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kottke.org posts about World War I

Against Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old”

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 21, 2018

W.H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling once published a rather unusual review of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In it, they write:

What a relief to resist what one can entirely respect and even admire! What a comfort it is to be not always defending oneself from vulgarity, or enlightened stupidity, or the masked cliché, or smallness of aim, but sometimes to stand out against the force of greatness.

Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old is not Finnegans Wake, but it is a stunning technical achievement made by a filmmaker and producer at the top of their form. If I had seen it in my twenties, when I was obsessed with the Great War, with war in general, and with films that emphasized both the quotidian and the unthinkable nature of violence, I would have doubtlessly been very taken with it. But as I am today, given everything I’ve learned about cinema and the universe, I can’t help but refuse and reject this picture in the strongest possible terms. It is a brilliant film that is also, unfortunately, a total mistake.

I’m not interested in films that plunge themselves headlong into violence any more. I’m not interested in the manipulation of multitudinous evidence to tell a simple, linear story. I’m not interested in British soldiers fighting Germans on the Western Front, telling stories about their time in the trenches. I came to the film looking for a story I hadn’t seen or heard before, and those stories were nowhere to be found.

To be sure, the best parts of the film are about the everyday life of soldiers: what they ate, what they wore, the things they carried, how they kept themselves clean, how they occupied themselves in downtime, how they made tea using water heated by tank chassis and took a shit by sitting six abreast on a long pole. This is rich material.

The problem, however, is principally who gets to tell their story, and how their story is told. Peter Jackson took hundreds of hours of archival film footage, and later audio recordings of veterans made by the BBC, and artfully juxtaposes the two.

Despite the many voices, it is almost as if a single soldier is telling his story: he enlisted young because he felt a peculiarly British call of duty, and to alleviate boredom on the home front; he trained and drilled relentlessly until his body was whipped into shape; he was dispatched to fight and kill Germans in defense of France; he visited brothels and became a man; he was gassed and recovered, wounded and recovered; he dodged artillery shells launched by both the enemy and his own side; and he killed Germans in a heroic over-the-top charge across the no-man’s land that soon ended the war; he returned to ungrateful civilians who couldn’t possibly understand the horrors he’d seen, and how they’d forever changed him.

Any differences between these men, of class, of region, of age or experience, of height and weight, of rank or distinction achieved during the war, are completely washed away. They are simply young British infantrymen, made entirely generic and interchangeable. This is whose experience we’re getting in the film: not any particular men with individual stories, but a monolith.

Jackson can do this because he’s already selected these soldiers for their homogeneity. He tells us after the film that he’s discarded any footage that falls outside what really is a quite narrow view of the war and the people who fought it. He’s not interested in any of the other fronts of the war or the nations who fought in it. He has hours of footage of aircraft and pilots. He doesn’t use them. He has footage of women working as nurses and drivers and support staff, on and around the battlefield. He discards it. He has really quite stunning footage of women working in factories to produce the arms and gear that he so lovingly dotes on when they’re in his beloved soldiers’ possession. He throws it away. And, he tells us, he chose not to tell the story of the British colonial soldiers, men from all over the world, or their allies, including Chinese soldiers who fought on the Western front, or white or black Americans or anyone else.

He takes the “world” out of the first world war. And then, he tells us, unbelievably, that this extremely diluted, abstract take on the British soldier could stand in for any soldier who fought in the war. Whether they were German, Canadian, American, Polish, Turkish, or Russian, he thinks their experience of the war was likely very much the same as the British soldiers whose stories he smashes together.

Ask a black American soldier, fighting in a segregated regiment, whether his experience of the war was the same as the British soldiers he fought besides. Ask one of the Arab irregulars immortalized and distorted in Lawrence of Arabia what it was like to fight across German soldiers, who turned out to be really not so different after all, in trenches. Ask the African soldiers who fought and died in Europe. Ask what their equipment situation was, whether they got paid, or what their lives were like when the war ended. Ask the civilians whose lives were uprooted by these soldiers killing and destroying the countryside in their midst. Ask one of the women who cranked out artillery shells in the factory only to be turned away from her job at the war’s end whether or not anyone else could really understand her wartime experience.

Go ahead, ask them. I’ll wait.

Because Jackson didn’t have any footage of hand-to-hand combat, he chose instead to do a kind of Ken-Burns-effect dramatic pan over contemporary cartoons from war magazines. The trouble is that, as Jackson notes, these were racist propaganda magazines that he just happened (for some reason?) to have a complete personal collection of. But, he promises, he and his editors avoided the most egregiously racist images.

