Tuesday, February 26, 2019

World War I seen like never before

One of the things that had always struck me about documentaries of World War I is that the soldiers fighting it always seemed to be having a grand old time. This is all the more astonishing given that that war was ghastly fought in rat-filled trenches and in No Man’s Land battlefields with advancing troops methodically mowed down by machine guns while crossing barbed wire and overcoming the effects of mustard gas. Such a suicide march was derived from the combat rules of an earlier century that waged battle in open field and was massively sacrificial. By contrast, World War II may also have been awful but at least there was an attempt at defensive self-preservation and not ludicrously throwing yourself in the face of the enemy. Yet, in Peter Jackson’s (the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit trilogies) new documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old (at Windsor’s Silver City and The Maple Theater in suburban Detroit), we again hear numerous British soldiers eagerly describing the excitement of heading off to battle. It ‘saved us from rather boring jobs at home” says one, in interviews recorded decades ago by Britain’s Imperial War Museums. “I was dead scared the war would be over before I got to it,” says another. Dozens of optimistic, spirited and patriotic voices make up the audio of this extraordinary documentary. Jackson, a special affects wizard and extreme World War I buff (he even has his own collection of artillery), was no doubt the person to choose to make a film about this 100-year-old conflict that was a war (yes, “The war to end all wars”) like no other. His team took 100 hours of original film shot during the period – much of it, with time, under or overexposed – and remastered to bring up vivid images. And then, perish the thought but it works here, they colorized most of what you see (and viewed in 3-D). The team also had to integrate film speeds and correct often warped or jittery images. Colorization makes the images more real than the original footage. At the same time the experience is like watching a new drama. Jackson, in a fascinating documentary within the documentary after the film’s end credits about how this film was made, justifies the use of color by saying those WWI soldiers “were living their experiences in color” not black and white. The production crew jiggles a few other technical elements as well, including some presumed dialogue – but using official sources – of soldiers talking; the crew used lip readers. Jackson’s reason for making the film? Other than he’s a World War I nerd, he says most families have grandparents or great grandparents who were in the war, and that 100 years is not such a long time ago. He hopes the film will lead people to “do a little bit of research” into their own relatives’ involvement. ”The humanity of it is in how our own families were shaped by this war,” he says.

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