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We’re just on the other side of the centennial commemorations of the “Great War” that have been taking place over the last several years–culminating in last fall’s Armistice Day remembrances, such as the particularly moving tribute at the Tower of London. World War I never felt that far away to me–as a military brat, the horse-drawn caissons of WWI often came out on parade or were fired for ceremonial occasions on the base (and of course, as long as I can remember, I’ve known the words to the Army song, which proudly describes the caissons “rolling along.”) It also was a war that in my childhood was a living memory for my grandparents, all born right around the turn of the 20th century. So I remember as a little girl, my maternal grandmother, for example, telling me of going down with everyone in her town to the train station to send off the first wave of Iowa boys in 1917.
One hundred years on, my younger niece is now the age of my grandmother then. WWI had such profound effects on everything that followed, but what have we learned from it? If we even remember it. If we are not pacifists (and I am not), how do we think about our stance on war?
One of my solutions thus far has been that each time I teach my 19th and 20th century British Literature survey course, I do a unit on the WWI poets, such as Winifred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke. I tell of the 9 million combatants killed, of the ruinous trenches, of the introduction of deadlier forms of destruction through chemical and biological warfare. My students rarely know much about the war, though they are soon horrified by its descriptions. We talk about all the ways that war continues to be glorified when the cost is not accurately described or understood.
I think poetry helps us get it, but last week I saw a new documentary that I want to commend to all of you: Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. The film’s title, taken from Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem “For the Fallen,” chronicles the life of the average British infantry soldier over the course of WWI. It is stunning–and I use that word with all its variety of meanings.
It is almost impossible to praise the technical “wow” of the film too highly. Commissioned by London’s Imperial War Museum (worth a visit, if you are ever in London), the film uses only the 100 hours of footage held at the museum. No new footage was shot. And there is no narrator or talking heads: all the voices are veterans interviewed in the 1960s and 1970s.
The film is a marvel to look at: the film speeds have all been regularized so that everyone moves in a natural way. When colorization takes place (more on that in a moment) the attention to detail is astounding–down to visiting locations to match the color of the grass or researching the correct shade of the blue in a soldier’s uniform patch. Even more amazing to me was the sound design: the guns you hear are accurate to those at the time, for instance. More than that, Jackson hired lip readers to discover what the men are saying and had actors dub in the lines (with appropriate regional accents), so that the viewer has an incredibly intense impression of the life of these men.
But about the colorization. Some critics have objected to it–some for issues of purity (“it wasn’t colored then, so it shouldn’t be colored now”), others for issues of aesthetics. Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings epics, includes a 30-minute technical “making-of” discussion that follows the credits of the documentary in which he addresses some of these concerns.
But my defense of the technique goes back to my young nieces and my college students. And it is a pedagogical one. Yes, the film is very intense–so intense I sometimes had to look away. But therein is its effectiveness: the men of Jackson’s documentary are not grainy, herky-jerky shadows of the past; instead, they are living, breathing men that look like your father or your brother or your friend. The formerly muted tones of the hellish trenches and the devastating battlefields come alive in all their actual horror. And the immediacy is shocking: you feel like you are watching a movie made yesterday.
Whatever critics may carp, I say this: as often as I have tried to show students black and white classics, I have found that the black and white is distancing to them (even when they strive to appreciate it). It just says old. Not relatable. With the movie’s brilliant use of color, Jackson understands the modern preference for the verisimilitude of a color film, while also calling attention to our assumptions about history, about those who came before us, about what Marilynne Robinson calls “the myth of the threshold”–that somehow we are always moving beyond all the “bad” stuff while progressing towards greater enlightenment.
Ultimately, Jackson’s vibrant film does us a great service by restoring the humanity of these men’s lives, reminding us that shadows don’t fight wars, and that war is neither distant nor aesthetically pleasing. One hundred years on, we still need to come to terms with all of that.