Technology in the Archives: Some Principles

Nash Sibanda

22 February 2019


Archival research is, as anyone likely to be reading this blog will know, a finicky business.

It requires a certain discipline, and a certain flexibility. It requires an ability to dip and dive, and swim amongst the records. To know what is of use, and what is not. To know when you are attempting to convince the data to lead places it has no intention to go. The researcher must be both navigator and follower; often by turns though sometimes in concurrence. One must be organised, and must bring order to data that often refuses to be tamed. One must marshal all faculties at one’s disposal yet stop short of being overwhelmed. A researcher is at times a juggler, and at others a tasseographer. A researcher knows the heart of their work is not in bowling strikes, but in setting up the pins.

Last year, I completed my PhD. I had spent the previous three and a half examining the coming of sound to Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. I’d been fortunate to work alongside excellent academics, who showed me the ropes and made it easy for me to rig the sails of my own project. My dissertation’s structure was also its thesis – a funnel, from the wide to the narrow. I wanted to see how sound came to Britain by taking the broad national picture and narrowing down through a series of case studies to a single cinema. To individual screenings and an individual audience.

As such, my archival sources were varied. All historical research involves varied archival sources. This is not an attempt to claim superior scope or ambition. I don’t believe any of my methods were so unique as to revolutionise the field. Rather, I believe my work was a useful way to explore a range of ways of interacting with archives using technology. You may ask why I presented them as a set of principles, especially coming from a super-duper early career researcher such as myself. The answer is that the submission guidelines didn’t specifically say that I couldn’t.

 1. Archives are mines. Take as much as you can.

Archival material, for the historian, is almost always visual, if not purely textual. Archival research is the process of filtering through to find words written in times when people knew first-hand what has since been lost. To know what was thought, often we can only try to learn what was written. The words and images are immutable, imprinted on sacred, primary objects. The care with which archivists store and provide them is vital.

Yet the medium by which we the researchers must spend our time with them is fungible.
I have worked with researchers who take copious, meticulous notes in the archives. They transcribe pertinent quotes. They summarise and paraphrase and chronicle their journeys through the records with great care and detail. They pore over the material before them, picking away and collecting in their notebooks any precious gems that may come loose. They spend hours and hours and hours in there.

I have opted instead to exchange the pick-axe for dynamite. I want to take as much from the archives as I can, in as few trips as possible. Others may find the archives a stimulating or serene environment. I would much rather languish at home in my slippers. My tools are a digital camera – always my mobile phone – and a photography pass, usually acquired for a small fee from the front desk. Some archives are content to give the intrepid photographer free reign. Others are more stingy, ascribing quotas to how much one can photograph in any given visit. I photograph everything that might look useful, or relevant. Or not especially useful or relevant, but interesting enough for me to want to have a second look later. I make a small note for each photograph I take – more on these in the second principle – and move onwards. I take hundreds and hundreds of photographs. Along with subsequent archive trips, these number into the thousands.

In this way, one leaves the archives without the rich notes and ideas that might come from a slower and more deliberate communion with the material. This work must still be done. Rather than leaving the mine with a handful of diamonds, you leave with a truck full of rocks. You have yet to extract the gems, but you’ve seen their faint glimmer. At least you can do so now at your own pace, at home or in your office. You have a facsimile of the original material, rather than having to rely on notes made at the time of your visit. For the researcher unsure what will end up actually being useful, nothing provides peace of mind like having one’s own, personal archive

2. Format will save your life. Ensure stable digital footing.

Before you embark on any endeavour involving technology, you must inform your technology of what it is you hope to achieve. A diary is a book of blank pages, yet you happily – gratefully – pay extra for the dates written in the corners. You could do it yourself every day, quite easily, but it feels better that it’s there for you. Data and information love format. The digitally inclined researcher must also wield it as a crucial tool.

Fundamentals are key. If you use a standalone camera, rather than your camera-phone, you must ensure that its time and date settings are as accurate as you can make them. This will ensure that you know on which trips any photographs were taken. It will save you when automatic naming conventions break down (did I take IMG_2033.jpg from my phone before or after IMG_8949.jpg from my camera?). File names are changeable; file sizes are unpredictable; and the file types are all the same. Time is constant. Pay no mind to what the physicists may say about such a statement; this is none of their business. By all means make use of whatever cameras and scanners may be available to you in the archives. Entrust the business of formatting to no-one but yourself.