Jackson’s depiction of violence in this movie is jolting. One technique he loves is to pick a voice-over of a veteran describing the death of a friend that he witnessed, laying this audio over a zoom-in of a soldier smiling and laughing, then quick-cutting to a dead body lying in a heap, with blood and bodily matter everywhere. The blood isn’t the matted black stuff of reality that the men saw, but a sickly, B-movie red.

If you loved watching orcs get their heads split open in The Lord of the Rings, you will love this movie. If you loved Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, or any war movie that substituted blood and guts for gritty realism, you will love this movie. If however, you think, as I do, that these films, while works of a kind of genius, ultimately worked to manipulate our emotions and make us less feeling and less human, you will have huge problems with this movie.

Ultimately, at this point in my life, when movies like Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk and Creed and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse exist, I’m less interested in brutality for brutality’s sake, and much more interested in the possibility of love between fully realized, lovingly rendered human beings. I’m much less interested in white people’s stories, and the white man’s gaze, especially when they are stories we have heard so many times before, from a point of view that everyone is expected to pretend has no differences from their own.

You will learn nothing about love in They Shall Not Grow Old. You will learn nothing about World War 1 that you didn’t already know if you’d read a few Wilfred Owen poems and skimmed a high school history book. You honestly learn very little that you don’t learn from the trailer.

You get no sense of what the war was about, why it was fought, how it changed anything, or why it mattered, or even if it did matter. The world that it shows is seen through a peephole in a trench, made by a boy who fantasized about reliving his grandfather’s experiences.

That peephole is not a door that can take you anywhere. The shift from a narrow, small black and white screen to a full-screen 3D color experience is just a camera trick. You never left Kansas, not even for a minute.

In an ideal world, Jackson will return to all that footage he left behind, and make the film he should have made, telling the stories of the war that truly have not already been told. As it stands, though, this film is a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick. In trying to celebrate their heroism, it distorts and distends the memories of all those who died in the war, who didn’t return to tell their stories.

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,

For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

They Shall Not Grow Old

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2018

Earlier this year, I wrote that director Peter Jackson was working on a documentary about WWI that would feature film footage cleaned up and colorized with the same special effects technology used to produce massive Hollywood films like Jackson’s own LOTR movies.

The footage has been stabilized, the grain and scratches cleaned up, and the pace slowed down to from comedic to lifelike. Jackson’s also planning on using colorization to make the people in that old footage seem as contemporary as possible.

The brief glimpses of the cleaned and colorized footage in the initial trailer were tantalizing, but the newly released trailer above is just breathtaking or jaw-dropping or however you want to put it. I’ve watched it three times so far…some of those scenes are so vivid they could have happened yesterday! That what viewing early color photography and film does to you:

Until recently, the color palette of history was black and white. The lack of color is sometimes so overpowering that it’s difficult to imagine from Matthew Brady’s photos what the Civil War looked like in real life. Even into the 1970s, press photos documenting the war in Vietnam were in B&W and the New York Times delivered its news exclusively in B&W until the 90s, running the first color photograph on the front page in 1997.

Which is why when color photos from an event or era set firmly in our B&W history are uncovered, the effect can be jarring. Color adds depth, presence, and modernity to photography; it’s easier for us to identify with the people in the pictures and to imagine ourselves in their surroundings.

Jackson talked to the BBC about how the film was made:

Check out this post at Open Culture for more about the making of the film.

They Shall Not Grow Old just became my #1 most-anticipated movie for the rest of 2018. It’s only showing in the US on Dec 17 and Dec 27…I just got my ticket here.

Peter Jackson is remastering old WWI film footage

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 19, 2018

Working with the 14-18 NOW project, Peter Jackson is making a film about the experience of the soldiers fighting in World War I. As part of the process, Jackson and his special effects team (who have worked on the LOTR films, etc.) have been remastering and reimagining film footage from the collection of the Imperial War Museums. Here’s Jackson talking about the project and showing some of the remastered video:

The footage has been stabilized, the grain and scratches cleaned up, and the pace slowed down to from comedic to lifelike. Jackson’s also planning on using colorization to make the people in that old footage seem as contemporary as possible. Here are some split-screen stills comparing the old footage with the remastered video:

Peter Jackson WWI

Peter Jackson WWI

Peter Jackson WWI

The finished product will be shown in theaters and schools around the UK in the fall and also on the BBC. (via open culture)

The color photographs of World War I

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 28, 2018

Color WWI

Color WWI

Color WWI

Color WWI

When World War I started, color photography was still in its experimental stage so most of the imagery of the war is in black and white. But a few photographers managed to capture color views the battlefield, military operations, and scenes of daily life during the conflict. You can check out a bunch of the WWI color photos here, here, here, and here. There’s even some color film footage from the war:

As I’ve written before, early color photography is a form of time travel, connecting long-ago events to the present.

