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2:14pm on Monday, 12th November, 2018:

They Shall Not Grow Old


I watched the documentary They Shall Not Grow Old last night. This is the film Peter Jackson made using cleaned-and-colourised archival footage. The process wasn't perfect, but it was damned good. I've long been a fan of colourised historical photos (and indeed historical photorealistic paintings), but I hadn't seen any movies before. It's astonishing how removing the graininess, correcting for lax frame-per-second counts and then adding colour can make the past seem far more real than it did otherwise. When I see people in trenches who look just like the students I teach, it really brings it home. They may have been born a century earlier, but they're the same people.

The film received some criticism for not showing the contribution women made to the war effort, in particular the nurses. For me, this is one of the reasons we need films like this: the point is to show how bad war really is, so we don't forget. Suggesting that we should apply today's moral notions of gender equality to depictions of the Great War is an example of how we are forgetting: it misses the point. This isn't about contributions, it's about horrors. It's not an attempt to show how everyone played their part (spoiler alert!) to beat the German Empire; it's an attempt to show how utterly ghastly war is so that we never make the same mistake again. You do that by foregrounding the worst that happened, not by celebrating the best or foregrounding the second-worst. To do that would be to dilute the message. Most of the wretchedness in that time was experienced by the working-class men in the front line of trenches, so if you want to show the wretchedness, that's what you're going to see.

I thought the film was remarkable; the colour and the clear sound recordings made an already powerful narrative even more powerful. That said, we could make half a dozen 3D, surround-sound movies about conflicts that are ongoing right now (and those would involve women on the front line). We don't need to look to the past to see how bad war is, we can look to the present. We don't want to look to the present, though, because that makes us feel bad for not intervening (or for intervening stupidly). The First World War is sufficiently distant that we can learn its lessons without acknowledging that we haven't, in fact, learned its lessons.

I hadn't been aware of this before, but jeez, didn't some of those WW1 soldiers have staggeringly-bad teeth?

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Copyright © 2018 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).