by Steve Lancaster 4/22/19
Peter Jackson, director of Lord of the Rings and Hobbit fame, released this documentary last year. In the copious number of movies and books made about the Great War, this is one of the best—for as much of what it does not do as much as what it does. There are no famous actors reading quotes from scholars. No condescending experts telling about how the British, Germans, Russians, French could-have, should-have, didn’t-do, this that or the other.
The story is about the men and women who actually fought. Most of the film footage is from the Imperial War Museum and never before seen. It is not just the rare footage but the editing that brings the war into the viewer’s living room. The documentary begins and ends with black-and-white views of soldiers leaving for the war and returning home. The middle part, from the arrival at the front to the end of the war, is in color.
We all know intellectually that the war was not fought in silence and black and white. What Jackson has done is carefully colorized the fighting and the life of the soldiers. Lots of pictures have been colorized but not with such realistic care. The film could be mistaken for something filmed just yesterday. The sound is taken directly from the words spoken in their singular accents. Soldiers from a Devon regiments have distinctive Devon accents. Londoners sound like Londoners and the Scots, of course, from the highlands to Edenborough. Jackson employed lip readers to match the words spoken on film. It works very well.
The film is Anglo-centric but that does not take anything away. Every nation had much the same experience in the war. The trenches were no less filthy, rat- and lice-infested for the Germans, Americans, or French…nor the daily smell of death less for some and not others.
In 2019, we are used to a sanitized view of war. Causalities are low, wound care is fast and efficient, thus survival rates from wounds that would have been fatal bring vets home with life to families. The Great War resulted in millions of dead, men and women who have no voice in the 21st century. Jackson has given them a voice. He has done a service to not only English veterans, but all who fought in that war.