Choose the home for your archive notes, and understand their function. These are not the notes you will make when you build arguments, test theoretical frameworks, or challenge knowledge. These notes are your new catalogue. You have gone to the archives to build your own, digital archive. Decide how best to organise these materials to suit your own purposes. I’ll provide an example:

I spent a lot of time looking at The Bioscope, a trade journal from the silent and early sound period of British cinema. I wanted to trace the coming of sound through its pages. As expected, sound was a concern for vast sections of the journal for many, many issues. At times, entire issues seemed potentially useful. The journal had yet to be professionally digitised.[i] Complete runs only exist in a small handful of institutions around the country, including the British Library. My method was to flick through issues, scan for anything that seemed relevant, and photograph those pages.

Always photograph entire pages. Never photograph individual segments. You want page numbers, you want issue dates. More so, you want the opportunity to find the nearby contextualising material that you didn’t notice in the archive.

If I saw something useful, I made a note in an Excel spreadsheet. My sheet had the following columns:

  • DATE: The date of the issue for the item.
  • PAGE: The page in the issue for the item.
  • ARTICLE TITLE/DESCRIPTION: The title of the item, along with a short description in [square brackets] as needed.
  • CATEGORIES: From a pre-defined master list, a comma-separate list of categories that apply to the item
  • NOTES: Any relevant meta-information (such as whether the issue is a special edition, or a supplement; or changes in the magazine’s layout).
  • ID: A unique numerical ID for each item.

Everything in its place, and everything accounted for. In this way, I created a sheet of over three thousand Bioscope entries.

3. Keywords are everything. Make everything a keyword.

Why is something useful? What makes something worth keeping? That’s a question only the researcher can answer about their own work. If you pull a document from a folder and lay it flat, skim its title and feel that familiar small electric thrill of discovery, you will likely know why. A record that provides proof to a small theory or upsets earlier assumptions; it tells part of a story. Be sure to track these parts, shepherd them well.

A research project is rarely one thing. It is a collection of things. It is not a single reed; it is a woven basket. Since the weaving takes years, it is important to keep track of the reeds.

In The Bioscope I came across a series of entries related to projectionists, operators and the Electrical Trades Union (ETU). Some of these articles were broad and wide-ranging; some were intensely local. Regardless, I added “ETU” in the Description field of each. If I ever came across an article related to a key city I was tracking, I would add that city’s name. Same for companies, individuals, themes, whatever. Any reed worth keeping track of.

These become keywords. Excel lets you filter entries based on the presence (or absence) of specified words or phrases. A filter for “ETU” returns all 68 items related to that theme, in chronological order. An added filter for “Liverpool” narrows focus further to seven entries, between October and December 1930. They track the introduction of new local policy, the threat of industrial action and an actual operators’ strike. This fell outside of the final remit for my dissertation; until the writing of this article I had not even noticed this story. There are several hundred other items between each of these entries. It is easily missed. Yet the keywords allow a question to be asked of the data, and the data to easily answer. I have no doubt that a worthwhile piece of research can be written about the regional ETU. I have no doubt that I already have enough material to make a strong start. Keywords are everything.

4. This is the information age. Omit needless work.

A research project is a unique undertaking, but many projects use common resources. Hundreds of writers can use the same inkwell. Data is a raw material and can be refined in myriad ways. It is also infinitely reproducible. Use these qualities to your advantage.

As part of my research project, I wanted to digitise the programming records of the Tudor cinema in Leicester during the transition years. A wonderful set of programming records exist for the cinema. They show the daily takings, programming, and even weather reports for each day. It’s a huge amount of information. The numerical data was easy enough to deal with. I created another Excel spreadsheet, and entered the numbers in a sheet entitled “Attendance and Takings”. In a trance-like fashion, I made entries for each of the 3,765 screenings between 1925 and 1932. It was slow work, but the march of progress was clearly visible and thus satisfying. Leveraging the power of the computer to analyse these figures – to make sense of the pounds, shillings and pence – was more satisfying still.

Digitising the qualitative material was a different task. Week by week, the cinema’s programmes had been entered in the ledger. The information was patchy, and inconsistently noted. Handwriting quality ranged from the precise to the sloppy. Several entries bordered on illegible. The most pervasive issue was the frequent mismatch of titles between the ledger and the trade press. Detective work was constantly necessary. Fortunately, I had collected digital images of the relevant trade journal pages I’d need in my personal digital archive. Every week at the Tudor saw two different programmes. The first ran from Monday to Wednesday, another from Thursday to Saturday. Some notable films played the whole week. For the 3,765 screenings in the database, this meant over 800 different programmes. I only completed 460, which served the immediate needs of my project. Each programme required entries into any number of forty different fields.

