By Christopher Sharrett.
I don’t feel especially generous toward Peter Jackson’s “new” (hardly the right word) film, and must call it stunt filmmaking. With the help of the BBC and the Imperial War Museum, Jackson and his large team of collaborators mark the centenary of World War I by assembling a film taken from hours of black-and-white footage of British and German troops on parade and in the hellish trenches of that war. They have straightened out and cleaned up that jumpy, scratched footage, with its look so familiar to anyone interested in the period, colorized it and enlarged it to the modern aspect ratio. Digital technology has brought forth stunning detail; forensic lip-readers allow these men, silent for a century, to have voice, sometimes merely in single words or short phrases provided by voice actors. The troops, long dead, also laugh for us and express vocally some of their misery in footage that was their last appearance on earth. But there is a sense that the dead have been resurrected and turned into puppets for the “wow” factor of this cinematic gimmick.
Sound effects are added to the soundtrack, along with narration culled by Jackson from old BBC interviews with Great War veterans. The total effect makes the war a bit more immediate, but also too spectacular. Is there any point to seeing these mutilated bodies in color? Was their suffering not plainly evident in the jerky old footage of the last century? The primitive quality of the original films of the war, which took place more or less at cinema’s blossoming, is eerie and frightening in its original form. Is there any chance that we will really “know” these long-dead men better by transforming the medium in which they were captured? There are indeed some affecting moments in this new version of old films, like the fellowship between British and German troops – clearly only the ruling class propagandists saw the young German cannon fodder as “the Hun,” although, in time, the racial demonizing of the enemy was widely imbibed.
Jackson’s project is intended solely as human interest. In an unusual move for a theatrical presentation, Jackson appears on screen to talk about what the viewer will see; he then invites us to stay after the end credits for an extended “supplement” – another novel move – explaining what the filmmakers did to make this aged record of what the soldiers saw, down to the color of the grass at the time of the Somme. He makes clear that his ambition was limited, saying he is a filmmaker, not an historian, making a film for non-historians. His other effort, he says, is to invite people to find out, as he did, if they had family members in that war. His suggestions are advice that is neither a sensible nor a very moral approach to historical knowledge.
One always has to deal with the film in front of one’s face, not the film one would like to see, yet I cannot abide any film about war that avoids entirely the key topic of the reasons why it happened.
Jackson notes that the soldiers came from the British working class, egged on, from what the narrators say, by the whole of society, only to be spurned when they returned, a common phenomenon. We also see the role played by women on the home front: Rosie the Riveter appeared long before World War II. But nothing else is said about the reasons behind a war that took over 16 million lives and changed the map of the world.
Could Jackson not allude, for a moment, to the interlocked royal families of Europe whose ambition was imperialism, with its unending pursuit of territories, markets, resources, sources of cheap labor? The kings and their ministers eventually found themselves in the inevitable internecine conflict, but World War I, with its modern death technology and antiquated tactics, was especially dreadful. Germany’s utter defeat, and humiliation at Versailles, caused a virulent wave of national hatred and anger, producing Nazism and Phase II, the second interimperial war, more devastating by far than the first. In the United States, the white supremacist President Woodrow Wilson, after promising “peace in our time,” arrested the valiant labor leader Eugene V. Debs for daring to talk about the economic origins of World War I. Instead of peace, Wilson gave us the Creel Committee, the massive propaganda agency that turned a relatively pacifist nation into fire-breathing Hun-haters. The Committee was led by Edward Bernays, the founder of modern “public relations,” the perpetual propaganda organism of corporate capitalism, now as then. Two of the major elements and eternal side effects of the war, corporate propaganda and advertising are major contemporary employers, still advertising unneeded, often dangerous goods, still promoting conflict among human beings.
The creator of the enormously lucrative Lord of the Rings franchise (I have never cared for Tolkien, whose work seems wholly derivative), Jackson – who may not be a bad sort – may feel he can give his audience the sort of advice that strikes him as interesting. But instead of finding out if great-grandfather served in a Great War army, the viewer might find his/her time more profitably spent looking into why this horrible thing happened, and what it says about our present world.
Christopher Sharrett has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.