They Shall Not Grow Old

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Perhaps one of the most hotly anticipated films of the London Film Festival is Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. Commissioned by 1418 NOW (the government agency responsible for co-ordinating the centenary of the First World War), and made in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum, the film uses footage within the IWM’s film archive collections to tell the story of ordinary soldiers in the Great War. In the teaser trailer for the film, Jackson describes the project’s genesis:

The Imperial War Museum approached me a couple of years ago and they asked me what could be done with their original First World War footage, to present it in a way that hadn’t really been seen before. And I thought about all the digital technology that exists today and… can we restore that footage and make it look new and make it look sharp in a way that goes way beyond anything that’s ever been done before? So we did some tests and the results really surprised me. They’re unbelievable. We can make this grainy, flickery, kind of – you know – sped up footage look like it was shot in the last week or two. It looks like it was shot with high definition cameras, it’s so sharp and clear now.

Even though the film has yet to be released, Jackson’s approach has already attracted controversy. Some of the things he’s done to the original footage have not just gone ‘way beyond’ what has ever been done before, they’ve also gone way beyond what is generally understood in archiving circles to be ethical treatment of archive footage. He has added elements to the image – colour and sound and even 3D – which were never part of the original record and as a result are a pure speculation about the reality of the scenes they record. The second teaser released last week illustrates just how far he has gone – a cavalry team ride through an encampment silhouetted against a spectacular sunset, the fields behind an artillery team are bright green with a new growth of spring wheat, men returning from battle are heard to be cheerfully singing ‘We’re here because we’re here’. Of course, these things might have been the case, but the original film contains no evidence that the sun was setting in the sky behind the encampment, or that the fields weren’t newly ploughed, or that the returning troops weren’t picking their way in sullen silence. The use of colour has attracted most criticism, partly perhaps because it has been the element which has been most highlighted in the publicity for the film. Later in the first trailer, the head of the IWM, Diane Lees argues that the incentive of the project was to,

…take film that is very often dismissed by audiences because it’s black and white, and use it in a colourised way to engage young people in a conversation about the First World War.

This claim about the resistance of ‘young people’ to black and white films is frequently offered as a justification for not engaging with archive footage in an educational environment, and of course it’s precisely such an environment that this film is ultimately intended for. After its gala premier and simultaneous country-wide release, the film will be made available to schools and colleges around the country in anticipation of it forming a central resource for the teaching of WW1 history. The potential of cinema to act as a pleasurable, ‘immersive’ experience perhaps acts as a key incentive to this pedagogic project, and the desire to render the footage immediate and realistic in a way that brings its subjects ‘closer’ to modern audiences is understandable. However, in a key article criticizing the colourisation in the film, Luke McKernan argues that such desires are based on a false assumption. ‘There is a fundamental issue here’ he writes, ‘about how we treat our actuality film archives…

WW1 was filmed in monochrome… To understand that inheritance we must look at it for what it is. Colourising the archive actuality film does not bring us closer to our ancestors; it increases the distance between us. It threatens to make the WW1 film archive we have inherited meaningless, because we can no longer look at it sympathetically.[1]

The effort, he suggests, of watching footage that seems technologically different from what we are used to, and the reward of still seeing the ‘ordinary soldier’ represented there, is what ‘creates the understanding.’

I’m still not sure where I stand on the colourisation debate. On the one hand, it does seem clear to me that the addition of colour and of foley sound effects rather defeats the point of using the original footage in the first place. It transforms the footage precisely by destroying its claim to authenticity, by adding elements that aren’t part of the visual record it purports to be. I’m not convinced that young people are unable to cope without sound and colour, but if their inability to connect is the reason why we’re going to add those elements, why not go the whole hog and just film a modern dramatic reconstruction of the war instead? Plenty of such projects are immensely successful and have clear pedagogic potential. (Personally I would recommend the BBC’s series of battle reconstruction dramas from 2014 Our World War, although a quick google search reveals that it failed to satisfy purists and sticklers for historical detail.) On the other hand, as a couple of friends have remarked – the original footage is still there: Jackson’s version doesn’t destroy the archive material, and if it does manage to address some audiences and inspire them to look closer at the actual footage, where’s the harm?


