They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

2018 #234
Peter Jackson | 95 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & New Zealand / English | 15

They Shall Not Grow Old

Commissioned by 14-18 NOW (the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary) and the Imperial War Museum to see what he could do to make their old World War One footage more engaging for a modern audience, director Peter “Lord of the Rings” Jackson’s initial tests at restoring the footage were so successful that the project was eventually worked up into this feature-length documentary. It tells the story of the Western Front from the point of view of ordinary Tommies living and fighting on the frontline, using only footage from the period (plus photos, posters, artwork, maps, and so on) and narration taken from interviews with men who were really there — no historians to provide context or analysis here.

This presents two distinct things to consider when looking at the film: not only its success as a documentary, but also the methods Jackson and co have undertaken to produce it. In terms of the latter, what Jackson and his computer wizards have done goes far beyond the normal realms of “restoration”. For starters, the original footage has been cleaned up (removing scratches and dirt, stabilising the image, etc) — so far, so normal. But that original footage was shot on hand-cranked cameras, giving it a frame rate of anywhere from 10 to 18fps (sometimes varying within one piece of film). So, computers have created additional frames to bring all the footage up to a standard, smoother 24fps. Then the footage has been painstakingly colourised, and also converted into 3D (if you see it at a 3D cinema screening, anyway. Maybe there’ll be a Blu-ray). The goal of all this is to make it seem more immediate and real; to try to connect modern viewers to these men in a more direct fashion, without the distancing effect of watching juddery, indistinct black & white film.

Before and after

Calling the work Jackson and co did to old footage “restoration” has been controversial in some circles, because it goes beyond mere “restoration” and into the realm of revisionism, like the colourisation of old movies that came to prominence in the ’80s and was widely criticised (though it still occasionally rears its head today — try buying a Blu-ray of It’s a Wonderful Life without both black & white and colour copies of the film). Jackson has a different and specific aim with his work here, however. He’s not saying this is a better way to view old film footage fullstop, but rather is looking for a way to bring these past events to life for a modern viewer; to try to erase the past 100 years and put us in their shoes, to make us see how much these people, though separated by so much time, were really very similar to us. The effectiveness of the end result in achieving this goal — of bringing that long-gone war vividly to life — is undeniable.

Indeed, anecdotally, a lot of people do find the addition of colour to be revelatory — after the film’s screening on BBC Two last night, I saw many tweets talking about the “extraordinary”, “breathtaking”, “jaw dropping”, “spine tingling”, “astounding” moment when colour faded in. Personally, however, it rarely seemed like more than a special-effects veneer painted over the original footage. Well, that’s exactly what it is, in fact. it’s not necessarily a criticism, either — it may be for the best, even, because this isn’t a kind of ‘restoration’ we want to see applied across the board to old films. Either way, I do agree that it added a new perspective to see the war presented in this way; but the idea that it’s a perfect, genuinely lifelike ‘restoration’ didn’t quite wash with me. In fact, I thought one of the film’s most striking, identifiable moments came early on, before it had made the transition to colour: as the narrators talk about how young they were when they signed up, we’re shown closeups of soldiers’ faces, and you can really see how young they were — many of them literally just boys. I think it’s pretty common knowledge that, although the age to sign up was 19, lads as young as 14 lied to get in, but seeing it so clearly is another matter.

Faces

Moments like that prove that They Shall Not Grow Old’s success as a documentary doesn’t just lie with its “restored” footage. The film’s worth lies as much in the way the story is told — the voiceover narration taken from genuine soldiers’ testimonies, recorded by the BBC and IWM in the ’60s and ’70s; the editing of certain sequences — as it does in the “modernising” of old footage. The added colour and clarity do bring some bits to life and make them feel closer to today, as per Jackson’s stated goal, but a lot of the time the smeary, blurry quality of the colourisation makes it feel as much like a painting come to life as it does real footage. Nonetheless, the truthfulness of what we’re being told burns through that, and it’s the combination of visuals and audio that aids our understanding of what life was like for those men in that place at that time.

