Lawrence Napper, King’s College London
23 October 2018
I’ve been fascinated by the idea of Peter Jackson’s new film They Shall Not Grow Old and have blogged about it a couple of times already. Initially I blogged about the controversy over the news that it is to ‘transform’ the original footage shot on the Western Front in 1916-18 for the War Office Cinematograph Committee by cameramen such as Geoffrey Malins and J. B. MacDowell. The key selling point of Jackson’s film is that it will colourise that footage, and render it in 3D to suit the taste of ‘younger’ modern audiences. Later I became fascinated by the pre-release trailers for the film and the way that Jackson characterised the original footage as it has survived within the archive as abject, ‘grainy, flickery, kind of – you know – sped up,’ in an attempt to contrast it against the startling snippets of the digitally enhanced material that the trailers showcased. I was curious about two aspects of this pre-release publicity. Firstly the claim that ‘young people’ simply won’t engage with black and white footage – something that from my own experience teaching these films, and from my contact with the IWM’s own team of archivists, I knew to be simply untrue. Secondly, I was confused at Jackson’s refusal to acknowledge that the IWM material he had worked with was not in fact in the state he described. The footage comprising the two main blockbuster films released during the war itself, The Battle of the Somme (1916) and The Battle of Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917) had been subject to painstaking archival restorations in 2006 and 2013 respectively, and The Battle of the Somme restoration has been given a general release in cinemas around the country in the summer of 2016 to mark the centenary of its release, to wide acclaim.
In all of this I was conscious that without having seen the new film it was impossible to judge its qualities. I’m not a ‘purist’ and I’m not necessarily averse to a bit of colourisation if it’s done right. Anything that might turn a new generation on to an interest in the first world war, and particularly in the extraordinary footage of it that survives is surely a good thing, and I am persuaded by friends who argue that whatever Jackson does to the material, the original footage won’t be destroyed – it’ll still be safely preserved in the archive. I guess the paradox that interests me about the project is that the filmed material is fascinating because it’s authentic – it is pictures of the actual men who are there, going through that experience. But in the way that it is framed here, this authenticity is also the problem – it is old, silent, black and white – the very signs of its authenticity are what are deemed to make it ‘unappealing’ to modern audiences. In this context my quibbles about the way in which the publicity for the film rendered the previous work of the archives invisible seemed a minor point, perhaps to do with the over-enthusiasm of the marketing team trying to get the most out the potential contrast between the original material and its ‘transformation’. As I wrote then (having seen only the brief shots showcased in the trailer), those digitally enhanced, colourised images are extraordinary enough for his purpose.
Jackson could so easily have simply said ‘we have transformed the existing footage into something amazing.’ His effects are amazing – there’s no need to exaggerate the abject state of the existing footage in order to make the transformation extraordinary.
So I was open minded. In my imagination there was a possibility that this film might be all it claims to be – a series of extraordinary images which immeasurably improve the experience of the original footage, bringing it to life and colour in an immersive immediate way that is irresistible. The LFF gala performance in NFT1 in the presence of the Duke of Cambridge, with Peter Jackson to be interviewed onstage afterwards by Mark Kermode was of course sold out months ago, so I went along, all anticipation to my local cinema in Greenwich where a live simultaneous broadcast of the event was so heavily oversubscribed that a second screen was opened to accommodate the overspill.
It turns out that colourisation is the least of the problems in Jackson’s film. In fact in places it works remarkably well. Those places being when he is closest to respecting the proportions of the original shot he is using, as in the scenes featured in the trailer. A green tank lumbers over a seemingly impassable ditch. Artillery teams co-ordinate to fire the big guns, with the spring landscape blooming behind them. Men pick their way back from battle through a landscape where nature is just clinging on – the green of the grass punctuated by the bright red of the poppies. These features do make one look anew at images which were once familiar as only a symphony of grey. The famous shots of the dead from the Battle of the Somme are transformed – what before were just tattered bundles of indistinguishable grey rags, are now spattered with vermillion, bringing home not only the fact of death, but the detail of the manner of death. These images work, and are offered quite sympathetically, the colour palette does accord with the few still colour photographs which survive of the conflict. Were the poppies actually there in the original shot? It’s impossible to say – maybe Jackson’s team did a forensic inspection of the frame and identified them, or maybe they’re artistic licence, but they are there in some of the surviving still images, and they certainly feature in written accounts. Similarly the addition of ‘diegetic’ sound is extraordinarily successful and contains a hint of the kind of film this might have been. Jackson had lipreading experts look at the footage and where it is possible has reconstructed the comments made onscreen using actors. In a satisfyingly reflexive moment, one man looks into the camera and shouts ‘it’s the pictures, mate!’ reminding us that this technology is both new and extraordinary in 1916. So far so good. But there is trouble ahead, for these are not ‘the pictures’ as that Tommy would have understood them.
