A Day at the Archives… The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University

Anthony T. McKenna, University of Derby

6 November 2018

Fifteen years ago, I was struggling to decide what the focus of my PhD thesis would be. A lifelong obsession with 1950s and 60s Americana had led me to the name Joseph E. Levine, one of American cinema’s great showmen. Scanning the internet for information about him, I happened across the website of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, which informed me that the center held some Levine-related items. The website is now much improved, but it was rather rudimentary then, so I contacted the center for some more information. Alex Rankin, assistant director for acquisitions, replied that they had forty-three boxes of Levine’s personal papers. The focus of my PhD research was thus decided, and I visited the centre seven times over the next thirteen years, researching my PhD thesis and subsequent monograph on Levine.

Levine was the most versatile movie promoter of his generation, and certainly the most diverse. He promoted a dizzying inventory of juxtaposing film forms, from European arthouse to cheap exploitation to teen weirdies to Hollywood blockbusters. It is therefore fitting that his papers should be housed in an archive bearing the name of Howard Gotlieb, who was a considerable showman in his own right. Gotlieb’s unaffected eclecticism and terrier-like tenacity is imprinted on the archive. It holds more than 2000 collections and is a tribute to the indiscriminate appetites and acquisitive nature of Gotlieb, who saw archival acquisitions as a combative, zero-sum contest.

Gotlieb struggled, strategized and schemed to create BU’s archive. Lacking the funds to build a prestigious collection from scratch following his appointment in 1962, Gotlieb asked promising or up-and-coming figures to donate their papers to the archive in the hope that they would one day become eminent. Many remained unknown, but others became significant figures in American culture, including James Clavell, David Halberstam, Dan Rather, and Martin Luther King. Collections belonging to the already notable required a different approach. Gotlieb was relentless in pursuit of his quarry, and would charm, flatter, cajole, grovel, or simply exasperate his targets. He emerged victorious in securing the personal papers of Fred Astaire, Rex Harrison, and Bette Davis; but was battle-scarred and defeated when he lost a prize, such as when Gloria Swanson donated her papers to the opposition at the University of Texas, despite Gotlieb’s persistent pestering campaign.

The Joseph E. Levine collection was acquired through more traditional means. Levine was a native Bostonian, and the collection was donated to the center by his son, Richard. The collection spans Levine’s entire career in the movie business but, as with most collections, there are many frustrating gaps. Of interest to even the most casual observer are letters from the likes of Spiro Agnew, Richard M. Nixon, and Jimmy Carter, who ask Levine for advice or thank him for campaign contributions. Horror buffs would be thrilled to meet Fats, the ventriloquist’s dummy that drives his owner to murder in Levine’s production of Magic (1978).  For the Levine researcher, there are many more treasures.

Levine may have corresponded with presidents in the 1960s and 70s, but in the 1930s he was hawking exploitation films around New England. The financial ledger for one of these, The Body Beautiful (c. 1938), a long-forgotten sex-hygiene film, provides insights into Levine’s operation at this stage in his career, and the appetite New Englanders had for disreputable films. The files relating to another of Levine’s early career ventures, a feature-length compilation of silent film clips entitled Gaslight Follies (1945), are especially fascinating. The files contain press clippings from local newspapers, along with press and publicity materials, and photographs of Levine on the road. The portrait of a tyro-showman that emerges from these papers, of Levine promoting his own film in the provinces and proudly mounting related reports in a scrapbook, gives wonderful insights into Levine’s early days as a promoter.

The real gold of this archive lies at the opposite end of Levine’s career, in the wealth of information related to A Bridge Too Far (1977), his biggest production. These files contain letters and telexes to and from the key players: the director Richard Attenborough, screenwriter William Goldman, members of the cast, crew, and many others. The detailed correspondence takes the researcher from casting to completion and is supplemented by the personal diary of Levine’s wife, Rosalie, which provides further detail. Researchers are usually only given glimpses of a film’s production in the archives. It is rare indeed to be given so many pieces of a jigsaw just waiting to be put together.

