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More Thoughts on WWI and "They Shall Not Grow Old"

by John Aquino on 03/01/19

Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hobbit trilogy, and King Kong (2005), looks back and ahead in the documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, back at providing human faces and voices to World War I and ahead to future films using 21st century technology. 


Jackson recounts the genesis of his new film in a prologue. He was approached in 2014 by the Trustees of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in the UK to utilize its vast archives of film that was shot during the war (1914-1918) as part of the centenary of the war's end. There were many technical issues that Jackson took back to his studio in New Zealand to solve. Silent films were shot at various speeds from 10 to 20 feet per second (fps) compared to the modern film speed of 24 fps. And so, silent film speeds have to be converted to a modern film format. The IWM films were shot at the full range of silent film speeds, and a big challenge for Jackson and his team was determining the speed of each film, which was done, he said, by the laborious process of watching people walk in each piece of film and slowing down or speeding up the film until they walked naturally. The IWM material was, course, silent and in black and white. Modern technology allows for the addition of voices and sound effects and for colorization, a process that generally provokes criticism because it ignores the choices made by a director, either to shoot the film in black and white rather than color and, having chosen black and white, to set up his shots to their best advantage in black and white. Jackson decided that, in 1914, those making films of battles didn't have the choice to shoot in color and would have if they could have. Another criticism of colorization is that those deciding which colors to add to a black and white film don't have the time to make the right choices. A colorized film starring Frank Sinatra, for example, gave him green eyes rather than blue. Jackson, however, had the time to research the issue thoroughly.

Jackson said the film was developed over four years. His achievement is quite remarkable. The film begins in black and white, showing soldiers in training, and, when they are depicted as moving to the front, it changes to color. Sound was added to allow us to hear the creak of vehicles, the footsteps of marching soldiers, the firing of cannons, and, most of all, the voices of the soldiers, supplied by actors speaking words as determined by lip-readers. Some of  the archive material was so dark no images could be seen and consequently had been ignored by previous documentary filmmakers. Jackson said that he and his team were able to restore the images, meaning that these previously dark images are being seen for the first time.

They Shall Not Grow Old has been criticized by some because it manipulates what is shown, something that is frowned on in documentaries. In a 30-minute short following the 1 hr. and 39 min film, Jackson, evidently aware of the concerns, lays out the details of the measures he and his team took: he traveled to Belgium, where much of the original material was filmed, and took thousands of photos of the land to ensure that the ground and grass were properly colorized; they determined what outfits the soldiers in particular shots were from to ensure that the uniforms were shown in the proper colors; for the voices, he hired actors from the region of the United Kingdom where the soldiers were from; they used cannons and rifles from the period to create these sounds; for a scene in which the lips of an officer reading a notice could not be clearly seen, Jackson and his team tracked down the notice and, reading it aloud, matched it to the officer's lips; and the only narration is from oral histories of WWI veterans acquired from the archives of the IWM and the BBC.

The effect is touching. The camera pans over a group of soldiers and one points at the camera and says, "Here it comes. It's pictures" and then the soldiers smile and pose. Jackson comments that the soldiers in the footage are continually noticing the camera, for in all likelihood they had never seen one before. They pose for it as they had posed in civilian life for still cameras until someone tells them to move. Jackson's film brings these soldiers back to life, a century after many of them died.

The film has its limitations. The archives are full of materials shot during the war, but none show actual fighting. Because the cameras were hand-cranked, the cameramen would have been sitting ducks in the middle of a battle. A WWI-buff, Jackson had acquired a collection of a serial publication titled "The War Illustrated" in which artists depicted battles for families at home.  Jackson used these images because they were from the period, although, he admits, the drawings were mostly imaginary and generally propagandistic, with depictions  of heroic British soldiers and cowardly Germans. The film does depict other horrors--rotting corpses in the mud, rats, and trench foot with blackened toes. A four-minute clip from the film is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUReYO2n06w and shows the final results of the wizardry of Jackson and his team.

I had written on this blog at http://www.johntaquino.com/Blog--Substantially-Similar.html?entry=thoughts-on-veterans-day-wwi of another WWI documentary made for the centennial, Pershing: Paths of Glory, which makes an interesting companion to They Shall Not Grow Old.

A recent book provides an ironic coda of these thoughts on what was termed the "war to end all wars." In The Trial of the Kaiser, William A. Schabas describes attempts to bring German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II to trial for crimes as the war's aggressor. There was agreement, but no preparation, between the winning powers to do so, and, after failed attempts to capture him, the kaiser remained in seclusion in neutral Holland for the rest of his life. Schabas suggests that, if WWI had resulted in a war's aggressor's being tried as a criminal,  this deterrence could have, perhaps, averted the next world war, rather than postponing the revisiting of this issue until Nuremberg 16 years later.

In addition to looking backward, the work of Jackson and his team provides interesting ideas for other film projects. Theoretically, other silent films can be colorized and dubbed with the consultation of lip-readers. The problem is that most silent film actors, knowing that they could not be heard, didn't exchange dialogue with another actor but instead spoke platitudes (parodied in the film Singing in the Rain by Gene Kelly, playing a silent film actor in his first talkie saying, "I love you, I love you, I love you" over and over), gibberish or even, according to some lip-readers, obscenities. There may be some exceptions. The first film version of a play by William Shakespeare is 1899's King John, which was recently rediscovered. The actor and manager Beerbohm Tree filmed portions of his stage production of the play. Researchers found several segments, including film of the last minute of the play, John's death scene, which can be seen at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lWn99STB1o . Tree, presumably and apparently, speaks the actual Shakespeare lines as he did on stage. The segment could be colorized and dubbed by a Shakespearean actor, using the techniques Jackson and his team employed and turning an historical artifact into an accessible piece of film. There may be other such silent films on which these techniques could be used. It could also be used on film of late 19th and early 20th century speeches, using lip-readers, actors, and perhaps the written texts of the speeches. Just a thought.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

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