One of the key features of the WW1 footage, what was remarked on at the time, is always remarked on by students when they study the original films, and is highlighted by Jackson in his interviews about the project, is the faces of the men.[i] In the pre-release trailer, and in the Q&A onstage after the screening, Jackson described the faces of the ordinary soldiers ‘jumping out at you’. Evidently this is the element that appealed to him in the original footage, and the one he is most keen to ‘enhance’ in his re-rendering of that material. But it is also the case that in 1916 the ‘close up’ was by no means a standard or even an established part of the cinematic language. Jackson’s response is to digitally create them. His technique is a disaster. So much so that I was astonished. Of all the claims he made about the film, the one I was most willing to accept unquestioningly was the one about the power of the technology at his disposal. But it turns out that while it can cope with colourisation well enough, it cannot cope with the demands Jackson makes of it in regard to literally zooming in on the detail. Anyone familiar with The Battle of the Somme or its sister films will recall the powerful scenes which fill the screen with the faces of the men. In one of the most famous shots from The Somme, men shelter in a sunken road in the middle of no-man’s-land, waiting to go ‘over the top’ on the first day of the battle. A sap had been dug between the front line and this road, and the original cameraman, Geoffrey Malins crawled this to the position in order to film these men.[ii] The sequence is made up of five shots. We see the group of men first from one side, then from the other, then back again. In each shot, they are arranged in a clump to the side of the frame as they stand, crouch and lie at the side of the road, each one gazing at the astonishing technology of the camera. Some barely seem to see it. Others smile and joke and make remarks. Others are smoking, or eating biscuits or polishing bits of their kit in preparation for going over the top. Each shot of Malins’ contains perhaps 15 men, of whom about seven or eight are positioned so that their faces are clearly recognisable.
In the original frame each face must take up less than a few millimetres of the 35mm cell, but Jackson has chosen to pick each of these faces out as separate shots, blowing those few millimetres of a single face up into an image which fills the entirety of his widescreen screen. This is a technique that he uses repeatedly, harvesting other shots in the original film, where men after battle are resting and washing beside a pool for instance – they wave and smile at the cameraman, showing off their trophies and joshing with each other.
Initially Jackson offers these super-magnified close-ups in black-and-white and it becomes clear perhaps why he decided to colour the majority of his film. For under the strain of the magnification the faces buckle and distort in the most extraordinary way. The exposure values have to be manipulated beyond comfort in order to retain any detail, so that the image already looks solorised. But in addition, across every face the individual grains of the original film (some perhaps original and others digitally produced by Jackson’s much vaunted system which supposedly ‘smooths’ the image to run at sound speed without the judder produced by step-printing) – the grains swarm and mould and shift so that each man’s face looks like it’s rendered in an oil slick in a puddle of water, or perhaps out of a colony of ever-shifting termites. Far from bringing you closer to the men, you find yourself thinking ‘What’s wrong with him? He looks like he’s about to melt,’ like the horrific transformation in some body horror sci-fi. When the faces become colourised, these distortions are ameliorated slightly, but they never go away. Jackson gets a huge amount of mileage out of each of these shots, particularly from the sunken road footage at the climax of his film – each of the faces in those frames gets the full close up treatment, so that this tiny amount of footage alone is spun out into 4 or 5 minutes, sliced and diced into separate magnified close-ups that jump and buckle and convulse ghoulishly before you. The magnification doesn’t make you feel the humanity of these men more than the original footage. It makes you marvel at how thoroughly the images have been processed to shit.
Jackson’s passion for zooming in on details of the image defeats his technological wizardry in other aspects of the film too. I watched in 2D so perhaps in 3D it is less noticeable that whenever a figure in the foreground moves across the screen, the background image behind it swirls and convulses at the edges of the shape passing before it. More noticeable from the very first shot is that when people walk, often their legs blur or vanish altogether, another function of the digital programme which adds extra frames cloned from the frames either side in order supposedly to make movement ‘smoother’.
The attempts at battle footage are similarly bizarre. Malins and MacDowell were obviously unable to rush into battle with the men they filmed. Their cameras were massive wooden boxes, mounted on tripods and hand cranked. They could film less than two minutes’ worth of footage before the film had to be taken out and changed for new stock – being careful of course not to expose either reel to the light. Obviously the footage Malins was able to produce is frustratingly distant – he set the camera up to look over the parapet but with the exception of the famous shot of the explosion of the Hawthorn mine, the ‘action’ he captured looked like puffs of smoke in the distance.