It’s quite a dense film too, packed with information, constantly surging forward with the images, an imagined soundtrack to match them, and almost non-stop narration. At times it becomes like a tone collage, where you almost absorb it more than process it, getting an impression of life on the front more than specific experiences. In this interview, Jackson says the film uses about 120 narrators, edited together to sound almost like they’re telling one story — the “common story” of the experience of a soldier on the Western Front, with extreme or uncommon anecdotes having been edited out. It means a lot of the war isn’t touched on (other fronts, other experiences, like the Navy or Air Force), but there were budgetary reasons for that as much as anything (they originally offered Jackson enough money for a film about 30 minutes long).

Western Front

While those other stories are undoubtedly worth telling too, I think it was wise of Jackson to retain a degree of focus here. Rather than attempt to cram a wide-ranging account of a complex conflict into the brief running time of a single film, he’s instead painted a picture of what it was like to be an ordinary Tommy in the trenches of Europe. This is not the story of commanders and generals, of presidents and kings, but of ordinary blokes on the ground — the people most of us would’ve been, had we lived 100 years ago — and Jackson’s methods help make that story as real and relatable as it’s ever been.

5 out of 5

They Shall Not Grow Old is available on iPlayer until Sunday 18th November. A documentary about the making of the film airs on BBC Four tonight at 7:30pm.

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Wings (1927)

2015 #153
William A. Wellman | 144 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / silent (English) | PG / PG-13

Students of the Oscars well know that, technically speaking, there wasn’t a single “Best Picture” award at the inaugural Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. Instead, there were two awards that covered that ground, seen (at the time) as being of equal significance. One was for “Unique and Artistic Production” — which I’d argue is more or less what most people think Best Picture represents today. That was given to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. The other was more generically titled “Outstanding Picture”. Presumably because of the more obvious similarity in its name, that’s the one the Academy have retrospectively decided was the first Best Picture award; and that’s why Wings is, officially speaking, the first Best Picture winner.

In small-town America in 1917, middle-class Jack (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers) and rich David (Richard Arlen) are rivals for the affections of city girl Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston). She’s actually only interested in David, though Jack’s too naïve to see it. He also doesn’t see that his neighbour, Mary (“It girl” Clara Bow), is infatuated with him. When both lads sign up for the air service, they find themselves in training together, where they eventually bond by having a punch-up. Boys, eh? Before you know it they’re on the front line of the First World War — via a brief encounter with Cadet White (a pre-fame Gary Cooper) — holding their own in dogfights against ace German pilots. Meanwhile, Mary has also joined the war effort, arriving in France as an ambulance driver. What are the chances she’ll run into Jack and their potential romance will have an opportunity to progress, I wonder?

So Wings is part rom-com, part war-action movie. On the ground, Jack and David’s interactions with Mary and Sylvia (the latter of whom barely features) are based around misunderstandings and almost-slapstick drunkenness. In the air, the picture comes alive in thrilling battle scenes, performed by fearless stuntmen and shot by bold cameramen. Well, most of the time: famously, Rogers and Arlen had to pilot themselves (in Rogers’ case, he learnt to fly just for the film), and, mid-flight, had to film their own close-ups by switching on battery-operated cameras mounted in front of them. You wouldn’t know it from watching the film itself, though: even today, the action sequences carry a palpable air of excitement, aided (perhaps even created) by the knowledge that it was all done for real — including the crashes.

At the time of production, director William A. Wellman was pretty much unproven, having mainly directed B-level Westerns. Conversely, Wings was a risky proposition, with a remarkably high $2 million budget — not the most expensive silent film (that was Ben-Hur, at $4 million), but in the very top tier (according to this Wikipedia article, the average cost of an MGM feature at the time was $160,000). However, Wellman got the nod because he was an experienced combat pilot, having flown in World War One himself. This knowledge paid dividends for the film’s eventual quality, though caused some friction during production, as Wellman spent weeks on location not shooting as he waited for the right clouds. Sounds ridiculous, but the movie was shot in clear-skied Texas, and with no clouds there would be no sense of depth or speed for the planes.