Until recently, the color palette of history was black and white. The lack of color is sometimes so overpowering that it’s difficult to imagine from Matthew Brady’s photos what the Civil War looked like in real life. Even into the 1970s, press photos documenting the war in Vietnam were in B&W and the New York Times delivered its news exclusively in B&W until the 90s, running the first color photograph on the front page in 1997.

Which is why when color photos from an event or era set firmly in our B&W history are uncovered, the effect can be jarring. Color adds depth, presence, and modernity to photography; it’s easier for us to identify with the people in the pictures and to imagine ourselves in their surroundings.

Lots more early color photography in the archives.

Update: From 2006, a song called The War Was in Color by Carbon Leaf. Here are the first two stanzas:

I see you’ve found a box of my things:
Infantries, tanks and smoldering airplane wings
These old pictures are cool. Tell me some stories
Was it like the old war movies?
Sit down son. Let me fill you in

Where to begin? Let’s start with the end
This black and white photo don’t capture the skin
From the flash of a gun to a soldier who’s done
Trust me grandson
The war was in color

(thx, adam)

Dazzle camouflage

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 27, 2018

In a new video for Vox, Phil Edwards talks about one of my favorite low-tech technologies: dazzle camouflage. Instead of trying to hide warships with paint the color of the ever-changing sky or sea, dazzle camouflage aimed to confuse the enemy by disguising the silhouettes and headings of ships.

World War I ships faced a unique problem. The u-boat was a new threat at the time, and its torpedoes were deadly. That led artist Norman Wilkinson to come up with dazzle camouflage (sometimes called “razzle dazzle camouflage”). The idea was to confuse u-boats about a ship’s course, rather than try to conceal its presence. In doing so, dazzle camouflage could keep torpedoes from hitting the boat — and that and other strategies proved a boon in World War I.

More recently, this strategy has been used on people’s faces to thwart facial recognition and on Cristiano Ronaldo’s football cleats to confuse opponents as which way he’s moving his feet.

The Great War

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2014

The Great War is a video documentary series on YouTube that covers World War I. The series will air each week over the next four years with each 6-10 minute episode covering a week’s worth of the war 100 years after it happened.

What an ambitious project. They’re currently up to week 15 of the war, when the Ottoman Empire enters the fray. (via @garymross)

World War I in Photos

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 30, 2014

Alan Taylor has concluded his 10-part series on WWI over at In Focus with a look at the present-day effects of the war. If you haven’t been following along, it’s worth starting at the beginning and working your way through.

WWI Poppies

Also worth a look is the NY Times’ interactive package about the war.

The tech of WWI

posted by Jason Kottke   May 12, 2014

In the latest installment of his ten-part series on WWI, Alan Taylor covers the technology used in the war.

When Europe’s armies first marched to war in 1914, some were still carrying lances on horseback. By the end of the war, rapid-fire guns, aerial bombardment, armored vehicle attacks, and chemical weapon deployments were commonplace. Any romantic notion of warfare was bluntly shoved aside by the advent of chlorine gas, massive explosive shells that could have been fired from more than 20 miles away, and machine guns that spat out bullets like firehoses. Each side did its best to build on existing technology, or invent new methods, hoping to gain any advantage over the enemy.

It’s fascinating to observe both sides using trial and error with things like tanks, testing out what works and what doesn’t. Look at this kooky German cannon for instance:

Wwi German Cannon

Nothing about that looks efficient.

Sham Paris

posted by Jason Kottke   May 05, 2014

Sham Paris

A fake Paris was partially constructed near the real Paris at the end of World War I in the hopes of confusing German planes who were looking to bomb the City of Lights.

The story of Sham Paris may have been “broken” in The Illustrated London News of 6 November 1920 in a remarkably titled photo essay, “A False Paris Outside Paris — a ‘City’ Created to be Bombed”. There were to be sham streets lined with electric lights, sham rail stations, sham industry, open to a sham population waiting to be bombed by real Germans. It is a perverse city, filled with the waiting-to-be-murdered in a civilian target.

World War I in photos

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 28, 2014

Over at In Focus, Alan Taylor has posted the first part of a 10-part photographic retrospective of World War I.

Priest blesses airplane

Represented in this first installment is early color photography (many more of which can be found here), dazzle camouflage, and a photo I’ve never seen before of an aerial view of the trenches of the western front. Can’t wait to follow along with the rest of it.

