“They shall not grow old”

By Judith Phillips

Very familiar words, but somehow given a different meaning in Peter Jackson’s film which was premiered recently.  If you haven’t had a chance to see the film, it is certainly worth viewing.

I went to see it in Darlington for the live screening of the premiere.  There was so much interest, we had to be moved to a larger auditorium!  I have noticed that the film is still on elsewhere and I understand it will be screened on BBC TV in early November.

The film was commissioned by 14-18 NOW which has been behind a whole range of cultural responses to the First World War during its centenary.  Jackson has taken hours of original film held at the Imperial War Museum and selected images and passages of film to represent the soldier’s experience on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918.  He has slowed the films down to show people moving at a natural pace – not the rather jerky speeded-up version we’ve been used to seeing.  Some conversations have been voiced where lip-reading gave the original (possibly toned down in a few places?).  Voices from the BBC’s interviews with survivors in the 1960s and 1970s were the only commentary.

Most controversially he has coloured many the films, although the early films about recruitment and training are left in black and white.  It’s only when troops move overseas that the colour kicks in.  So we see blue skies and brown mud, chestnut horses, men in khaki or grey or blue uniforms.  For me, the greatest impact of the colour was when wounded or dead animals and men were shown – the blood was so obvious, and somehow horrible injuries were clearer, no longer indistinguishable from the muddy background.  In some ways, the men became so much closer in colour, and I still don’t know whether that made more or less impact on me.  What I did notice was what dreadful teeth so many of the ordinary soldiers had – again, so much more obvious in colour.

In the Q&A session that followed the premiere, Jackson himself pointed out the limitation of the film in only showing the Western Front – he could make several films, he said, from the film available showing different theatres of war.  There were some fleeting shots of Chinese labourers and troops from India and other parts of the empire, an area that wasn’t really explored.  And, if I were picky, I would have liked a more obvious chronology – which shots were the Battle of the Somme, which related to 1917 etc.  But, overall, definitely worth seeing, in my opinion.  I’d love to hear from you when you’ve had a chance to see it.