The Great War (in films)

If you want a view into the First World War, 1917 and They Shall Not Grow Old are two very good films that deal with this war.  Called “The Great War,” this piece of history is now over 100 years in the rear view mirror.  It was the war to end all wars, something it did not do, in fact, Germany cited the loss of the Sudetenland as a key reason for annexing this territory years later, a way to re-write a wrong, and governments across Europe were destabilized by war.

Europe in the early 1900s was a house of cards, dynasties in decline, the rise of new political states, simmering ethnic conflicts and a power-keg of national alliances. More than sixteen million people died in the conflict, and more than seventy million soldiers were involved, including nearly five million American soldiers.

Both They Shall Not Grow Old and 1917 are told from the British point of view, who had nearly nine million soldiers and over one million deaths.  Peter Jackson’s (Lord of the Rings trilogy) They Shall Not Grow Old documentary drew from film footage and interviews of British servicemen. Jackson reviewed over 100 hours of historical film provided by the British Imperial War Museums.  Jackson’s team found the film in various conditions, some of it very poor.  All 100 hours of film was reconditioned, but only a small part was used in the finished film.  The various film segments were filmed in different speeds, some of the film had shrunk so the sprocket holes were not uniform so the frames jumped, film was faded and washed out – all of these problems had to be corrected.  All of the film was in black and white, so Jackson colorized it to make it more realistic, and corrected the speed issues with every piece of film.  For correct coloring, he obtained copies of different uniformed worn by soldiers so the uniform types could be property tinted.  Jackson even visited sites of the conflict, the trenches, to photograph the different shade of grass to get the correct shades of green.

“[The men] saw a war in colour, they certainly didn’t see it in black and white,” Jackson said. “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.”

Jackson’s film follows young recruits through basic training and march to the front line of the Western Front.  These were young boys, more than a few underage, many from poor families, who had one image in their minds and another by the time they reached the front.  These boys had no idea of the Balkins Wars, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, or had ever heard of Herzegovina.  They were conditioned to fight the dreaded Huns.  The film focuses on trench warfare, mainly life in the trenches and death trying to advance on open ground.

Jackson shows the innocent and happy faces of young soldiers going to war, and later the battle-weary and haggard faces.  Life was miserable in the cold, wet trenches, snipers shooting any exposed part of the body, and artillery dropping from over head.  Gaining any ground meant certain death from machine guns, barbed wire and poison gas.  Soldiers were frequently rotated to the front and then back behind the lines, then back again.

More than 600 hours of interviews of British soldiers were reviewed, these interviews conducted in the 1960s and 1970s.  The recollections are matter-of-fact, detailed and humble.  These might have been wide-eyed farm and working class boys, unsure of the horror they were walking into, but their recollections are accepting of their fate, their duty to their country.  That’s one of the most surprising parts of this film, these men understood their fate and accepted it.  They saw horrible mutilations, gun shots that destroyed the body, explosions that removed arms and legs, dead horses littering the battlefield, flies and rats feasting on the carnage, death everywhere.

“We look on these guys with an enormous sort of pity now. We think that we sent these men into this industrial grinding machine. But they certainly didn’t think that was what was happening to them – there was no feeling sorry for themselves,” Jackson said.

Jackson takes you inside the trenches, where soldiers dug into the trench walls for a sleeping area, the difficulty having a cook fire for fear of attracting artillery, mud that produced trench-foot, and the problems with simple things like bathrooms.  Jackson’s crew had to add sound effects to the film footage, and was able to pan and zoom with a frame to give the image realistic motion. It’s an amazing film of war.

1917 is a fictionalized story, based on a remembrances director Sam Mendes’ grandfather told him.  He remembered a story about a messenger, and that became the thread of the film.  Two soldiers are tasked with hand-delivering a written order from a British general to a field commander, not to launch an assault, because they are walking into an ambush.  One of the soldiers picked for the assignment has a brother in division about to attack, and it will be a slaughter.  They have to cross nine miles of dangerous battleground within two days to stop the battle.

The first thing the two soldiers have to do is climb out of the trench and get across the barbed wire and killing ground where the German machine gun and snipers killed anything that moved.  One of the soldiers does not believe the Germans have pulled back and they will be shot dead immediately leaving the trench.  The Germans have retreated, but in actuality, have set a trap that the British are walking into.  These two soldiers anxiously cross the muddy, crater-filled battleground that is strewn with dead horses and human body parts, with huge rats everywhere.  They get to the abandoned German trenches and find a huge underground bunker complex where trooped lived.  A trip-wire causes a bomb to explode, nearly bringing down the complex on top of them.  This is the first of their deadly encounters.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins moves his camera in a fluid motion, giving the film the appearance is one long, continuous take.  There were actually a number of long takes, edited together in almost seamless edits.  A lot of attention has been given to this photographic technique, but you don’t really notice it because the film moves so quickly, you are focused on the action.  What you see seem like miles of trenches and hundreds of soldiers as the camera passes along the and through the masses.  The camera moves on an axis to give you a full view of many scenes instead of edits, you feel it is in real time and you are there.

I won’t spoil the plot, but there are unexpected things that happen. For a war film, this is not a blood and guts experience. It does have some violence, but mostly it is what you don’t see. You see the aftermath, and you are thinking about what could happen. This film is horrific and at times the tension is off the charts. Things happen suddenly that make you almost jump out of your seat. Unlike other dramatic films, where the music is used to telegraph suspense, music is almost absent in 1917. The fear is almost unmanageable at times. Two war films with this much terror are Platoon and Fury. Saving Private Ryan is close third.

War gives the shine of idealism and patriotism, fighting against evil and for democracy. I get that. But standing in a trench with hundreds of other scared boys, ready to climb out and get cut into pieces by a machine gun, that fear is as poisonous as the yellow mustard gas wafting over the trench. I imagine war to be so terrifying that a person walking into a potential battle would have a heart attack, but waves and waves of boys climbed out of the trenches.

The ugliness of war is evident in both of these films, as are the photos of innocence boys who didn’t understand the crazy quilt politics that caused sixteen million deaths. The war to end all wars.


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