This extraordinary restoration of actual World War I footage shows what movies can do that practically no other art form can – take you to places that you’ll never see. Theater has physical limitations, television has technical ones, and literature is limited by the reader’s imagination, but a movie can fool you into believing you are there:
The people here are no longer jerky black-and-white figures in odd clothing – they’re people you might meet anywhere. Except with much worse teeth!
This was made by Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, at the request of the Imperial War Museum in London. Its name alone is refreshing to those used to the euphemistic Department of Defense. They had hundreds of hours of black-and-white film from WW I, and wanted to collate it into a memorial for the 100th anniversary of its end in 1918.
Computer editing tools can now remove the graininess of old film, fix the contrast so that dark objects can be seen, and fill in the scratches caused by actually playing movies. Recent tools can even fix the frame rate by interpolating new frames between old ones to make the motion much smoother. At that time cameras were cranked by hand at anything from 10 to 17 frames per second, but now they can all be corrected to the standard 24 fps. Sometimes that doesn’t work, and you see people’s hands turn into blobs as they move, but the overall result looks natural.
Even the colorization is good. The colorized movies from the 90s looked awful because they were done quickly – it takes effort to get the details right. They used archived uniforms to get the right shades on the British khaki and German blue, but that was relatively easy because there’s no one to remember what those really looked like. It was harder to get the shades of the grass and trees. It’s striking to see bright red poppies all over these fields, just like in the poem. Jackson drove all over France and Belgium taking pictures of the actual locations in order to capture the color balance.
The most haunting case of that was this scene:
This squad is resting in a channel formed by a road through the country. They’re about to go over the channel’s side and into machine gun fire. They have less than thirty minutes to live, and know it. Jackson found the exact place where this was shot, and it looks about the same, but empty.
The films could not capture hand-to-hand combat because having cameras there was impossible. Jackson showed those scenes with illustrations from propaganda magazines of the time, of which he happens to have a large collection. He does have gruesome shots of human and horse corpses. The horses are somehow worse to see, probably because they were innocent. There are also grim shots of men living in trenches full of water, and a man’s skin coming off as he removes his boot.
The voice-overs for the movie come from interviews with veterans captured in the 1950s and 60s by the BBC. The voices are as real as the images, with one exception – they had lip readers figure out what people were saying in the films, and hired actors to recreate the voices in the same accents. Jackson is from New Zealand, and his locals didn’t sound right. He wanted to do a big rousing song over the credits, “The Madmoiselle From Armintiere” (“You’ll forget the bombs and shells but never forget the madmoiselle!”), but had to get staffers from the British embassy to sing with the right accents, which they did with gusto.
The veterans were stoic about their experiences. “We had a job to do and got on with it,” several said. For some it was the first time they got decent exercise and food. They talked about comradeship, but also about how they couldn’t tell people what it had been like when they finally got home. I guess those are universals of war.
The films and interviews concentrated on the British ground war on the Western Front, the battles in Belgium and France. There were a lot of other sides to the conflict such as the air and sea battles, the experiences back home, and the perspective of other combatants, but they aren’t covered. Maybe there just isn’t as much film. WW I isn’t thought of much in the US, perhaps because its involvement was so short and controversial, but there is an excellent museum and monument to it in Kansas City. It’s there because Harry Truman was from KC, and he first came to prominence as an artillery captain in France. He’s the only US president who fought there. Eisenhower was in the Army at the time, but never got overseas.
The Great War was an utter catastrophe, but Jackson carefully avoided politics in this. He didn’t talk about the motives for the war, or the consequences, or the big movements. He wanted to show the personal side of it. He ended by saying that he wanted people to remember what happened to their own families in WW I, to do their own memorials. This movie is an act of memory, not analysis.
So let me end by saying how my family was affected:
- Abraham Unger (my great-grandfather) – killed in 1920 during the Bolshevik Revolution.
- Edward Garrard (also great-grandfather) – killed in 1917 in Belgium.
- Philip Watson (brother of my great-grandmother) – survived the Halifax Explosion, but died in the submarine service shortly after the war.
- William Maitland-Dougal (cousin of my grandmother, nephew of Philip) killed in 1918 when his submarine was sunk by a French airship in the English channel.
- Hamish Maitland-Dougal (William’s brother) killed at Vimy Ridge in 1917.
- Winnifred Watson (my great-grandmother) – lost her husband, brother and two nephews above. She spent almost all her life in Victoria BC, but her family was destroyed by events on the other side of the world.
- Walter Redford (my grandfather) served as a young seaman in the Pacific, and as a commander in the Atlantic during WW II.
- Elmer Nelson (my wife’s grandfather) served stateside from 1915 to 1918 under Robert (later Admiral) Peary, but never got to Europe.
The generation of my great-grandparents and grandparents was devastated by WW I. No wonder they didn’t want to fight the next.