On the centenary of the end of First World War, Academy Award-winner Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) presents the World Premiere of an extraordinary new work showing the Great War as you have never seen it. This unique film brings into high definition the human face of the First World War as part of a special London Film Festival presentation alongside a live Q&A with director Peter Jackson hosted by Mark Kermode.I went to see this movie last night wondering if it would live up to the hype it has received, and for the most part I'd have to say it did. There is a wealth of information and reviews about the movie available online so I won't go into great detail here, but if you're interested check out some of the links in this post. A quick online search will turn up much more.
Using state of the art technology to restore original archival footage which is more than a 100-years old, Jackson brings to life the people who can best tell this story: the men who were there. Driven by a personal interest in the First World War, Jackson set out to bring to life the day-to-day experience of its soldiers. After months immersed in the BBC and Imperial War Museums’ archives, narratives and strategies on how to tell this story began to emerge for Jackson. Using the voices of the men involved, the film explores the reality of war on the front line; their attitudes to the conflict; how they ate; slept and formed friendships, as well what their lives were like away from the trenches during their periods of downtime.
Jackson and his team have used cutting edge techniques to make the images of a hundred years ago appear as if they were shot yesterday. The transformation from black and white footage to colourised footage can be seen throughout the film revealing never before seen details. Reaching into the mists of time, Jackson aims to give these men voices, investigate the hopes and fears of the veterans, the humility and humanity that represented a generation changed forever by a global war.
(Synopsis from the official movie website)
The half-hour documentary that follows the movie provides information on the task that Jackson faced and details the challenges his team had to address. They had 100 hours of film footage from the time of the war, much of it copies instead of original shots, and 600 hours of audio interviews with World War I veterans from the 1960s and '70s. Clips from these interviews "narrate" the movie, and it's interesting to hear the participants' perspectives of what we're seeing on the screen.
Jackson lays out his thoughts on the approach he chose. While noting the importance of the participation of British subjects and other countries as well as women on the homefront and the war theater, he wanted a specific concentration: “I didn’t want to do a little bit of everything. I just wanted to focus on one topic and do it properly: the experience of an average soldier infantryman on the Western Front.” This narrowed focus makes for an effective storyline. We see and hear about enlistment and training in Britain, arrival on the continent, life in the trenches, experiences on leave, what it was like to go "over the top," engagement with German POWs, and the bittersweet return home. It leaves you wanting more, but that is exactly Jackson's goal—for us to find out more about those who experienced the war, especially participants in our own families.
Since most of the family and acquaintances I knew that had been in a war would rarely (if ever) talk about it, I'm always interested to hear other participants' experiences, not just what happened but also how they tell it. In the early parts of the movie, the men relay lively tales of signing up and training. As the movie progresses, the tone changes. It's not exactly somber, but more matter-of-fact. The most moving moment for me was a veteran recalling shooting an ally to put him out of his misery after he had an arm and leg blown off. As the veteran's voice cracks, it's easy to imagine him living with that moment in the years since the war.
There were a few more things I'll note, but these are more of a personal taste. Or lack thereof. I'm not a fan of the 3D feature. While it adds some nice touches, it seems to me that the quality suffers from it. I guess I'm reminded too much of my old ViewMaster discs. I would have loved to have seen more of the corrected and enhanced black-and-white footage as well. Colorization techniques have improved, but I wouldn't honestly say it appeared "as if they were shot yesterday." What it did, though, was give an additional appreciation for what it was like beyond any realistic recent movie recreation.
If you get a chance to see the movie, I highly recommend it. For now you'll have to be on the lookout for additional screenings and check the Fathom Events site for locations. Hopefully this will soon be released for home viewing, but it is definitely a great experience on a big screen.
- The New York Times weekend feature by Mekado Murphy: How Peter Jackson Made WWI Footage Seem Astonishingly New With They Shall Not Grow Old
- YouTube video from the Daily Mail: Director Peter Jackson on his new WW1 documentary film
- YouTube video from Kermode Uncut on the making of the movie
- Images at Fathom Events