They Shall Not Grow Old (2): The Abject Archive… The Sacred Archive

The Abject Archive

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One of the things I find most fascinating about the pre-release advertising for They Shall Not Grow Old, is the way that it seems unable to argue for the project without at the same time rendering the archive footage from which it is constructed abject. To erase, in fact, the role and history of the archive itself in the survival and restoration of the film. Apparently the enhancements to the existing images have no traction unless the existing images themselves are understood to be in the worst state they possibly could be in. In the trailer, Jackson works hard to create an idea of the terrible failure of this footage in the audiences’ mind, talking of ‘this grainy, flickery – kind of, you know – sped up footage.’ Anyone who has ever seen a television documentary will be familiar with the bizarre passion of television producers for making old film look worse than it is. Footage that has been lovingly restored by the archive, which has been specially reprinted from the sparkling original camera negatives or has been carefully cleaned and re-graded to eliminate dirt and scratches, winds up on television behind the indignity of a ‘scratch filter’ – a digital programme which introduces fake flecks of dirt and scratches so that the audience can be reassured that the film is as old as is being claimed. The Jackson trailer offers a strangely turbo-charged version of this procedure. As Jackson tells us about the ‘grainy, flickery – kind of, you know – sped up footage’, we are treated to a brief clip of stretcher bearers bringing a head-wound patient out of a tent. The shot has been digitally manipulated to make it look bad. It is playing at the wrong speed, and has been set to look as though it is over-exposed, the image is feint and milky with no contrasts as though someone has turned the ‘brightness’ dial way up. As Jackson describes how his techniques have transformed the footage so that it is ‘so clear and sharp’ and ‘looks like it was shot on a high definition camera in the last week or two’ the image ‘miraculously’ alters – the speed is slowed down and the contrast deepens to produce a sharp and satisfactory image. This manoeuvre is then repeated with variations and increasingly extreme effects. An ‘underexposed’ shot, so dark you can barely see anything, suddenly ‘transforms’ into a well-graded image of four portly officers posing for the camera in cold weather jerkins. Jackson describes the process as a ‘restoration’, but the evidence from the images themselves tells a different story – the ‘before’ versions are not the images as they came out of the archive, they’ve clearly been digitally manipulated to look abject, the greater to emphasise the contrast when they are magically corrected. In the later trailer, Jackson and Diane Lees are excised, and the images are allowed to speak for themselves (accompanied inevitably by Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’). Here again though, the images are apparently unable to make their point without recourse to the ‘transformation’ they have undergone, so that while the gob-smacking surprise of the opening colourised images – the tank, the artillery team, the encampment silhouetted against the sunset, the men gathered in the sunken road – do their work without assistance, later images repeat the trope of the earlier film. They are offered first as abject – grainy and dark – but quickly these are transformed into the ‘sharp and clear’ images showcased in the first trailer. A curious ‘glare’ effect hints at the technological magic that may have gone into such a transformation, before a much more matter-of fact but actually incredible transformation is offered – the images blossom into colour.

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I’m puzzled by this publicity campaign for two reasons. Firstly, it is not clear to me why the digitally enhanced, colourised images are not extraordinary enough for its purpose. Jackson could so easily have simply said ‘we have transformed the existing footage into something amazing’. His effects are amazing – there’s no need to exaggerate the abject state of the existing footage in order to make the transformation extraordinary. But secondly, by actually enhancing the ‘before’ images to make them look worse than they are, and by evoking the idea of archive footage as grainy, and dirty, and flickering and inadequate, the campaign erases the role of the archive itself in the achievement of Jackson’s film. Because the vast amount of the film footage that Jackson worked with was not in the abject state he describes. Most of the footage, in particular the big box office successes of the war period, The Battle of the Somme (1916) and The Battle of Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (1917) have been subject to major restorations by the Imperial War Museum in 2006 and 2012 respectively. The painstaking task of finding the best elements possible of these films, of cleaning the surviving the 35mm elements, of scanning them into digital formats, of digitally cleaning and grading them had already happened. These restorations were not secret affairs either. New scores were commissioned for the films, both modern interprectations (by Laura Rossi) and reconstructions of the accompanying music suggested in 1916 by J. Morton Hutchinson of the Bioscope. When The Battle of the Somme went back on general release in its centenary year in a sparkling DCP print audiences did not reject it because it was not in colour, they marveled at how sharp and immediate the impression of life on the battlefield it offered was – how close it brought them to an understanding of the ordinary soldier’s experience, much as audiences of 1916 had done.

