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Image courtesy of IWM

They Shall Not Grow Old: World War I film a masterpiece of skill and artistry – just don’t call it a documentary

They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s widely celebrated World War I film, says more about our search for historical authenticity and the “real” than it does about the Great War. Has our contemporary need to “humanise” history gone too far?

One of the culminating World War I centenary projects commissioned by 14-18 Now, the film was created by selecting material from more than 100 hours of black and white film footage from the BBC and Imperial War Museums (IWM) archives. Through technological skill and artistry, the film has been slowed down (from 13 to 24 frames per second), sharpened up, colourised, given sound effects and made 3D. Lip readers viewed the footage and actors dubbed dialogue onto the film, matching the accents of the regiment shown on screen – and the film is entirely narrated through snippets of oral testimony by veterans.

The aim is to make us see the participants “as human beings, not as figures in a history book”, as Jackson noted in the Q&A following the premiere. A copy of the film will be sent to every high school in the UK as an educational resource, and it will feature in the primetime BBC Two broadcast slot on November 11 – known as Remembrance Sunday in the UK. But, despite the amount of archival research, technical skill and attention to detail involved in the production, there’s something about the film – and the public response to it – that makes me profoundly uncomfortable.

Billed as a documentary by most, the film has been uniformly praised for “bringing the soldiers unforgettably back to life”. Here, we are told, “the world of 100 years ago really does come to life in a way it never has before”. In its use of colour, one reviewer noted, “the footage (somewhat paradoxically) regains authenticity” enabling “a new type of human connection with that era of our past”. Another suggested that this “documentary feature” brings us into “closer, more candid contact with our history than ever before”, even leaving us with “cinematic shellshock”. As film critic Mark Kermode phrased it at the Q&A, watching the film “is almost like we are experiencing a memory”.

But we’re not shellshocked – and these aren’t our memories. What the reviews or the film’s billing don’t discuss is the implicit fictionalisation or ethics of Jackson’s method. Obviously all documentaries are fictionalised to some extent – created through editorial selections that have biases, both explicit and implicit. But I don’t think we should even be calling this a documentary; it’s really an artwork or a fictionalised feature film. One reviewer unwittingly hits this nail on the head when he comments: “So dazzlingly transformative is the restoration of this footage that it may as well be the product of a movie shoot.”

Whose side are you on?

There is obviously technical and aesthetic value to Jackson’s method, but it would be wrong to pretend that this version of history is any more real than any other that has come before. The narrative is localised entirely through the white infantry soldier on the Western Front – other groups, including colonial soldiers or women at the front, are absent aside from one or two frames.

While Jackson acknowledged in the Q&A that this narrative perspective is only one “slice of the pie”, this needs to be made explicit. Otherwise, using this film as a teaching resource in schools will only reinforce the already outdated focus on the Western Front combatant (which World War I scholarship has been moving away from for some time) and the motif of the stoic, good-natured Tommy, so beloved of representations of the Great War in popular culture. Drawing on archival film footage of colonial troops or other theatres and spaces of war (for example, the Eastern Front or nurses working in hospitals) would have broadened the perspective to reflect the wider nature of participation in the war.

Propaganda: The War Illustrated was jingoistic and known for falsifying accounts. The War Illustrated.

Most problematic though is the use of contemporary images without any qualifications, including the decision to illustrate soldiers going over the top into battle using images from The War Illustrated magazine, in the absence of any film footage.

This patriotic and propagandistic wartime magazine included articles such as “Britain Prepares Against the Teutonic Tyrant”.

Jackson suggested in the Q&A that, because this was produced during the war: “This is real.” He’s right that it’s a contemporary source, but using these propagandistic images without any qualification is simply bad history.

It’s moments like these which require narrative commentary, explaining what the source is on screen and its potential biases.

What is history?

The added colour and sound and editing techniques encourage us to imagine (even recall, in Kermode’s view) a reality that never existed. In the battle scene, alongside the War Illustrated images, we see individual faces of soldiers taken from group shots juxtaposed with images of corpses, misleadingly suggesting that these are the dead bodies of the soldiers we see. There must have necessarily been some artistic licence with the sound: one reviewer suggests that trench scenes have been “remixed” to include “a Dolbyfied rumble of shells”, as a means of further enhancing the “Jacksoncolour” effect. Colourisation is a technique that has been used before in a World War I context and across other historical fields – and for me that’s not really the problem.

Real? Or reconstructed? Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum

But the colourisation combined with the selective source base, the implicit narrative making and the critical response that suggests that this is somehow more “authentic” history, is problematic. Some reviewers seem unable to distinguish fiction from reality: “No Lord of the Rings battle could match the sheer hellishness of what the filmmaker recreates here,” writes one.

What does this process of modernisation and the addition of colour and sound, which Jackson advocates for wider usage across historical archives, do for our understanding of the past? On Armistice Day, we should encourage people to watch this film – not just for its World War I history, but as a good opportunity to think about history making.

What are the editorial choices we make as historians and scholars, and how can we make those choices clear? What are the distinctions between scholarly history and public history? When do attempts at increasing historical understanding move into reenacting? If the film makes archival footage more widely accessible, that’s great. Let’s just not call this a documentary.

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