Poignant, cutting-edge craft of the highest degree.
“It was terrible times, but I wouldn’t have missed it,” one of the many faceless voices throughout this stunning documentary assure. World War One, the First World War or the Great War – whatever you’d like to call it – was a battle without much salvation, but plenty of needless bloodshed. Around one million British soldiers were killed in 1914-1918, and millions more on the other side. But the signing of the Armistice and the guns falling silent goes to show just how little malice there actually was across No Man’s Land – they were just doing a job. Peter Jackson’s film is a testament to those on the frontline, for all their innocence and courage, they laid down their lives for their respective countries who took far too long to show the deserved gratitude.
Comprised of clips from the Imperial War Museum’s archives and interviews conducted by the BBC, the film is a layered narration at the foreground of an overview of the war from start to finish.
“I gave every part of my youth to do a job,” the first voice of the picture says. For many, WWI was the only world teenagers knew. Many lied about their age to join the fight, excited about getting a job and going to a foreign country with their friends. Even those who were actually too young to join and decided to abide by those rules were chided as cowards. One man recounts responding to someone asking why he wasn’t on the frontline, “I’m only 17”, to which they said, “They all say that here”.
But there’s something extremely, almost admirably staggering about the veteran’s attitudes towards war. The naive heroism of the youth of the time is remarkable, but their optimism, even in hindsight of the horrors of war is shocking. Despite the unfathomable terror they suffered, it was still the time of their lives.
In this regard the documentary does something quite extraordinary; it’s not a black-and-white condemnation of all of war. Jackson primarily celebrates the camaraderie, the small levity in the tumultuous moments of change (one recounts a story of learning about the start of the war while playing a German rugby team, and being unsure whether to attack them). But so subtle is the despair, gently delivered to the viewer until the tour-de-force moment; the transition to colour.
The implementation of colour is not only a technical marvel, but it transports us into the deepest depths of war, amidst the fateful laughs and smiles, the wadding through marshlands, the shitting over a small cliffside, the late-night shell assaults which sent limbs flying across the trenches, bringing in rats, maggots and fleas. All of the former sepia scenes of war are brought viscerally and horrifyingly to life in a way never seen before. The work here must have been utterly painstaking, vibrancy injected into the tiniest details of a soldier’s get-up, landscapes only known to many as one of two tones smothered in colour.
Colourising can be a deterrent for filmgoers, in some cases it adds an unwarranted layer of artificiality, such as in re-releases of It’s a Wonderful Life. But its use isn’t out of disrespect, or to contrive a sense of connection for those without the will to tolerate old clips. Imagine how powerful a piece of filmmaking such as this would be in schools? Pupils would be stunned by the actions of those their age, but also engaged in a modern production.
The gravitational pull of the voices can sometimes lessen throughout the chaotic clips, occasionally losing the narrative trail. But then Jackson cuts back to smiling soldiers, and the agony of their sacrifice comes rushing back. The carnage of the trenches may have been “indescribable”, but injustice follows them home. Heart-breaking scenes following the Armistice (which a soldier describes as “one of the flattest moments” of his life), show thousands hopelessly flocking around town centres, searching for work in the absence of their trusty rifles. It’s true that it’s hard for us to comprehend the inhumanity of those dark, dark days in the trenches – but at the very least, we should take this work as a reminder of the purity of kindness, and the value of the everyman which the world turned their backs on when it was safe to do so.