War in Black-and-White?

Peter Jackson‘s They Shall Not Grow Old receives its premiere tomorrow (16 October) as the Special Presentation at the BFI London Film Festival.  Four years ago the director of Lord of the Rings was approached by the Imperial War Museum in London, which gave him access to hundreds of hours of official footage of the First World War, together with later audio tapes from both the IWM and the BBC.  Working with the visual effects geniuses at Jackson’s WingNut Films in New Zealand to colorise, slow and re-animate the film clips, and calling in lip-readers to decode the silent footage, the result is a radically new, feature-length representation of the conflict.  He explained:

“[The men] saw a war in colour, they certainly didn’t see it in black and white.  I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more – rather than be seen only as Charlie Chaplin-type figures in the vintage archive film.”

You can find details of subsequent screenings – in 2D and 3D – here, and the film will also be televised on BBC1.

Jackson is right of course: those who served in the war didn’t see it in black and white (as often as not, in multiple shades of red and brown).  But In its press release the IWM notes:

The First World War proved to be a landmark in cinema history – the first time that the horrors of war could be caught on camera. Many hours of dramatic footage were filmed on the battlefields, capturing the realities of the conflict in remarkable and unprecedented detail. This footage provided the public at home with astonishing access to the frontline: The Battle of the Somme, a documentary film produced with the cooperation of the War Office, was seen by an estimated 20 million Britons in its first six weeks of release.

In other words, the British public did see the war in black and white.

I discussed The Battle of the Somme ten days ago in Leipzig, in order to draw a series of parallels and contrasts between visual representations of the First World War and military violence a hundred years later.  My starting-point was Samuel Hynes‘ observation in A war imagined that was in effect repeated by the IWM in its introduction to They Shall Not Grow Old:

‘[F]or the first time in history non-combatants at home could see the war. The invention of the half-tone block had made it possible to print photographs in newspapers, and so to bring realistic-looking images into every house in England….

‘Even more than the still photographs, though, it was the motion picture that made the war imaginable for the people at home.’

The Battle of the Somme was filmed by Geoffrey Malins – who had already made 26 short newsreel films on the Western Front – and John McDowell on behalf of the British Topical Committee for War Films.  It was no short film shown as a prelude to the main feature – it ran for 77 minutes – and went on general release in August 1916.

Here is Malins filming the preliminary bombardment of the ‘Big Push’ on 1 July 1916 (I’ve taken this from his own account, How I Filmed the War, which you can access from Project Gutenberg here):

(If you want a much more detailed, forensic account of the filming then you need Alastair Fraser, Andrew Robertshaw and Steve Roberts, Ghosts on the Somme: Filming the battle, June-July 1916 [2009]).

Malins and McDowell completed most of their filming in June and July, but they were restricted in what they could capture.  Luke McKernan explains:

’Their hand-cranked cameras had single 50mm lenses with poor depth of field, they had no telephoto lenses, the orthochromatic film stock was slow, making filming action in the distance or in poor light difficult. But there was also military control and official censorship, each preventing them from filming anything other than officially-sanctioned images.’

Producer Charles Urban decided that the centrepiece of the finished film would be a sequence showing infantry going over the top – but Malins had only filmed the attack from a distance while McDowell’s footage shot from elsewhere on the Front was unusable. So Malins returned to France to re-stage the attack at a British mortar training school near St Pol between 12 and 19 July: just 21 seconds of his footage were incorporated into the final version.

‘In this footage,’ Laura Clouting explained,

‘men go into action unencumbered by the weighty packs that real soldiers had to shoulder. With just a rifle in his hand, one man drops “dead” in front of barbed wire – and proceeds to cross his legs to get more comfortable on the ground. Most telling is the camera position. Had Malins or McDowell really been filming from this angle they would have been in considerable danger from German fire. But the audience had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the footage.’

That last sentence is crucial, and indeed the staged sequence has received disproportionate attention from critics; Nicholas Reeves, in a thoughtful and helpful survey [‘Cinema, spectatorship and propaganda: ‘Battle of the Somme’ (1916) and its contemporary audience’, Historical journal of film, radio and television 17 (1) (1997) 5-28], notes that ‘Like almost every so-called documentary film, Battle of the Somme does include faked or ‘improved’ sequences, but focusing attention on these few sequences at the expense of the authentic footage which constitutes the overwhelming majority of the film seriously misrepresents its character…’

Audiences were certainly captivated by the film:

The film provoked a lively public debate about the propriety of showing the dead and the wounded:

But for Hynes no less important was the very structure of the film and the modernist space within which it portrayed military violence:

Hynes’s conclusion:

‘In this film, war is not a matter of individual voluntary acts, but of masses of men and materials, moving randomly through a dead, ruined world towards no identifiable objective; it is aimless violence and passive suffering, without either a beginning or an end — not a crusade, but a terrible destiny. The Somme film changed the way civilians imagined the war’ (my emphasis).

But – to return to They Shall Not Grow Old – those who had direct experience of the war saw matters differently.  The Manchester Guardian‘s correspondent reported:

‘I accompanied a friend, a lettered man, who was slightly wounded in the “Big Push,” to see the official film of the Somme battle. “Well,” I said as we came out, “that’s like the real thing, isn’t it?” “Yes,” he answered slowly; “about as like as a silhouette is like a real person, or as a dream is like a waking experience. There is so much left out – the stupefying din, the stinks, the excitement, the fighting at close quarters. You see enough to appreciate General Sherman’s remark that war is hell, but the hell depicted is as mild to the real hell out there as Homer’s hell is to Dante’s.’

Or, as the brilliant Max Plowman put it (in a book originally published under a pseudonym):

Note:  I haven’t seen They Shall Not Grow Old yet, so I can’t comment on its representational geography – though, just like the Battle of the Somme, there were limitations on what the military permitted to be filmed and I doubt that all theatres of war or all contingents were represented – but there is of course quite another sense in which the war was not fought in black and white: see my commentary ‘All white on the Western Front?’ here.

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