A wide, steady shot, with the distant evidence of explosions occurring in a small section of the centre of the frame is certainly not what we would understand as battle footage in these days of cameras embedded in soldier’s helmets, so Jackson emulates the frantic, restless style of modern action footage by magnifying the image so that the puff of smoke fills the screen, and then digitally pans swiftly across the frame to the next explosion in an imitation of modern conventions of hand-held ‘realism’. But the effect is to force the authentic footage into a bizarre simulacrum of modern feature film-making conventions, rather than to draw out the authentic nature of what it shows. It seems pointless. The camera in 1916 simply can’t get ‘up close and personal’ in the way that Jackson seems to desire, and eventually in fact, he gives up on the attempt to make it. When the narration of the film (which is formed of a collage of veterans remembering their experiences in interviews recorded for the BBC in the 60s and 70s) starts to talk about the experience of actually going ‘over the top’ into no-mans-land, of engaging in hand to hand fighting and trench raids, the visual record abandons the whole rhetoric of authentic film footage and reverts to artists’ illustrations. These may be authentic in as much as they are contemporary – taken from publications such as The Illustrated War News and The Sketch in the style most famously associated with artists such as Fortunino Matania and R. Caton Woodville, but they are a long way from the claims of the film to ‘reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world so they can regain their humanity once more.’ Far from doing that, the reversion to Illustrated War News images insist on their age, on the generic conventions of their moment, on the very distance between us and these events and representations. In a final inexplicable decision, Jackson chooses to magnify these illustrations as exaggeratedly as he has done the images, so that one spends minutes of the film inspecting and reflecting on early twentieth century halftone printing techniques – dot by dot.
There is, of course, something rather satisfying about this eventual abandonment of the film footage in They Shall Not Grow Old, because it was in exactly similar circumstances that the available technology of film failed the makers of the 1916 Battle of the Somme too. Viewers expected a climactic moment showing soldiers going ‘over the top’, and yet it was simply too dangerous to film. The War Office Cinematograph Committee substituted instead two staged shots – reconstructions which take up less than one minute’s running time but have exposed the film to accusations of ‘fakery’ ever since.[iii]
Introducing They Shall Not Grow Old to the public and the Duke of Cambridge at the London Film Festival in October 2018, the head of the BFI, Amanda Nevill, suggested that ‘the First World War is not history,’ and on the screening notes which we found on our seats in Greenwich, Peter Jackson is quoted claiming that his ‘computing power’ can ‘erase the technical limitations of 100 year old cinema’. Both of these statements seem hubristic to me. The First World War is obviously history, and no matter how great your computing power, you can’t actually make the cameras of 100 years ago enter spaces and situations they didn’t. This film proves that. And it proves too that you ignore the facts of technological history at your peril.
Such is the publicity hype around the film, and so sacred is the cow of the Great War in its centenary moment that nobody seems to have noticed how horribly distorted and ludicrous Jackson’s tarted-up images look. The reviews almost unanimously praised the images as ‘extraordinary’, so much so that I started to wonder if I’d hallucinated the melting faces and the disappearing limbs. But I’m pleased to note that others, including Pamela Hutchinson and Jonathan Romney have also drawn attention to the elephant in the room.
I haven’t even started on the ways in which the film insults and disregards both the original cameramen (none of whom are credited) and the film archive itself. Those debates are… for another time.
[i] Nicholas Reeves, “Cinema, Spectatorship and Propaganda: The Battle of the Somme (1916) and Contemporary Audiences” in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 17, no. 1 (1997) pp. 5–28; Roger Smither, “‘Watch the Picture Carefully, and See If You Can Identify Anyone’: Recognition in Factual Film of the First World War Period” in Film History 14, no. 3–4 (2002), pp. 390–404.
[ii] Alistair Fraser, Andrew Robertshaw & Steve Roberts, Ghosts on the Somme: Filming the Battle – June-July 1916 (London: Pen and Sword, 2016).
[iii] Roger Smither, “‘A Wonderful Idea of the Fighting’: The Question of Fakes in The Battle of the Somme” in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 13, no. 2 (1993), pp. 149–68.
Lawrence Napper is a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at King’s College London. His book on The Great War in British Popular Cinema of the 1920s: Before Journey’s End was published by Palgrave in 2015. He is also the author of Silent Cinema: Before the Pictures got Small (Wallflower, 2017). His latest research is on schemes to retrain disabled ex-servicemen as cinema projectionists in 1917. Lawrence hosts the annual British Silent Film Festival Symposium at KCL every April.
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