Ten World War I myths

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 22, 2014

Historian Dan Snow collects and debunks ten myths about World War I. Including:

7. Tactics on the Western Front remained unchanged despite repeated failure
Never have tactics and technology changed so radically in four years of fighting. It was a time of extraordinary innovation. In 1914 generals on horseback galloped across battlefields as men in cloth caps charged the enemy without the necessary covering fire. Both sides were overwhelmingly armed with rifles. Four years later, steel-helmeted combat teams dashed forward protected by a curtain of artillery shells.

They were now armed with flame throwers, portable machine-guns and grenades fired from rifles. Above, planes, that in 1914 would have appeared unimaginably sophisticated, duelled in the skies, some carrying experimental wireless radio sets, reporting real-time reconnaissance.

Huge artillery pieces fired with pinpoint accuracy - using only aerial photos and maths they could score a hit on the first shot. Tanks had gone from the drawing board to the battlefield in just two years, also changing war forever.

(via @daveg)

The mysterious briefcase of Martin Joyce

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 12, 2013

Kevin Delaney, the head of Wayland High School’s history department, gave his 11th grade students an interesting challenge: find out everything you can about the person who owned a dusty briefcase full of papers that Delaney had found in the storage room. The man, Martin Joyce, turned out to have a life that spanned many significant events in history and his story provided the students with a personal lens into history.

Inside were the assorted papers — letters, military records, photos — left behind by a man named Martin W. Joyce, a long-since deceased West Roxbury resident who began his military career as an infantryman in World War I and ended it as commanding officer of the liberated Dachau concentration camp. Delaney could have contacted a university or a librarian and handed the trove of primary sources over to a researcher skilled in sorting through this kind of thing. Instead, he applied for a grant, and asked an archivist to come teach his students how to handle fragile historical materials. Then, for the next two years, he and his 11th grade American history students read through the documents, organized and uploaded them to the web, and wrote the biography of a man whom history nearly forgot, but who nonetheless witnessed a great deal of it.

“Joyce became the thread that went through our general studies,” Delaney says. “When we were studying World War I, we did the traditional World War I lessons and readings. And then stopped the clocks and thought, ‘What’s going on with Joyce in this period?’”

As the class repeatedly asked and answered that question, they slowly uncovered the life of a man who not only oversaw the liberated Dachau but also found himself a participant in an uncommon number of consequential events throughout Massachusetts and U.S. history. In a way Delaney couldn’t have imagined when he first popped open the suitcase that day, Joyce would turn out to be something akin to Boston’s own Forrest Gump — a perfect set of eyes through which to visit America’s past.

Fantastic, what a great story. My favorite tidbit is that after all the wars and stuff, he and his wife were on the Andrea Doria when it was struck by the Stockholm and sunk. Part of the students’ project was building a web site pertaining to Joyce’s life and includes scans of all the papers they discovered…it’s well worth looking through. (via @SlateVault)

Fake war trees

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 08, 2012

During World War I, specific trees on the battlefield were measured in detail and then replaced by replica trees that were actually hunting blinds.

To develop the O.P. Tree, Royal Engineers representatives selected, measured, and photographed the original tree, in situ, extensively. The ideal tree was dead; often it was bomb blasted. The photographs and sketches were brought back to the workshop, where artists constructed an artificial tree of hollow steel cylinders, but containing an internal scaffolding for reinforcement, to allow a sniper or observer to ascend within the structure. Then, under the cover of night, the team cut down the authentic tree and dug a hole in the place of its roots, in which they placed the O.P. Tree. When the sun rose over the field, what looked like a tree was a tree no longer; rather, it was an exquisitely crafted hunting blind, maximizing personal concealment and observational capacity simultaneously.

The Past: Buried Above Us

posted by Joel Turnipseed   Nov 04, 2007

BLDGBLOG has a fantastic post on the interconnected mountain fortifications used by the Austrians and Italians in World War One. If you thought the Maginot Line was insane, wait until you see this. Geoff Manaugh’s write-up is as smart as the mountain trenches were crazy:

…the idea of the Alps being riddled with manmade caves and passages, with bunkers and tunnels, bristling with military architecture, even self-connected peak to peak by fortified bridges, the Great Mountain Wall of Northern Italy, architecture literally become mountainous, piled higher and higher upon itself forming new artificial peaks looking down on the fields and cities of Europe, that just fascinates me—not to mention the idea that you could travel up, and thus go further into history, discovering that the past has been buried above you, the geography of time topologically inverted.

Also: great to see that BLDGBLOG has a book coming out—not so great that we have to wait until 2009. (via cosma shalizi)

Color photos of World War I

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 01, 2004

Some color photos of World War I. More here.