Other films well represented in the collection include Magic – preview cards reveal that test audiences felt that the evil ventriloquist’s dummy trope was pretty hackneyed back then; Gandhi (1981) – Levine was deeply involved in casting before he abruptly pulled out of the project in 1979; and Tattoo (1981) – Maud Adams was cast as the female lead after Nastassja Kinski failed to show up for a meeting in Paris. Levine’s 1960s heyday is, however, poorly represented. But his appointment book from 1965 reveals many meetings with the then editor of Variety, Abel Green, which may go some way to explaining the paper’s positive accounts of Levine’s antics during this time. There is also Levine’s personal copy of the October 1961 issue of Mad magazine, which contains a strip entitled ‘Mad Visits Joe LeVenal: Hollywood’s Latest Producing Genius’, and it would be interesting to know what Levine thought of seeing himself ridiculed in this manner. One suspects he would have approved, given that the Mad lampoon was only a slight exaggeration of Levine’s own exaggerations – and it was free publicity.

I’ll wrap up with a few pointers. The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center is free to use by appointment, and easy to find – just get the T to Boston University Central Station, and it is on the fifth floor of the Mugar Library Building. The archivists are knowledgeable and keen to discuss their collections. No cameras or electronic equipment is allowed in the reading room – pencil and paper only (and white handling gloves, of course).

Finally, no report on the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center would be complete without a mention of the grand and ornate reading room, one of the most beautiful I have ever worked in. It is such a beautiful place to work in that you may wish to plan your next research project according to the archive’s holdings. Perhaps I might write that book about Leonard Nimoy after all …

Anthony T. McKenna is a senior lecturer in film and television studies at the University of Derby. He is the author of Showman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and his Revolutions in Film Promotion, co-author of The Man Who Got Carter: Michael Klinger, Independent Film Production and the British Film Industry, and co-editor of Beyond the Bottom Line: The Producer in Film and Television Studies.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

The Office Cat swipes its final paw(s)…

The Office Cat and Jerry Kuehl

01 November 2018

The Office Cat turns its attention to The Vietnam War

It’s well known that: ‘Whoever Pays the Piper Calls the Tune’, so I was pleased to learn the 18-part series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War, transmitted beginning on 17 September 2017 on the American PBS network, was bankrolled by at least 20 people and institutions including The Bank of America, David Koch, and the Blavatnik Foundation. Let me refresh the memory of younger viewers.  The Bank of America saw its property in Santa Barbara burnt down by students in 1971, and in 2014 paid the US Justice Department nearly 17 billion dollars  to settle its obligations resulting from its involvement in toxic mortgages, and about whom Ken Burns has said he is ‘grateful to the entire Bank of America family’ which has ‘long supported our  country’s  veterans.’  David Koch, with his brother Charles, heavily supported the Tea Party.  Leonard Blavatnik, the richest man in England (at least in 2015), gave a million dollars towards the inauguration of Donald Trump, as did the Bank of America. The Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation all contributed to bankrolling the series, so I was reassured that all would be well, and that the pipers would not permit themselves to play many discordant tunes. They certainly couldn’t find room for Country Joe and the Fish who sang:

Well, come on all of you, big strong men,

Uncle Sam needs your help again.

He’s got himself in a terrible jam

Way down yonder in Vietnam

So put down your books and pick up a gun,

We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.

I suspect that’s because the budget for music clearances was exhausted by the cost of securing rights to use the songs of the 2016 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Still, I was delighted to be asked to help on this series by directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, (along with deputy director Christopher Marrion), producers Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sandra Bolstein, and writer Geoffrey C Ward. They made sure that viewers couldn’t help but notice, as Mr. Ward so elegantly put it: ‘The war was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstanding, American over confidence, and Cold War misunderstandings.’

Though I took no personal credit for the effort, Burns and Novick were not alone in making this 18-hour series for Florentine Films. As directors, they reported to themselves as producers, but also to producer Sandra Bolstein, and to co-producers Mike Welt, Saliman El-Amin, Ho Dang Hoa, to associate producers David P. Schmidt, Lucas B. Frank, Mariah A. Doran, consulting producer Benjamin Wilkinson, and Jim Corbley, the producer for WETA which transmitted the series in the USA. to Mark C. Edwards the commissioning editor from Arte France, and to the coordinating producer for Ken Burns, Elle Carrière. They had the help of 24 programme advisers, including Todd Gitlin, who says he  grew up believing what he was told by newsreaders on television and Neil Sheehan, who appeared in the series as a ‘Journalist’,  but not Noam Chomsky, or John Pilger, a journalist who also  reported from Vietnam, who did not believe that the war was begun in good faith by decent people:  ‘There was no good faith. The faith was rotten and cancerous,’ he said.