Such a response points to the variety of ways in which we might understand the purpose of this footage. Firstly, we might think of it as Jackson has approached it – as film of the front taken at the front but prevented from being the immersive record modern audiences might wish it to be because of the technological limitations of the time. In this formulation we might think of the digital enhancements as simply a question of increasing the ‘use value’ of this moving image resource as a way of accessing the ‘experience’ of fighting on the Western Front. ‘We’ve transformed 100 year old film footage to see the Great War as the soldiers themselves saw it’ as Jackson states. Secondly, we might think of the footage as historical evidence – an actual record of conditions at the front from which we can glean details which are embedded within the film and which might give us insights into the detail of life at the front. Here of course, the authenticity of the record is paramount – is what makes it interesting or of any use at all, and as I’ve described above, digital enhancement such as colourisation actively destroys this possibility. Thirdly we might think of the film footage it as a historical object in and of itself. This material was shown widely in the UK during the war itself, both as short newsreel items, and compiled into longer feature length war actuality films. Indeed, The Battle of the Somme (1916) from which much of the footage is taken, was seen by a quarter of the population – a box office blockbuster that dwarfs even Peter Jackson’s most successful efforts. Several similar feature length documentary films followed. Audiences at the time reported that these films precisely enabled them to feel close to their sons and husbands, and to the experiences they were going through in the trenches. Roger Smither and others have pointed out the way in which the structure of those films encourage an attempt at recognition – the impulse to scan the screen for the face of your own loved one.[2] Men march towards the camera smiling. They wave and cheer as the camera pans around a scene of them gathered bathing beside a pond. They sit at their meals down long benches, smiling and laughing back towards the camera placed in such a way as to fit as many faces in the composition as possible. The effect Jackson ecstatically describes where ‘the faces in this film just jump out at you, it’s the faces, it’s the people that come to life in this film’ is no accident. And it was remarked on by audiences at the time, who went on to describe how close the film made them feel to the experiences it depicts. ‘I have lost a son in battle and I have seen the Somme films twice,’ wrote one correspondent to The Times in 1916,

I am going to see them again. I want to know what was the life, and the life-in-death, that our dear ones endured, and to be with them again in their great adventure…[3]

In this understanding of the footage – as a historical object in itself, something seen by people on the home front and used and valued by them as a way of encountering and understanding the experiences of the fighting men – I’d seek to maintain the circulation of the footage as it was filmed, to show it to schoolchildren in its original state. The correspondent who felt the films enabled them ‘be with’ their dead son and his comrades again ‘in their great adventure’ didn’t see those films with sound or in colour. What they saw were the black and white images that have been handed down to us, and in order to understand that experience it is necessary that we should also be able to see them like that. Of course thanks to the amazing work of the Imperial War Museum, we can. Although you wouldn’t know that from the way that the film has been publicized. And that’s an issue I’ll come to in my next blog…



[1] Luke McKernan, ‘The Colours of War’ in Sight and Sound, April 2018, p. 15.

[2] Roger Smither, ‘ “Watch the picture carefully and see if you can identify anyone”: recognition in factual film of the First World War period’ in Film History Vol. 14, 2002, pp. 390-404.

[3] ‘Orbatus’ to The Times 2/9/1916, p. 3, quoted in Nicholas Reeves, ‘Cinema, Spectatorship and Propaganda: Battle of the Somme (1916) and its contemporary audience

8 thoughts on “They Shall Not Grow Old

  1. As a historian I’m all too aware of how much you ‘make up’ – well not make up exactly, more fill in the gaps left by the direct evidence, guided by general contextual knowledge of what was likely to be the case. Eg. ‘We know Philip II would have gone to mass that morning, so therefore we can assume that…’, even if we have no direct evidence that he did. Most of our historical understanding depends on such reasoning, and nobody thinks there’s anything dodgy about it as long as it’s open to reinterpretation. Most sources historians use are written, not photographic, and call for a lot of such ‘filling in’. In the critique of Jackson’s project I detect a whiff of the notion that visual evidence, since the invention of photography and film, is epistemologically superior: in common parlance, the camera never lies. So adding to what it tells us (eg adding colour) is doing violence to the sources, like slipping a fake document into the archive . But if the additions are plausible and supported by contextual evidence then this is no different from what historians regularly do with written sources. So that’s where I stand at the moment – awaiting further discussion. (I must admit I am also swayed by the fact that the people in the colourised footage look so bloody real. That’s hard to get out of my mind.)


    1. Yes. I guess there’s two things 1) the films as we apprehend them now, and 2) the films as they were apprehended at the time. To use your analogy with print material – you might make assumptions as an historian in your own account of the past. But you wouldn’t (for instance) doctor the newspaper reports of the time. You’d point out that the newspapers are biased and the reporting is from a specific angle and for a specific purpose. But you wouldn’t go into the archive, alter the newspaper reports to say what you want them to say, and then offer them to schoolchildren as authentic evidence of how people at the time viewed the war. It’s all about whether you regard this film as a creative reconstruction, or whether you understand it as presenting the footage itself as authentic historical evidence. That largely depends on the claims the film itself makes about what it is doing, and so I guess until we see it we can’t make a call. But Jackson’s pronouncements in the surrounding publicity material don’t fill me with optimism.

      Just re-read your comment and the bit about slipping a document into the archive. I mean to me that’s exactly what it’s doing. These films that he’s using *are* the archive. And he’s presenting them as the archive. That’s not to say that I think the audio visual record is superior to a written one in terms of ‘the camera never lies’, it’s to say that we should afford the visual record the same respect that we afford the written one. You wouldn’t dream of going back to the written record and adding modern words because you think they make the account more vivid for modern audiences – why is it ok to do that with film? What’s the problem with saying ‘here’s the visual record. It is like this because of these industrial and technological contexts, so it’s not the evidence you might expect, but it’s what there is.


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