First World War Soldiers in Color

Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old has been released in the United States, with screenings in selected cities this month. I was lucky to get to view the film yesterday in Chicago and want to offer some initial responses here.

The New York Times states that “The documentary, which will screen nationwide Dec. 17 and Dec. 27, concentrates on the experiences of British soldiers as revealed in footage from the archives of the Imperial War Museum. Jackson and his team have digitally restored the footage, adjusted its frame rate, colorized it and converted it to 3-D. They chose not to add a host or title cards. Instead, veterans of the war ‘narrate’ — that is, the filmmakers culled their commentary from hundreds of hours of BBC interviews recorded in the 1960s and ’70s. The result is a transformation that is nothing less than visually astonishing.”

The restored film definitely offers amazing visuals! Jackson edited many of the original shots, zooming in for close-ups and panning for more active motion of the subjects. Jackson’s team colorized much of the footage, especially for scenes of soldiers’ life in the trenches on the Western Front. However, I often found the restored black-and-white film segments more effective than the colorized ones.

I saw the film in 3-D and found that aspect done well (not overdone). The “reconstructed” sounds are impressive and visceral, but will also be controversial.

Alice Kelly (Harmsworth Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Oxford) has reviewed the film for The Conversation, and I agree with her assessment: “What the reviews or the film’s billing don’t discuss is the implicit fictionalisation or ethics of Jackson’s method. Obviously all documentaries are fictionalised to some extent – created through editorial selections that have biases, both explicit and implicit. But I don’t think we should even be calling this a documentary; it’s really an artwork or a fictionalised feature film. ”

The film’s narrative is nonexistent, simply a mishmash of British front-line soldiers’ experiences on the Western Front, drawn mostly from BBC interviews with First World War veterans taped during the 1960s. Jackson’s “reconstruction” of the First World War focuses rather myopically on British experiences of trench warfare in Flanders in 1916, but extrapolated to encapsulate the entirety of the war. This creates a rather ahistorical approach to the First World War, reifying British mythologies of the Lost Generation.

In interviews, Peter Jackson has acknowledged leaving out British Imperial, French, Belgian, German, Austrian, Ottoman, Italian, Russian, Balkan, American, and colonial perspectives. The film concentrates exclusively on one section of the Western Front, excluding all other theaters of war. It is jarring to see First World War British soldiers (and some German prisoners-of-war) in color, and yet no “colored” soldiers here at all.

Jackson seems to dismiss concerns that his film largely ignores the home front, colonial forces, government propaganda, wartime politics, military industry, women and gender issues, non-combatants, disease, shell shock conditions, and post-war suffering.

Jackson’s reconstruction of the Western Front in the First World War, draws heavily on the British newsreal/propaganda film, Battle of the Somme (1916) and its outtakes. The British Topical Committee for War Film, a film production company sponsored by the War Office, sent film crews to the Western Front and other locations to film the British war effort during the First World War. Edited films such as Battle of the Somme were screened at movie cinemas in the United Kingdom during the war.

The film uses contemporary recruitment posters effectively to illustrate the excitement of soldiers’ wartime experiences, but the combat scenes rely too heavily on problematic propaganda drawings from War Illustrated magazine.

The New York Times reports on Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old.

Alice Kelly’s review, entitled “They Shall Not Grow Old: World War I Film a Masterpiece of Skill and Artistry – Just Don’t Call it a Documentary,” is published by The Conversation (5 November 2018).

The Imperial War Museums website provides streaming access to the film, Battle of the Somme(1916).

This entry was posted in Historical Film, History in the Media, History of Violence, War and Society, War in Film, War, Culture, and Society. Bookmark the permalink.

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