The series also benefited from a Senior Creative Consultant, Geoffrey Wave, and even from a Dialogue Editor, Marlena Grazaslewicz.  The credits for sources of film and photographs included 21 film sources and 40 sources for still photographs, but neither a film nor a photographic researcher was named, though Polly Petit, a human film researcher whose work I respect was one of 23 people credited with ‘additional research’. This gave me an opportunity to show off my own creative skills. I was encouraged by the announcement which solemnly intoned as the end credits rolled: ‘Some archive materials contain scenes that may have been staged by their original creators’. I puzzled mightily as to what this might mean, but I understood it as giving me carte blanche to be inventive.  The ‘original creators’ can only have been individual camera operator or still photographers whether on the ground, in the air, on board naval vessels, or in the case of air to ground film of bombing raids, the airman or airmen who set up the camera to make the recording in the first place. Did this mean that some cameramen didn’t actually record in real time, but deliberately reshot ‘staged’ material after the event—whatever that event was?

I found myself asking: why would they have done that? When would they have done that? How could they have had the opportunity, especially in combat situations to do that?  But if what the credit indicates is that some camera operators not always operated on their own but pointed their cameras as they were told to by a director, that would mean another person was involved in the filming and not just the original creator. Needless to say, that is hardly something any military operation could afford, especially in the midst of a fire fight.

Ronnie Noble, a Second World War cameraman who was with the British Eighth Army in the Western Desert of North Africa, wrote as part of one of his shot lists:

I find that when in the very front line it is impossible to build up or follow through a complete story, the situation is far too fluid and when under constant shell fire and continual bombing it is impossible to ask units to stunt shots to build up a story. The only way to do this is to stay in the back areas, and then, none of the action shots are genuine.

For ‘stunt’ today’s reader might like to substitute ‘fake’.

I was troubled by a further, nagging, point: what is the force of ‘may’ in the context of the announcement? If it means sometimes ‘original creators’ may have ‘stunted’ elements and sometimes they didn’t that would mean the viewer, when he or she tried to establish the authenticity of any archive material is faced with a daunting, if not impossible task.  Without access to the original shot lists—similar to those written by Ronnie Noble—it’s simply not possible to determine which elements are genuine and which are ‘stunted; or to put the matter bluntly, faked.  In today’s Post Truth era, we might call them Alternative Facts. I took that to be an encouragement for my creativity. I also thought it might help me to learn more about still photography because of the number of photographs used in the series.

Provided it had been staged by its ‘original creators’ there could be no objection to the inclusion of a still of Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon, Jane Fonda, Gordon Lonsdale and John F Kennedy seated around a conference table in Hanoi, or even Saigon or Dien Bien Phu. A whole new vista opened up but somehow I felt the series Communications Manager, Jessica Shuttleworth, might have been asleep at the wheel when the wording of that end credit was agreed. But it’s certainly good to know that Mr Burns and Ms Novick along with their fellow directors, consultants, advisers, and original creators, have made a substantial contribution to our era of Alternative Facts and Post Truth.

‘War is Hell’, as the 79 interviewees (but not including John Kelly, Jane Fonda, Henry Kissinger or John McCain since I believed they had nothing useful to contribute to a comprehensive understanding of the Vietnamese conflict) showed. I’m a sensitive Cat, so I made sure that Max Cleland, the former Senator from Georgia, was described as ‘Army’ rather than ‘Triple Amputee/Army’ and ensured the camera person filmed him only in close-up. I felt there was enough bloodshed in the series and didn’t want to give the impression that he might have been damaged in the service of his country.  When it came to the other side, I made sure that Bao Dinh was described as ‘N. Vietnamese Army’ rather than as the author of ‘The Sorrow of War’, since few Americans will have heard of his searing account of the conflict in Vietnam.  In talking about Neil Sheehan, I thought it would be inappropriate to point out he was an adviser to the series, so I simply made sure he was described as a ‘Journalist’. As for John Negroponte, in the wrap up in program 10, I decided not to allude to his activities as Ambassador to the UN, where he propagated the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, since I felt that after watching the series, viewers would have seen enough about senior officials lying to the American people.

