Black and white photo of three soldiers knelling inside of a building, possibly a church?, one is manning a machine gun, circa WW1.

Colorizing and Fictionalizing the Past: A Review of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old

Five years ago, the Imperial War Museum in London contacted Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) and tasked him with presenting some 100+ hours of archival footage from the First World War in a “fresh and original” way, without any new or modern footage. For over half a decade, Jackson and his team worked to colorize and enhance the original film. We’re used to seeing old film as “jumpy” and hurried, the result of uneven frame rate and warping of the film. But when Jackson slowed and normalized the frames-per-second rate, the figures became clearer, and their movements appeared more realistic. He and his team also combed through the Imperial War Museum’s oral history collections, using the recollections of British World War I veterans collected in the 1960s as voiceovers.

The result is They Shall Not Grow Old, a film that has garnered praise on both sides of the Atlantic. Over the course of ninety minutes, we follow a group of young British men through their recruitment and training to their lives in the trenches of the Western Front. We hear the voices of some surviving veterans recounting their memories, not only of marching into battle, but also of performing mundane tasks like shaving and using makeshift latrines. The footage and accompanying recollections makes the film feel like the testimony of a sympathetic witness. “We’re bringing these guys back to life,” Jackson explained in an interview, and, on the surface, it appears he did.

There is no doubt that Jackson and his team have accomplished a remarkable feat. It’s both startling and deeply engaging to see how modern computer technology can make the past look so vibrant and familiar. This is not only the result of the color — historical footage has been colorized numerous times before. But in slowing, restoring, and putting the film in 3D, Jackson, as The Guardian noted, makes the viewer feel like they’re “stepping through the looking glass” into a hyper-real, immersive world.

Still another observed, “the colourisation, and everything else, is … a means of enfolding you in the experience. It is an indirect way of reminding you that this really did happen to people like you and me.” In the screening I attended, some of the scenes were met with audible gasps and murmurs of sympathy from the audience. Especially in the United States, a country where the First World War is not a part of living memory in the same way that it is in Britain, the film appears, to echo another reviewer, to “reveal in full digital clarity…‘the truth untold.’”

And that was the very real problem I had while viewing this film: that these technological achievements stand in for “truth,” and obscure just how constructed the “history” Jackson is telling actually is. All documentaries (and indeed, all histories) are fictionalized to some extent — the choice about what to include or exclude makes a narrative far more coherent than reality ever was. However, Jackson’s technological achievements should not obscure the narrow, old-fashioned, and outdated story he has constructed. Some of the liberties Jackson takes are not of enormous consequence.

British Gen. John Biddle, and staff who are in charge of railroad construction on the Britain front. Photo mounted on original accession card. (War Department/National Archives)

We have no idea, for example, what the precise shade of the grass around Ypres was, just as we do not know the real eye color of the soldier whose irises are colored blue in his closeup. It is impossible to know if the man whose voice was dubbed with a Bedfordshire accent really did speak like a native of Maulden. Perhaps we can excuse these choices as a form of artistic license. But they also point to the constructed nature of the film, and its inherent bias towards a white, imperial, and, above all, male narrative, one that historians have been working to overcome for a generation.

On the role of non-British and non-white men, Jackson’s film is silent. To be fair, the Imperial War Museum’s oral history collection is not the most representative of imperial subjects (though many collections have just recently been made available elsewhere). But while we occasionally see a division of marching Sikh soldiers, or a Chinese labor battalion carrying their equipment, Jackson never attempts to humanize them or give them the same level of empathy that he does to his white British protagonists.

Most clearly evident to me was the way in which Jackson treated women. As Jackson himself noted, with so much footage at his disposal, he had to make difficult choices in terms of who and what he included in the final product. To keep the film as close to his personal interpretation of history as possible, he chose to focus specifically on men like his own grandfather, who served on the Western Front. “Give me two and a half hours and sure,” Jackson explained, “the nurses would have been there.”

Troops of the 29th British Division crossing Hohenzollerm Bridge at Cologne, Germany. Photo mounted on original accession card. (War Department/National Archives)

Yet there are women in Jackson’s version of the story. There is a whole section of the film where veterans recall visiting brothels and laughing over the youthful indiscretions they committed with the women who worked there.1 During these recollections, the audience is shown contemporary cartoons that juxtapose alluring, occasionally drunken, and always sexualized women tempting innocent, wide-eyed soldiers in uniform. The realities of sex workers on the western front were far from Jackson’s lighthearted depiction. As one doctor noted, the work was “laborious—eighteen hours of ‘slaving at it’ per day” all while “under continual threat from planes, bombardments.”2

But in Jackson’s film, these women are simply the butt of men’s jokes, rather than flesh-and-blood actors in their own right. This is compounded by the rendition of the song “Mademoiselle from Armentieres,” which plays while the final credits roll. British and American soldiers sang it often during the war, adding verses and references at will until the song became a kind of musical history of their service. But at its heart, the song is about a woman in a brothel who, as the song sung by a group of jovial-sounding British men reminds us, “hadn’t been kissed in forty years,” and who “sure was fun / Moving her ass like a Maxim Gun.”3

There was, therefore, time in the film for the kind of flippant objectification of women that has clearly evolved little since the First World War. There was time for the laughter these men shared at these women’s expense. Jackson found none, however, to contextualize these references, to consider their actual lived experiences, or to counter these puerile descriptions and the cartoon images that illustrate them on screen with any other views of women or their involvement in the war generation.