Why Texas? It’s where the country’s largest military base was, with up to 10,000 troops stationed there. The military committed resources to aid a picture that was seen to cast them in a positive light, reportedly providing the production with $15 million worth of men and equipment. Yes, not 1.5 — fifteen. In today’s money, that contribution comes to around $200 million, which alone would put Wings among the top 50 most expensive films ever made. It was a remarkable undertaking. This included occupying a five-acre site where they “built France”, including an entire village and a trench-crisscrossed bomb-pockmarked battlefield. Those bomb craters were, in fact, genuine: the military spent a few days before filming using the location for target practice. The climactic battle that occurred on this site was filmed with up to 19 cameras at once, including some mounted on four towers, the highest of which reached 100ft. I know this is a review, not a catalogue of production numbers, but it’s quite incredible.

As is the movie it produced. Whatever Wellman’s status before and during production, the end result proves his skill as an action director. Unsurprisingly these sequences don’t have the adrenaline-fuelled fast-cutting of today’s action scenes, but they have a mind-boggling scale that armies of CGI will never replicate, and an accompanying sense of awe to match. It’s not exactly thrilling, because Wellman takes time to find asides that show the cost of combat — this isn’t just a Boy’s Own gad about in the jolly old First World War. Tragedy strikes, and Wellman makes it suitably affecting.

If the same can’t be said of the romantic storylines then, well, it could be worse. A mid-film sequence in Paris, where Jack gets plastered and starts imagining bubbles floating out of everything, wins bonus amusement points for actually showing those bubbles, though loses some for going on too long. It also doesn’t help matters that Jack’s actually a bit of a dick in the way he treats other people throughout the movie. He undermines and borderline bullies David thanks to their shared affection for Sylvia, while we know David’s being kind enough to not tell Jack that Sylvia’s actually in love with him. Even after they’ve made up, the same situation rears its head late in the film, when David tears up a photo of Sylvia to stop Jack seeing the love note jotted on it. That’s before we even get on to how completely ignorant he is of Mary’s affections.

How much these factors affect the film’s quality seems to be very much a personal matter. Wings set the stall for many a Best Picture winner to follow by being not that well regarded by critics; indeed, more time and praise is given to its top-award compatriot, Sunrise. For the most part, I found the personal dramas passable enough, with a few outstanding scenes — David’s farewell to his stoical parents; Cooper’s scene; the bubbles (at first). However, the combat sequences, and in particular the aerial photography, are stunning; so impressive as to easily offset whatever doubts the other elements may engender.

At a time when silent movies are still routinely overlooked by the studios (and the best most labels outside the US seem to release is the canon of accepted greats (plus a few random outliers)), I think it’s safe to say Wings has only received extensive restoration and re-release thanks to its position as the official first Best Picture winner. Would it receive such royal treatment from Paramount without that accolade? I think we can be pretty certain that — even though it was both an extraordinarily expensive and extraordinarily successful film — it would not. On the bright side, it’s deserving of such attention for its inherent qualities, even if it remains a shame that other equally (or, arguably, even more) deserving silent pictures not only don’t receive the same love and attention from their rights holders, but don’t receive any attention whatsoever.

But I digress. Wings is a film that deserves to be remembered as more than a mere footnote. It’s not just a trivia answer to “what was the first Best Picture?”, but a worthy winner of that prize; a movie that, almost 90 years after it was produced, still has the power to elicit excitement and awe. Wellman’s picture may not have been deemed unique or artistic, even though it’s definitely the former and possibly the latter, but it was deemed outstanding, and it’s definitely that.