This provided a lot of information, sortable and ready for analysis, yet it felt incomplete. I had film titles, but no genres, no personnel or studio information. Filling in this information would have been prohibitively cumbersome. Thankfully, the internet is full of otherwise cumbersome information. As I compiled the spreadsheet, I found and added each film to a list on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). It is a testament to human ambition that the database listed almost every single film. This included features, supporting material and even many of the news and magazine reels. There were cast and crew lists, studio and company information, even filming locations and technical details. The database is full of good stuff like this. Some information on the database is inaccurate, and some is incomplete. If I had better information than is currently available on IMDB, I thought it polite to update the entry.

The watchlist made reference easy. IMDB goes further, however. You can export a list as a CSV (comma-separated values) file and import it into yet another Excel spreadsheet. In this way you can redeploy of much of this useful information offline. The work had already been done, it was now a case of taking it and using it.

5. Spreadsheets aren’t the project. Relationships are the project.

It is easy to run the risk of creating spreadsheet upon spreadsheet until one is buried in data with no way out. Yes, one should go into the archives and collect as much useful data as possible. However, it is important to have some sense of what these data have to say to each other, and about each other. You need a relational database.

Excel can do this, but it is complicated. Enough that I felt I wouldn’t be able to do everything I wanted without needing to learn a complex new language. I found the program excelled (as promised) in the structuring and formatting of data. I needed another tool that would take these spreadsheets and make them communicate. Thankfully, I found Tableau. Tableau is a data visualisation program. It allows the user to import different datasets in a variety of formats, and assign relationships between them. For example:

I can tell Tableau to link the date field from the “Attendance and Takings” sheet to the date field of the “Programmes” sheet. Now, the money taken by the box office is directly linked to specific films, and all the other information contained in both sheets. If I link the film title fields in the “Programmes” sheet to the titles in the IMDB sheet, I have further enriched the data. I can ask Tableau, “Who were the supporting female actors in the supporting feature playing on Wednesday August 15th, 1929?” Tableau will tell me there weren’t really any. MGM’s silent western The Rock of Friendship (aka Wyoming, 1928) had a female lead played by Dorothy Sebastian, but the cast was otherwise male. I could then ask how much money was made during the matinee performance on that day. Tableau would tell me £2, 9s./3d. All this information is in the archival records.

The bulk of this kind of research project is the collection and organisation of data. Analysis and writing up were culminating steps of a much longer process. I don’t mean to suggest that this process lacks analytical rigour. Rather, the effort to organise information makes analysing it faster, and more insightful. Have a look at the Entity Relationship Diagram for my Tudor project. It looks like a complicated mess. Every field is a wealth of data. Some I needed (in the case of the “Attendance” and “Programmes” sheets) to enter manually. Others I extracted from online resources. It is time consuming to collate data, and flaws in organisation can cause huge delays if spotted too late. As principle two above suggests, format is paramount.

When the database and its relationships are complete, it can better answer those probing questions. I built an entire chapter of my thesis on the answers to questions posed to two cinema databases I created. Arranging the data into a personal digital archive was a time-consuming effort. Analysing the data and writing the chapters was a pleasant breeze. Further investigation will be equally pleasant and breezy. The digital archive is already there, waiting to answer more questions.

Final Thoughts

There are surely more, and better, principles for archival research. There are likely more useful and straightforward ways to begin using technology with primary sources. Methodology is important, and informs much of the direction of a project. What I did for mine will not work identically for yours. I hope that the specifics above are used to illustrate the general. We might read the leaves differently, but we both understand the importance of brewing a good cup of tea.

Find more information about my Tudor research here. Thank you for reading!


[i] In a cruel cosmic joke, much of The Bioscope has now been digitised, fully searchable. It can be found at the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) website. I’d link directly, but I’m still upset that I took all those photos. My Excel spreadsheet is much more useful for my purposes than the BNA’s search function.


Nash Sibanda is a cinema historian. He received his PhD in Cinema History from De Montfort University in 2018. His research has focused on the coming of sound to British Cinemas. He currently lives and works in Japan, teaching English and writing when he can (though not as much as he should). His most recent publication is an article titled “The Silent Film Shortage”, found in the December 2018 issue of Music, Sound and the Moving Image.


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Call for Papers: IAMHIST Blog

 
Call for Papers IAMHIST Blog

The IAMHIST Blog is place for analysing media history in a discursive context, and offers scholars, archivists and practitioners working within these areas a space to disseminate their findings, knowledge and research. We welcome pieces for the IAMHIST Blog on a variety of topics, including, but not limited to, individual and/or collaborative research, conference reports, film festivals, research projects, etc., in the broad area of media history.

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A new series, which is to be introduced this year, titled ‘Detectives in the Archive… Researching Primary Sources’, aims to offer advice and personal experiences on analysing/using different types of primary sources relating to media history, for example budgets, call sheets, correspondence, cost reports, daily progress reports, fan magazines, interviews/oral testimony, scripts, etc.

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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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