Poster of the 2018 documentary film They Shall Not Grow Old. (Wikimedia Commons)

Jackson’s erasure of women paralleled his lack of focus on how medical care affected the story that he assembled. Though we are shown the bodies of dead and decaying soldiers and horses, there are very few shots of wounded men and none of their recovery process. Likewise, we hear soldiers discuss being wounded, but never hear details of experience; for example, one soldier recalls, “Those bloody bullets got me in the leg … It didn’t hurt.” Another explains, “You’d seen death so many times, you’d seen wounded so many times, blood didn’t excite you.”

Although Jackson apparently included these quotations to demonstrate the ordinary soldier’s pluck and bravery, they actually indicate the psychology of men who had been forced to endure physical and psychological trauma on an all-too-regular basis. By not probing or exploring these quotes, Jackson’s story at the very least obscures the bodies of war-disabled soldiers, if not entirely erasing them from the history. Such an act becomes even more noteworthy after Jackson’s post-screening talk, where he discussed dedicating his film to his grandfather, who was wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. “I have the historical account,” Jackson explained, “But I was missing the human element.” Writing out the experiences of wounded veterans, that human element remains missing in Jackson’s story.

In the Ethics of Memory, Avishai Margalit reminds us that “memory … is knowledge from the past. It is not necessarily knowledge about the past.”4 No interpretation of the past will ever be absolutely accurate, but, as Alice Kelly noted in a wonderfully perceptive review of Jackson’s film, “it would be wrong to pretend that this version of history is any more real than any other that has come before.” It’s evident that Jackson’s choice to exclude particular actors and subjects — women, disabled soldiers, and non-white troops, for example — perpetuates a myopic and misogynistic memory that is supported neither by the historical record nor by a vast body of contemporary scholarship written by historians, artists, citizens, and activists.

By melding modern technology, human imagination, and an enormous amount of dedication, Peter Jackson has provided a thoroughly engrossing way to look at the First World War. It is a shame, however, that his film does not challenge outdated and problematic narratives of the war itself, or broaden our understanding of its enduring and vital relevance to our modern world.

Notes

  1. A transcript of the film can be found in the Springfield! Springfield! Movie Transcript Database. Return to text.
  2. Quoted in Michelle K. Rhodes, “World War I Regulation” in Melissa Hope Ditmore, ed., Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, Vol. 2 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006), 549. Return to text.
  3. Some really interesting history of the song can be found in Melbert B. Cary, Jr., “Mademoiselle from Armentieres,” The Journal of American Folklore 47, no. 186 (1934): 369-376 Return to text.
  4. Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 14. Return to text.

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2 Comments

Michael Brown

I couldn’t agree more with this review. My wife (who is also a History Professor) and I were surprised by quite how much we detested this film. As a British person in their forties who grew up reading Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon at school and who has subsequently read extensively and taught regularly on the topic of the First World War, I couldn’t quite believe how conservative, even reactionary, this film was. In that sense it is in-line with recent popular narratives of the war which fly in the face of established historical scholarship to suggest that it was a simple, just and morally uncomplicated conflict. Indeed, Jackson’s film seems to have no problem portraying the Western Front as little more than a camping trip with guns that its participants were sad to see end. Now it is important to acknowledge that these are indeed the voices of veterans, but they were also recorded at a very particular moment (the 1960s) and tended to leave out any alternative narratives such as the experience of women (as you rightly say) or those of conscientious objectors. As you also point out, it is important to recognise and analyse the particular editorial choices that have been made. To my mind, one of the most egregious of these involved the depiction of the ‘assault’ where, in the absence of archival footage, we were treated to a montage of Boys’ Own style propaganda images, as if this were an unmediated representation of the ‘truth’ of combat! In general, I also thought the structure was deeply flawed, portraying as it did a kind of static, timeless Western Front, impervious to change and highly generic in nature.
Anyway, thanks for this thoughtful review. It is one to stack up against all the unthinking guff that has been spouted about this film in the British media.

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Elizabeth Avery

I have just returned from taking 99 grade ten high school students to see this film. I am so glad I stumbled across your review on my twitter feed. I left the theater feeling over overwhelmed by the graphic nature of the film. I had to close my eyes many times during the screening. I don’t like glorifying war which is exactly what Mr. Jackson has done. I was very disappointed. The 1/2 hour documentary about the choices made during the digitizing, colourizing, editing and creating the sound of the film was much more interesting than the actual story itself. I also found it interesting that my American friends have rated this film R while here in Canada it was rate 14A. Ah what an interesting world we live in.

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