5 out of 5

This review is part of The Silent Cinema Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

The Battle of the Somme (1916)

2014 #71
Producer: William F. Jury* | 74 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | UK / silent (English)

The Battle of the Somme DVDArguably the most famous clash of the First World War, the Battle of the Somme lasted four-and-a-half months from July to November 1916 and, with over a million men wounded or killed, is “one of the bloodiest battles in human history.” As the BBC’s History website puts it, although it was “intended to be a decisive breakthrough, the Battle of the Somme instead became a byword for futile and indiscriminate slaughter”. Not that you’d guess it from this contemporary documentary, which is essentially a propaganda piece produced by the British government.

Centred around 1st July 1916, the day of the first British assault on the German trenches, the film mostly covers the build-up and aftermath of the initial fighting — despite the title, there’s very little footage of combat. There’s probably two reasons for that: one, the footage of the battle wasn’t very good and so, infamously, was staged (aka faked) later; and two, the battle was a bloodbath, making it a somewhat inappropriate spectacle to show to the general public, especially when it was their friends and relations being slaughtered on “the worst day in the history of the British Army” (they suffered around 60,000 casualties on that first day alone). Not that we’re spared the sight of dead bodies elsewhere in the film, but the moment of death itself is another matter.

The faked footage of men going ‘over the top’ has dogged the film’s reputation to a degree. As Roger Smither, the keeper of the Imperial War Museum’s film & photograph archives, notes in the booklet accompanying their DVD release, “despite a common perception that The Battle of the Somme is ‘full of fakes’, the staged ‘over the top’ scene is in fact a significant anomaly in a film that is otherwise characterised by nothing worse in the way of fabrication than the kind of ‘photo-opportunity’ arrangement that remains a continuing part of television news and photo-journalism to this day.” It’s also one that lasts only a few minutes, if that; a tiny fraction of the entire film.

War, grim, red warThe British press certainly believed they were seeing “the real thing at last” (the Manchester Guardian), feeling it showed “war, grim, red war; the real thing” (the Daily Sketch). The British public agreed, flocking to see the movie en masse: twenty million admissions were sold in the first six weeks of release. At the time, the battle still raged (the film debuted on 10th August 1916) — as Smithers notes, “to its original audience, the film was not history but a despatch from the front”. It is such an historical document now, but at the time it wasn’t even recent-history — it was produced as newsreel, a record of current events, designed to make people at home feel connected to the everyday lives of their family, friends and countrymen serving on the frontline.

It can still serve that role today, to an extent. From much of how World War One is presented in modern fiction, documentary and education, you’d be forgiven for thinking troops were shipped directly into trenches, went over the top and died or, if one of the few lucky enough to survive, then went directly to hospital/home/back to the trench. The Battle of the Somme puts lie to that from the start: we begin with preparations for the battle, lines and lines of troops marching or standing around waiting for something to do, in normal-looking fields and towns, far removed from the cramped, muddy, horrid trenches of our imagination. Smiling faces follow the camera, running around to remain in shot, lifting tarps uninvited to helpfully show off stacks of ammunition. It’s all very jolly.

SteampunkEqually striking is the scale of the operation. You know it was a monumental effort, but actually seeing so many men… You never see that scope in dramas because they don’t have the budget for all those extras, I guess, but here the crowds of soldiers just waiting around are remarkably large. And crikey, the heavy artillery! Even though you know these were real weapons, today they look more like some fantastical steampunk creation, so covered are they in rivets, and so damn huge.

Signs of disruption to the happy masses creep in, though: it’s surprising how scruffy the uniforms are — not when the soldiers are at rest, but while performing duties like reloading guns. Hats are at odd angles, some are jacketless — just a general lack of the smartness you’d expect to see in an official documentary about the military. Later, we see a gaggle of smiling and laughing faces as men attach special barbed wire cutters to the end of their rifles. Hindsight lets us know few of those men would’ve got close enough to need them.