The Sacred Archive

Back in 1916 the potency of the films in effecting a bridge between the ordinary soldier and the audience on the home front rendered the ‘official war pictures’ objects of sacred reverence. Before the founding of the Imperial War Museum itself the preservation of the cinematograph record was something discussed as part of the movement for the creation of local war museums across the country. A report in the Western Daily Press emphasised the uncertainty of the practicalities of such a step, as film was such a relatively new medium. ‘Whether or not the cinematograph films of the battlefields can be preserved for many years to come is a point on which the scientist must utter the last word’ it suggested, but nevertheless, the films were understood to be as sacred a relic of the war as the more conventional objects of local memorabilia which would form the contents of such museums. When the IWM was eventually founded in 1918, it was precisely such sacred relics that formed the beginnings of the collection – bits of ships and lumps of ordinance rubbed shoulders with the work of the war artists and other key representations shown in Burlington House and Crystal Palace in the early days. Images and objects that had been there were understood to hold the most potency for both contemporary audiences and as ‘object lessons for future generations to come.’ For many commentators in the film trade, the official war pictures fulfilled both these criteria, but they had fallen into something of a limbo. The body that handled films such as The Battle of the Somme (1916)the Cinematograph Committee of the Ministry of Information – was in the process of being wound up, and the films were being temporarily stored in a fireproof box in the War Office. Kinematograph Weekly had been campaigning for some time for a general ‘National Film Repository’ to no avail. Even in its own pages the paper didn’t quite dare suggest that fiction film be preserved (that didn’t start to happen until 1936), but topical films of ‘famous people, living or dead, and big historical subjects’ it felt might be suitable candidates.

War pictures though, represented a special case whose importance nobody could dispute. Indeed the magazine had already mused on the practicalities of preserving war pictures in February 1919, and had published a letter from an ex-soldier only the previous month arguing that The Battle of the Somme should be re-issued for the benefit of ex-servicemen who had been unable to see it at the time due to being on active service.[1] Such screenings, he added, might have the added benefit of reminding employers of their duty to ex-fighting men. With the first anniversary of the armistice only a week away, Kinematograph Weekly invoked a comparison to the paintings of battle scenes and other artworks commissioned by the War Office both for the public record and as acts of Remembrance, arguing that

The official war pictures [films] are, in themselves, priceless, and it would be little short of criminal not to take steps to preserve them for future generations. The funds appear to be available, as we are told that the War Office Kinematograph Committee has a considerable balance in hand and we do not understand why it does not take up this work as a fitting end to its labours…

‘Surely,’ concluded the paper in a rhetorical coup de grace, ‘we do not want the American film-version of what occurred to be the only record for posterity to see.’[2]

Poached but not Preserved

Small Boy: “Why didn’t they film the Great War, daddy?” Father: “They did my son, but the films fell into the clutches of the War Office and died in captivity” (Kinematograph Weekly, 6/11/1919, p. 103)

It was not until the third annual report of the IWM in 1919-20 that news of the films appeared and by then the financial circumstances didn’t seem so auspicious. As the report stated:

A large number of cinema films made during the War for propaganda purposes have been deposited by the Ministry of Information, and it is proposed by the War Office to place in charge of the Museum the wonderful collection of War films in their possession, which are of unique historical interest.

The storage, preservation, and issue of these film records will, however, necessitate an outlay, of which the limited means at the disposal of the Imperial War Museum will not, at all events at present, permit, and the question of their disposal is still under discussion.

As late as 1926 it seems, the public were expressing frustration at the apparent disappearance of the films. One correspondent to The Observer complained that

There exist, or there should exist miles of such films. We should like to know whether or not they are getting the same care as the Doomsday Book and the Great Auk’s egg. But your correspondent may be surprised to hear that it seems impossible to discover that; and as for seeing such films exhibited, he may be sure he never will, though he is part-owner.[3]

Luckily for us, and thanks to the separate and combined efforts of the Imperial War Museum, 14-18 NOW and Peter Jackson, we have no such difficulties – in fact we have instead an embarrassment of riches.



[1] Kinematograph Weekly, 6/2/1919: 68. Kinematograph Weekly, 25/9/1919: 88.

[2] Kinematograph Weekly, 6/11/1919: 98.

[3] The Observer, 28/11/1926: 23.


8 thoughts on “They Shall Not Grow Old (2): The Abject Archive… The Sacred Archive

  1. Very interesting piece. It may be just the exigencies of publicity at work with Jackson. He does have form with Forgotten Silver in suggesting that the film archive may be a shed at bottom of your neighbour’s garden. Minor correction: J. Morton Hutcheson wrote for the Bioscope not the Biograph.


    1. Thanks for the comment – I’ve corrected my Bioscope boob in the text as you suggest. Yes. I had hoped that it was only in the publicity material that he was ignoring/denigrating the work of the archive. But having now seen the film itself, I’m sorry to report that it’s an argument intrinsic to the structure of the whole thing. Very depressing.


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