Like Looking Through a Window

If you haven’t seen Peter Jackson’s documentary film “They Shall Never Grow Old” you should do so. In many ways it might be one of the most incredible films I’ve ever seen.

The film takes archival footage from the Imperial War Museum and BBC oral history interviews with World War I veterans to tell the story of soldiers in the Royal Army during World War I. Jackson chose this point of view for a look in depth at one aspect of the history of the war, and one may easily imagine a monumental documentary series done in the same fashion consisting of who knows how many episodes, covering different campaigns and services. The Royal Navy and the Royal Flying Corps are not mentioned, and I’d purely love to see the same treatment given to the RFC!

Everyone has seen the silent black-and-white film taken during the war. It tends to be grainy, either over- or under-exposed, scratched, jerky, and the motion of people looks awkward and hurried. The latter is due to the frame rate imposed by hand-cranked cameras in use at the time, which might be cranked at anywhere between ten frames a second or eighteen.

Jackson and his production team took the original film and processed it so that the original black and white appears very close to something that would have been shot as B&W with contemporary methods. The images are clean, crisp, properly exposed, and move at a frame rate restoring natural motion.

That in itself is a remarkable achievement.

However, the colorization process resulted in something positively unique. I’m going to say nothing more about it. You simply must see the film.

All of that, however, is as nothing beside the use of imagery to tell a story, and I will give one example. The series of images with the soldiers in the Sunken Lane prior to the Battle of the Somme will rend your heart. The images are clear enough that you can see the emotion on those faces. You may think you know what to expect in terms of fear and apprehension and even excitement, but that’s knowledge without experience.

These faces are right in front of you, almost as if you were looking through a window and not watching a film. And, as Peter Jackson points out, most of the lads in that picture were probably dead within an hour after it was taken.

One further thing among many deserves mention. The interviewees make the point that after the war, the people on the home front didn’t want to hear from the veterans what it was like. I think it would be interesting to know why that’s so, because to me it seems short-sighted, if only from the perspective of ignoring history. An experience in history paid with so much blood and suffering and waste and destruction should be told and retold and examined from every angle. It was called “the war to end all wars” and so it should have been. We all know it was not, and in fact was followed within a generation by another war even more terrible in all respects.

We owe it to those who were there to hear and understand, as best we are able, their story. Peter Jackson has given us a unique opportunity to do exactly that.


Filed under Oral History, Uncategorized, witness to war

3 responses to “Like Looking Through a Window

  1. I haven’t seen Jackson’s WW1 docco yet, though it was made (‘resurrected’?) in the very city where I live! It showed in the local cinemas at some very inconvenient times. I imagine there will be a DVD release sooner or later though. I saw Jackson’s WW1 museum exhibition in Wellington (which he developed with input from historian friends of mine) and was impressed with the fidelity of the detail.

    • Yeah, this side of the world it was “limited release” and, I think, mostly two showings in the middle of the day. Being on vacation meant timing wasn’t an issue, but those shows sold out FAST. Seats for the 3D version went in a couple of hours.
      I was also surprised and gratified at the apparent age demographics of the audience. I would’ve thought mostly older men, and by and large that was true, but a lot more younger men, even into their teens, than I would’ve thought. Only a few women, though.
      Apropos, one further thought: Would you have any comment about current attitudes toward war among civilian populations (“they don’t want to hear about it”) as contrasted by the graphic violence in Homer’s Iliad?

      • I’m only familiar in passing ways with ancient Greek history, not sure I can really comment. But the human condition being what it is, I can’t help thinking there may have been parallels across Greek society with our own experiences in the past century. In the current context of western industrial society, I think cultural attitude and interest to matters military runs in waves, socially mediated. I’ve identified a number in the books I’ve written, and through my own lifetime. It seems to oscillate between (a) exaltation of military deeds by a generation that has no widespread experience of it, and (b) emotive rejection of warfare by a generation that has just fought one. There are shades of grey and variations. Thus we have, certainly in Britain, an exaltation of warfare around the 1850s when the Crimean war offered glory without risk for the bulk of the population; this fed into the ‘social militarism’ of the latter part of the nineteenth century, all of which was then literally blown out of the First World War generation. I wrote a book on this – ‘Shattered Glory’ (Penguin 2010).

        This was also one of the first wars that drew in entire populations, ‘democratising’ the war experience in ways not previously seen to any great extent since the tribal days. The ‘war poet’ commentaries of the 1920s epitomised the social reaction. It was generational to the extent that the ‘baby boomers’ coming to adulthood in the 1960s rejected the whole apparatus. The social effect was ubiquitous and narrow; when I was studying military history at post-grad level in the 1980s, to be interested in warfare was to be an advocate of murder, and I think the demonization of even interest in warfare meant it was impossible to properly analyse it. I even watched lecturers prefacing their talks with disclaimers that they did not, themselves, personally advocate war.

        I think all this was generational, part of the post-Vietnam anti-war movement which, in hindsight, offered polemic without analysis; an emotional rejection. Here in NZ, in the early 1990s, there was an effort to get oral history from the remaining First World War soldiers, but the whole project was framed in the post-Vietnam anti-war sentiment of the day and asked the wrong questions. Then in the early 2000s there was a renewed interest in the whole thing – which, for me, led to a lot of books to write! Jackson is of this generation (he’s exactly a year older than I am, to the day).That’s faded again of late. I think all of it was generational relative to the two-generation span of warfare in the 1914-45 period, then the Cold War.

        The new generation has other priorities, I suspect, in terms of interest, than looking into warfare; and the experience is, again, vicarious – glorified for us now through movies. It worries me a bit when I see silliness such as ‘Aquaman’ (to which I took my niece and nephew the other day) which effectively cartoonises and glorifies violence, even while carrying a message of cooperation and peace. I think I can feel a blog post coming on about this, incidentally!

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