But there’s no hindsight here; no mention of the incompetent strategy and the severe loss of life it led to. If anything, it makes even the post-battle front look not-so-bad. We see some of the wounded, but they’re either walking or seem to be enjoying a nice stretcher ride, the intertitles informing us we’re seeing “how quickly the wounded are attended to”. Even the captured enemy look just as chipper as the British soldiers escorting them. When we do see action, any British attack is successful and described with words like “glorious”, while any German counterattack is “one of five unsuccessful” ones. It’s brazenly propagandistic. Towards the end we’re shown — and I quote the intertitle accurately — “some of the booty”! (That being artillery, etc, salvaged from the captured German lines.) The closing section opens with shots of devastation wrought on the landscape by British shellfire, accompanied (in the 1916 musical medley) with triumphant music. The tone is shocking.

Lots of waiting...Speaking of the music, the Imperial War Museum DVD release offers up a choice of two scores: a newly-commissioned (in 2008) one by film composer Laura Rossi, and a recreation of the kind of music that would have accompanied the film in 1916. The film’s producer and distributor, William F. Jury, was also the editor of trade paper The Bioscope, and had columnist J Morton Hutcheson draw up a list of suitable pieces to be performed alongside screenings, which was published days before the film’s release. To quote Dr Toby Haggith (the Imperial War Museum’s film programmer), again in the DVD booklet**, “for this reason, it may be fair to describe this medley as the ‘official score’ for the film. Although cinemas were not obliged to use these recommendations, we know that it was used in at least seven of the cinemas where the Somme film was screened and there is other evidence that it was widely adopted. However, the point is not that the Morton Hutcheson medley was used on every occasion The Battle of the Somme was shown, but that it is the kind of selection that was typical for this film”.

Rossi found the “medley was much more positive and light-hearted than I imagined… I think it’s interesting to hear the medley and see how it was watched in 1916… but I think someone watching the film today would watch in a totally different way, as we can now look back in hindsight, and we have a pre-conceived idea of what the war was like”. This is partly why I chose to view the film with the 1916 soundtrack: to get an idea for how the film was originally perceived, rather than the laden retrospective view. Rossi avoided listening to other scores when composing her own, preferring to respond to just the film itself. Admirable, and probably the ‘right’ way to do it; but it also brings all that associated baggage of “this was a terrible thing”, whereas the original film, produced as propaganda-newsreel, is going for more “this is hard but honourable”. The 1916 music selection is indeed quite jovial on the whole, though marginally more somber when the occasion calls. The (very small) sampling I listened to of Rossi’s score was more ominous, rumbling, haunting and haunted — much more in tune with our modern understanding, I’m sure.

These ones are just resting...Haggith summarises many of Hutcheson’s choices as “motivated wholly by the needs of propaganda… jaunty, martial and unashamedly heroic. Given the nature of the scenes recorded and the bloody history of this phase of the battle, the selection of such upbeat music seems deeply inappropriate.” However, other selections “reflect Hutcheson’s personal response to scenes that he found distressing on a universal level, and which led him to warn musicians that ‘they must realise the seriousness and awfulness of the scenes’… These contradictions suggest that Hutcheson had difficulty selecting music for the film because he was torn by the contrasting images and messages it conveyed. In this way the medley highlights the tension at the heart of the film.” Musician Stephen Horne, who leads the 1916 medley recreation, agrees that the film is torn “between a sense of propagandist duty and a desire to honour the reality that had not evaded the camera’s gaze.” It’s true that, however positive the final movie wants to be, it can’t completely escape reality. At one point it cuts abruptly from a jauntily-scored scene of men happily receiving post to “German dead on the field of battle”. A deliberate juxtaposition of happiness with the fate that awaits them with near inevitability? Seems a bit radical for a propaganda piece…

As a whole, The Battle of the Somme offers little atmosphere or sense of narrative; just the presentation of a series of broadly-chronological tableaux that the cameramen captured. Even the intertitles only describe what exactly the following shots will be showing us, almost like an onscreen footnote or picture caption. This is formative documentary making, and that apparent simplicity only adds to its veracity: because it seems so determinedly unstaged, we believe it must be real.

