World War I films a masterpiece of skill and art – just do not call it a documentary


They will not grow old, Peter Jackson's widely celebrated World War I film, says more about our quest for historical authenticity and the "real" than about the Great War. Our contemporary need to "humanize" history has gone too far?

One of the culminating projects of the centenary of World War I, commissioned by 14-18 Now the film was created with the selection of material from over 100 hours of black and white footage from the archives of the BBC and Imperial War Museums (IWM) . Through technological skill and art, the film was delayed (from 13 to 24 frames per second), enhanced, colorful, with sound effects and done in 3D. Lip's readers watched the filming and the actors dubbed the dialogue in the film, matching the regiment accents shown onscreen – and the film is fully narrated through snippets of veteran oral testimonials.

The goal is to make us see the participants "as human beings, not as figures in a history book," as Jackson noted in the Q & A after the premiere. A copy of the film will be sent to all high schools in the UK as an educational resource, and will be presented in prime time on BBC Two on 11 November – known as Remembrance Sunday in the UK. But despite the amount of archival research, technical skill and attention to detail involved in the production, there is something about the film – and the audience's response to it – that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Announced as a documentary by the majority, the film was evenly praised for "bringing the soldiers inexorably back to life." Here, we are told, "the world of 100 years ago really comes to life in a way that has never existed before." In his use of color, one critic observed, "the images (in a somewhat paradoxical way) regain authenticity," allowing "a new kind of human connection with the era of our past." Another suggested that this "documentary" brings us "closer and more sincere contact with our history than ever," even leaving us with a "movie clash." As movie critic Mark Kermode told Q & A, watching the movie "It's almost like we're experiencing a memory."

But we are not shocked – and these are not our memories. What the reviews or movie billing does not discuss is the implicit fictionalization or the ethics of Jackson's method. Obviously, all documentaries are to some extent fictional – created through editorial selections that have prejudices, both explicit and implicit. But I do not think we should call this a documentary; is really a work of art or a fiction film. A reviewer unconsciously strikes this nail in the head when he comments: "The restoration of this footage is so impressive that it could be the result of a film shoot."

Are you on whose side?

There is obviously a technical and aesthetic value to Jackson's method, but it would be wrong to pretend that this version of the story is more real than any that has come before. The narrative is located entirely through the white infantry soldier on the Western Front – other groups, including colonial soldiers or women in front, are absent in addition to one or two paintings.

While Jackson acknowledged in the Q & A that this narrative perspective is just a "slice of the pie," this needs to be made explicit. Otherwise, using this film as a teaching resource in schools will only reinforce the already outmoded approach of the Western Front fighter (of which the erudition of World War I has been withdrawing for some time) and the motive of stoic and good struggle. native Tommy, so dear to the representations of the Great War in popular culture. Relying on archival footage of colonial troops or other theaters and war spaces (eg the Eastern Front or nurses working in hospitals) would have broadened the perspective to reflect the broader nature of participation in the war.

Propaganda: The Illustrated War was jingoistic and well-known for falsifying accounts.
The Enlightened War.

More problematic, however, is the use of contemporary images without any qualifications, including the decision to illustrate soldiers who go to the top in battle using images from The War Illustrated magazine in the absence of any film.

This patriotic and propagandistic magazine in times of war included articles like "Great Britain prepares against the Teutonic tyrant".

Jackson suggested in Q & A that because it was produced during the war: "This is real." He is sure that it is a contemporary source, but using these propaganda images without any qualification is simply a bad story.

These are moments that require narrative commentary, explaining what the source is on the screen and its possible biases.

What is history?

Additional techniques of color and sound and editing stimulate us to imagine (even remember, in Kermode's view) a reality that never existed. In the battle scene, alongside the images of War Illustrated, we see individual faces of soldiers taken from pictures of groups juxtaposed with images of corpses, mistakenly suggesting that these are the corpses of the soldiers we see. There must have been some artistic license to the sound: one critic suggests that trench scenes were "remixed" to include "a noise of Dolbyfied shells" as a means of further enhancing the Jacksoncolour effect. Colorization is a technique that has been used before in the context of World War I and other historical fields – and for me, this is not really the problem.

Real? Or rebuilt?
Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum

But the colorization combined with the selective source base, the implicit narrative production, and the critical response that suggests that this is a more "authentic" story is problematic. Some critics seem incapable of distinguishing fiction from reality: "No battle between the Lord of the Rings could equal the hell of the filmmaker recreates here," writes one.

What does this process of modernizing and adding color and sound, which Jackson advocates for wider use in historical archives, contribute to our understanding of the past? On Armistice Day, we should encourage people to watch this film – not just because of its history in World War I, but as a good opportunity to think about history.

What are the editorial choices we make as historians and scholars, and how can we clarify these choices? What are the distinctions between academic history and public history? When attempts to increase historical understanding turn into re-enactment? If the movie makes the file images more accessible, that's fine. Let's not call it a documentary.

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