydon-based company noted for short comedies, and became chief cameraman as Clarendon diversified successfully into historical dramas. When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Malins responded, as he was to do several times in his life, to the call to adventure and he left his comfortable studio position to work as a freelance cameraman supplying material for Gaumont Graphic.

The British and French armies had imposed a ban on film at the front, but the Belgians were more accommodating and from October 1914 Malins made several trips to their sector, supplying short stories to Gaumont's series, War Topicals. Stung by comments that he had not got close enough to the action, Malins obtained permission to film with the French; the result was a 12-minute story called Brilliant French Victory in the Vosges (March 1915) which was hailed as 'the real thing' (Kinematograph Weekly, 4 March 1915, supplement, p. lviii) and even condemned in some quarters for being too graphic (Weekly Despatch, 25 April 1915, 12). By this time the British authorities were waking up to the potential value of film as a medium for propaganda. Negotiations between the War Office and a committee representing the fledgling newsreel industry resulted in an agreement in August 1915 to send two official cameramen to the front. Malins was chosen as one of them, and he and Edward Tong left for the front on 2 November. The material sent back was presented to the British public as short films in several series of Official Pictures of the British Army in France, the first released in January 1916.

Barely twenty years after the invention of cinematography, the cameras available to Malins and his colleagues tended to be large and heavy, ideally to be used on a tripod for stability, and operated by hand-cranking. Film stock was 'slow', meaning that filming in poor light was almost impossible. To capture a news story was difficult, even without the added risks of combat. The bravery of the cameramen was widely commended. It was noted of Malins, for example, that in making one particular film he endangered himself twice over, once by staying close to film a British howitzer firing while its crew retreated to a safe distance, and again by drawing enemy fire when setting up his camera to record the shells landing. Cameramen were wounded and gassed and experienced near misses: 'It is a considerable strain to be constantly under fire armed only with a camera', as a headquarters liaison officer recorded (draft press release, 24 Nov 1916, BFI, Related material, 1504). Nonetheless, a growing body of trade press opinion found the Official Pictures insufficiently exciting.

The opening of the British offensive on the Somme on 1 July 1916 provided the opportunity to silence such criticism. Malins and his colleague John Benjamin McDowell (replacing Tong, who had fallen sick at the end of 1915) brought back from France material which was recognized as too important for release in short episodes. Edited—in part also by Malins—into a 75-minute feature-length film, The Battle of the Somme was a sensational success on its release in August 1916. The public welcomed it as an opportunity to share the experience of the men at the front and flocked to see it in unprecedented numbers: it has been credibly calculated that the film achieved twenty million attendances in the first six weeks of its release.

The cameramen had made the most of the facilities and information they were given. In the early morning of 1 July, for example, Malins filmed Lancashire Fusiliers occupying a sunken road part-way across no man's land, returned to film the explosion of the vast British mine under German positions at Beaumont Hamel at 7.20 a.m., and then filmed the British attack minutes later. Even though the disappointing nature of the results of his ‘attack’ material led to its being supplemented in the released film by a staged ‘over the top’ sequence, the film authentically captured many other episodes of battle: cheerful soldiers marching to the front, the work of the artillery, the treatment of the wounded, and the burial of the dead.

Malins contributed substantially to two further long-format films, The King Visits His Armies in the Great Advance (released October 1916) and The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (January 1917) but from early 1917 he began to suffer persistent ill health. He had also fallen foul of the military authorities. Malins, who enjoyed the limelight, wanted to publish a memoir about his wartime exploits but this was written in a style so remote from the modest self-effacement affected by the military establishment that permission was refused: officers particularly disliked the tendency of Malins's writing to suggest that he made all his own decisions, with little reference to the official structure that had been created to support and supervise the cameramen. Malins was transferred to the Canadian War Records Office but continued to struggle with ill health: in June 1918 he was discharged on medical grounds. The same month, as Geoffrey Herbert Malins, he was one of four official cameramen and photographers awarded the medal of the Order of the British Empire.

Malins's marriage was a casualty of the war: he and his wife were living apart by 1919 and divorced in 1923. A second marriage, on 25 April 1923, to Gladys Mary Peterkin (1892–1986), daughter of James Alfred Richard Mitchell, shipping agent, also ended in divorce two years later.

After the war Malins was able to publish his memoir, which appeared as How I Filmed the War in 1919. He enjoyed a successful career in the commercial British film industry with credits as director for over fifty films. He took frequent breaks from the studios, however, in pursuit of adventure. In 1922 he was part of an attempt to fly round the world which ended when the plane crashed in the Bay of Bengal. A second attempt at this record in 1923 had to be abandoned after the yacht chartered to arrange supplies for the pilots became embroiled in a rum-running scandal in California. In 1926 he completed a successful round-the-world trip by motorcycle, and wrote another memoir about the experience entitled Going Further (1931). He gave numerous radio talks and illustrated lectures about his exploits.

In 1931 Malins embarked on his final adventure—leading an overland expedition from London to Cape Town to demonstrate the quality of British-made products. Having arrived in South Africa, Malins found no reason to return. He joined African Consolidated Theatres and was involved in running their three major cinemas; he continued to give talks and lectures and was married again, on 10 June 1933, to Phyllis Mary Fenton Ward. A daughter was born in 1938. This apparently settled and contented life in South Africa was ended when he died of cancer in Cape Town on 11 February 1940.

Despite his active life after the First World War, it is for his achievement in filming that war, and in particular for his contribution to the three long films of 1916–17, that Malins will be remembered. As the origin of many powerful images, The Battle of the Somme film still shapes popular perceptions of the First World War and was inscribed on UNESCO's 'Memory of the World' register in 2005. The image of a soldier carrying a wounded comrade along a trench, which has become a familiar symbol of the suffering and endurance of the common soldier, was one of many filmed by Geoffrey Malins. They constitute his most enduring legacy.

Sources

  • G. H. Malins, How I filmed the war (1919)
  • G. H. Malins, Going further (1931)
  • N. Hiley, ‘introduction’, in G. H. Malins, How I filmed the war, ed. L. Warren, new edn (1993)
  • S. Badsey, ‘Battle of the Somme: British war-propaganda’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 3/2 (1983), 101
  • N. Reeves, ‘Through the eye of the camera: contemporary cinema audiences and their “experience” of war in the film, Battle of the Somme’, Facing Armageddon: the First World War experienced, ed. H. Cecil and P. H. Liddle (1996), 780–98
  • R. Smither, ‘“A wonderful idea of the fighting”: the question of fakes in The Battle of the Somme’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 13/2 (1993)
  • J. Winter, ‘Popular culture in wartime Britain’, European culture in the Great War: the arts, entertainment and propaganda, 1914–1918, ed. A. Roshwald and R. Stites (1999)
  • ‘The real film hero’, Pictures and the Picturegoer (27 Jan 1917)
  • ‘Tanks in action’, Daily Sketch (16 Jan 1917)
  • ‘Dalmayne photo gallery’, Sussex PhotoHistory, photohistory-sussex.co.uk/HasDalmayneGallery.htm, 19 Dec 2014
  • Parl. Arch., Beaverbrook Papers BBK E/2/2, subfolder on ‘Malins, Lieut’
  • LondG, suppl. (11 June 1918), 6897
  • census returns, 1891, 1901

  • b. cert.
  • m. certs. [1909, 1923]

Archives

Likenesses

  • PA Archive, photograph, 1922, PA Images, London
  • E. Bacon, photographs, 1926–7, Getty Images, London
  • photographs, IWM, London

Podcast

British Film Institute, London, National Archive
London Gazette
Parliamentary Archives of the United Kingdom
Imperial War Museum, London