Lessons to learnBut it can’t avoid drawing parallels: the film ends almost as it began, with artillery being moved up for the next assault and men marching to the front, waving merrily as they go. History repeats — probably not the lesson a propaganda film wants to impart, but one it can’t quite escape. And one that, even a hundred years later, we can’t quite learn.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the World War One in Classic Film Blogathon, which you can read more about from hosts Silent-ology and Movies Silently.

In that spirit, you might be interested in my reviews of certified-classic Lawrence of Arabia and Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war diatribe Paths of Glory; or, for World War One in modern film, my pieces on the very good Canadian melodrama Passchendaele, and Steven Spielberg’s exceptional, epic adaptation of War Horse. Plus, if you want to really push the definition of “films about the First World War”, there’s always Sucker Punch.

* There’s no credited director. As well as producer Jury, the full credits include cameraman and editor Geoffrey H. Malins, cameraman J.B. McDowell, and editor Charles Urban. ^

** Believe it or not, I’ve avoided quoting too heavily from the Imperial War Museum’s DVD booklet in this review. It’s filled with insights, into not only the film but also its different musical scores and the in-depth restoration process, that make it an enlightening read for anyone interested. ^

Paths of Glory (1957)

2009 #85
Stanley Kubrick | 87 mins | TV (HD) | PG

Paths of Glory“The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” wrote Thomas Gray, and Stanley Kubrick — adapting from the novel by Humphrey Cobb — sets about proving him right.

Kubrick’s depiction of war is excellent, from long tracking shots through the trenches, to the nighttime wilderness of No Man’s Land, lit only by flares that reveal it’s strewn with bodies, to an epic and perfectly-staged battle that is a visual and aural assault. Indeed, Winston Churchill claimed that the film was a highly accurate depiction of trench warfare and the sometimes misguided workings of the military mind, and it’s so effective that it was banned in France for its negative depiction of the military. I’m sure the story could have been equally well applied to any military in the habit of killing its own men, but hey, it’s always fun to pick on the cheese-eating surrender monkeys.

Even beyond the battle scenes the film remains bleakly realistic: the depressing Old Boys’ Club-style hierarchy of the military (still all too much in effect, as series like Generation Kill reveal); the unjust unrecorded trial (an excellent courtroom sequence that can stand up to any other); through to the inescapable finale. George Macready’s villain is as chillingly evil as they come, because he’s so believable. Lying, manipulating, selfish and dishonourable, yet he produces all this from an opening scene where he appears to be a perfectly honourable General (though one has one’s suspicions). Even at the very end, when some small measure of genuine justice has been wrung from the whole sorry mess, one of the few remaining almost-likeable characters is fully unmasked as just as bad as the rest. Kubrick tries to instil some hope with his final scene, but by then he’s done too fine a job of wiping it out.

There’s a debate, it seems, about whether this can accurately be described as an anti-war film. It’s patently not pro-war, with its ineffective officers, self-serving high command, corrupt legal system and senseless slaughter for absolutely no military gain; but the argument that it is less a commentary on war and more on human nature — how people, not just soldiers, respond to the opportunity for glory, and how they attempt to cover their own tracks when it goes wrong — certainly holds some weight. The final scene, which is in almost every other respect entirely unrelated to the main narrative, supports such a theory, as does the source of the title. But just because that’s true doesn’t mean it’s not anti-war as well; or, at the very least, anti-military (if that’s not the same thing).

Perhaps reaction to the film depends on your ideological stance. I’m all too prepared to believe the military is corrupt and unjust because, well, that’s how they always seem. As such, Paths of Glory does an outstanding job of fulfilling and reinforcing these preconceptions, particularly in its refusal to end justly. If you have some measure of faith in the forces, however, you may think it’s an unjustified attack on your beloved institution. Each to their own.

5 out of 5

Paths of Glory is on ITV4 tomorrow, Sunday 31st August 2014, at 11:20am.

(Originally posted on 24th February 2010.)