Since  I’m  really a film researcher, and not a fact checker, it’s not for me to call into question anything Mr Ward has to say, though one of my human colleagues, Edwin Moise of Clemson University—who was conspicuously not one of the 24 programme advisors—has  pointed out  the  story of the Tonkin Gulf episode in program 3 was based on his own mistaken speculation in 1996, even though he has now corrected the error. This is what he says:

When I looked at Episode 3 of the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary series “The Vietnam War” on PBS, I was slightly embarrassed to realize that one of the errors came from me.  In my book on the Tonkin Gulf incidents published in 1996, I had looked at American reports on a North Vietnamese radio message intercepted on August 4, 1964.  The US government interpreted the message as describing preparations for an attack on US Navy destroyers.  I said that interpretation was unlikely; it was “far more likely” that the message was about preparations for defense against an attack by 34A raiding vessels operating out of Danang.   It is now clear that both interpretations were wrong.  The message had not been about preparations for a combat operation of any sort, offensive or defensive.  It was about plans to move two damaged North Vietnamese vessels to a port where they could be repaired.

The documentary treated my incorrect guess for the likely explanation as simple truth.’

That means the film which I chose to illustrate the scenes on the 4 August 1964, which include a close up of an American radio operator, though they may be authentic shots of a U.S. Sailor, can’t really claim to show what really transpired off the Vietnam coast. It’s a fine example of an Alternative Fact, and I was able to find many more instances. In program 1, when Dwight Eisenhower became President in 1952, the vehicles shown on the Interstate Highways were built in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Alternative Fact.  The A-4 Skyhawk jets were in fact F-4 Phantoms. Alternative Fact. It was Charles de Gaulle, Rupert Murdoch, and Donald Trump who finally brought lasting peace to Vietnam. Alternative Fact.


Das Reichsorchester, a film about the Berlin Philharmonic during and immediately after the time when Hitler controlled Germany was first uploaded to YouTube on December 16, 2007, to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the orchestra.

I know I should have talked about it then but like many of those in the orchestra, and those who spoke on their behalf, my memory is a bit selective about what really happened all those years ago.  The programme was made by Enrique Sanchez Lansch, directed by Beata Romanowski, and produced for Gala Productions.

Because the Berlin Philharmonic was the jewel in the crown of Nazi musical culture, I didn’t have much difficulty in finding film of its performances not only in concert stages, but on the shop floor of AEG in 1941 which was then—as it still is—a   giant manufacturing concern. I found lovely shots of Wilhem Furtwängler conducting the prelude to Die Meistersinger while the faces of the clean-shaven workers seemed to express rapt attention, though since cameras can show nothing of the life of the mind, they might have been dreaming about their girlfriends.

As the once all-powerful Nazi state came to its own Götterdämmerung – a Twilight of the Gods – with the triumphant Red Army besieging Berlin, I wished I could have found film of the Reichsorchester’s last concert on April 12, 1945–which concluded with the final scenes of the Götterdämmerung. But no cameras were there to record it – the improvised concert hall was dark, with only the lights on the music stands providing illumination.

I did the next best thing by finding colour shots – taken some time after the war – of the ruins of Berlin which I thought perfectly conveyed the ruins of Valhalla, where Richard Wagner’s Gods lived. The shots were made from a low flying aircraft, which I imagine represented Valkyries, just as the women who cleared Berlin’s rubble – the Trümmerfrauen – who were also filmed in colour, might have been Niebelungen, the dwarves who toiled in the bowels of the earth to amass treasure. I’m aware that it’s accepted that Valkyries were not aircraft, and that Trümmerfrauen were women, and full grown women at that, but if my account is seen as a way of providing alternative facts, all becomes clear.


Channel 4: When will they ever learn?

Pearl Harbor: The New Evidence was transmitted by Channel 4 on 4 November 2017.  Though the ‘new evidence’ seems to have been confined to a disputed allegation that Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt conspired to bring the United States into the Second World War, I was able to help the production team with other aspects of this film. The programme was directed by Jo Macgregor and produced by Rebecca Hayman and Alan Handel for Handel productions; Arrow International Media; The Movie Network, a division of Bell Media Inc; A+E Television Network; Channel 4; and BBC Worldwide.

A number of films of the events on 7 December 1941 are already in circulation, but I was delighted to offer a new one: images of an aircraft carrier and shots of an American sailor who had seemingly been swept overboard and was struggling to stay afloat.  The fact that no aircraft carriers were at Pearl Harbor didn’t bother me at all because of the poignancy of the shot of the sailor in danger of going under.  I thought this shot was so striking that I used it twice.  When it came to speaking of the torpedoes used by the Japanese, I set the scene with film of the British assault on 17 November 1940, at Taranto in Italy, when aircraft of the Royal Navy seriously disrupted the Italian fleet in the Mediterranean. The attack was carried out at night by a group of carrier-based Swordfish, but no one can see very much at night, so I shifted the time to daylight hours.

I illustrated the principal of how those torpedoes worked with shots of a Grumman Avenger, an American torpedo bomber whose first action was at the battle of Midway in 1942.

In later life, we were told Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander of the Pacific Fleet, in charge of naval forces at the time of the Japanese attack and who was the scapegoat for American failings, came to believe that ‘Pearl Harbor was a conspiracy to get American into the war, and that it went right up to the President’.  I’d certainly want to work on that film.


Holocaust—the Revenge Plot was transmitted by Channel 4 on January 27, 2018.  The programme was produced and directed by Nick Green who reported to Executive Producers Phil Gurin, Tim Bock, Dinah Lord, and Matthew Barrett for Global Road Entertainment. Since so much of the production took the form of a drama-doc, I wasn’t able to help the team very much, but I did manage to sneak in one of my favourite episodes when it came to showing Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. As Jews were evacuated from the city, I illustrated the scene with shots of the Dutch transit camp in Westerbork, a mere 1640 kilometres distant.


Nazi Victory: The Post War Plan—Transporting the Reich was one of a series of programmes about what might have happened if the Third Reich had won the Second World War. It was produced and directed by Danny O’Brien who had as his assistant producer Matt Bone, and a ‘production for Germany’ Lars von Lennet. It was written by Matt Bone and Guy Walters. They all reported to executive producers Henry Scott and Bruce Burgess for Like a Shot Entertainment and for Adrian Wiles and Emma Sparks. for UKTV (the series was made for Like a Shot Entertainment Production in association with UKTV). It’s been transmitted several times on UKTV, most recently on 30 March 2018.

The fact that Germany had to actually win the war before it could put into effect its plans for the post war period didn’t perturb me at all. I took that as an invitation to explore the ‘what ifs’ of European History. I discovered that when Hitler became chancellor in 1933 he ‘obtained his first private aircraft’, a Junkers JU-52, so I found splendid scenes of that same machine flying over the roofs of Nuremberg during the Nazi party rally of 1934, filmed for the Triumph of the Will, released in 1935. When the invasion of Poland in September 1939 marked ‘the beginning of World War 2’, I illustrated the event with film of German troops re-occupying the Rhineland in 1936. Later, when the fortunes of war turned against the Thousand Year Reich, I found I could illustrate the training of Hitler Youth volunteers to fly jet fighters with scenes of gliders, filmed when what purported to be a time before the establishment of the Luftwaffe in 1935. Perhaps my most ambitious enterprise was to persuade Mr Bone and Mr Walters to speak of death camps in Poland and to assert that Auschwitz received prisoners from 1941 to 1944. The film I found to illustrate that came from a 1948 Polish production by Wanda Jakubowska, of The Last Stage (Ostatan Etap). She herself was a survivor of Auschwitz, so she probably should know when it was made.


The Office Cat, 1931-2018

Jerry and the Office Cat © Vincent Yorke

Jerry Kuehl was an independent television producer whose principal but not exclusive interest was visual history. His first grown-up job in television was as a historical advisor to the 26-part 1964 BBC production, The Great War, he was then an associate producer of The World at War, the 26-part series made by Thames Television in the 1970s which set new standards for accuracy and authenticity in the use of archival footage. He was the Head of General Studies at the National Film School from 1979 to 1981. In the 1980s, he was a director of Open Media whose productions included After Dark. In the 1990s, he was a writer and consultant to the 24-part CNN production, The Cold War. In 1991, he wrote and co-produced the 4-part La Grande Aventure de la Presse Filmée (English title: The Great Adventure of Newsreels) for France 3. He produced Kuehl’s Reels, a programme series for YouTube which punctures the pretensions of those who misdescribe films sent to the site. He is also responsible for the Office Cat who skewers irresponsible producers and directors in both the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television and the IAMHIST Blog. He was the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from FOCAL, the Federation of Commercial Audiovisual Libraries. Jerry sadly passed away in September, and his obituary written by Taylor Downing can be read here.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.




They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson, 2018) and the Elephant in the Room

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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