I saw Peter Jackson's "They Shall Not Grow Old" last week, and I have feelings. I said some of this on a locked post, but I find that I still have many, many feels, and I wish to share.
So, let's start by what Jackson actually did. He had access to about 100 hours of silent movie footage, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, and about 600 hours of audio, largely from the BBC, of interviews of veterans. My impression is that much of the audio was collected in the Sixties or Seventies, so probably for 50 year retrospectives of the Great War. Jackson did a lot of computer work to enhance the visual components. The movie footage was supplemented with contemporary stills, as well as stills of contemporary drawings from a magazine called something generic, like, "The War Magazine," of which Jackson, personally, owned about 200 issues. These images were mostly used during the battle sequence, since there is very little contemporary still footage and no movie footage of the actual battles. The only narration of the documentary is from the BBC audio. I am not sure how many individual voices were used, more than a double dozen, I think. They are never identified while they speak.
The movie opens with a series of men talking about how the war was important, formative, and if they had to do it over again, they would have. The fact that the only narration is from veterans gives the entire movie a gloss of authenticity. All the visuals are contemporary, all the voices are of people who are talking about first hand experiences. The structure of the movie itself strips away all the political context, and the passage of time. There are men talking about enlisting, then men talking about boot camp, then men talking about the trenches, time spent either in the trenches or behind the trenches, then men talking about being in battle, and then a few voices talking about how they couldn't find jobs when they returned home. All these voices are British. I am not good enough to sort out class by accent. None of these voices are identified. The segues between the voices make them sound as if they are speaking as one voice. After the movie is over, there is a 30 minute coda with Jackson talking about how he built this film, talking about some of the technical challenges, the foley work, how and why he chose to colorize certain bits, and so on. All of this is interesting. But he also says some things that are just...wrong. He talks about his choice to ignore the politics in the context of saying that what he was trying to do was represent the generic experience of an infantryman. He says that the experience of being an infantryman was roughly the same for the British, the Canadians, the Americans, the Italians, and the Germans. At which point my brain, which had been trying to make sense of his storytelling choices, screeched to a halt, and I became very, very angry. I am still angry.
So, let's start with a couple of theories about Story. Teresa Nielsen Hayden has said that plot is a literary convention, but Story is a force of nature. We are pattern-matching and pattern-creating creatures, and one of our primary ways of understanding things is via Story. We will create Story out of any set of random facts you care to throw at us. It is essentially impossible for this documentary not to be telling a story. And, indeed, Jackson claims to be trying to tell a story, just a denatured, generic story. But the thing about Story is that is never generic. We are not generic. Who we are now, who we have been, who we hope to become, all of these things are essential to our personal story. The details of our lives create the narrative that we use to understand them. The best way to enhance an emotive connection, to enhance the common humanity of the other, is specificity. A guy goes to war is a generic story, and not very relatable. A boy raised on a farm who has never seen a big city but who feels the call of both patriotism and a desire for wider horizons and so signs up at fifteen and his parents let him because they too feel the pull of patriotic duty, that is a story with a beat you can dance to. You have never been that boy or lived in those circumstances, but the detail brings the story alive. You feel as if you understand that choice, that person. And that's the other essential thing about Story. It is about choice. The choices people make, the choices they fail to make, the alternatives they see, the ones they fail to see, the ones they see in hindsight. Story is both choice points and connective tissue. The context matters. Context always matters. Context controls content. Simple declarative sentences are very different, depending on the context. "Clean up your room," "I hate you," "That was an interesting choice" are all sentences that can mean very different things, depending on tone, context, the speaker, and the intended audience.
SO, WHAT ON EARTH MADE JACKSON THINK THAT THE BEST WAY TO TELL A STORY ABOUT MEN DOING SOMETHING EXTREMELY STRANGE, HARD, UNTHINKABLE, AND HORRIFIC, WAS TO STRIP AWAY CONTEXT? IN WHAT WORLD DOES THAT MAKE SENSE?
There are a lot of different voices in this documentary. And they are telling very, very different stories. One of the most interesting "tells" are the men who speak in the first person plural versus the ones who speak in the first person singular. The ones who speak in first person plural tend to talk about the war in a positive fashion. "We were, none of us, afraid." "We had a job to do, you see, and so we did it." "We were all very proud of being British." The first person singular voices were more specific, and more nuanced. "I wasn't afraid of dying, but I was afraid of losing a limb." "I have never been more frightened in my life." "That was when I lost any idea that war was noble." I don't know if Jackson did any computer magic to make the voices sound similar, but there isn't any obvious way to tell when the narrator switches. The voices segue from one to the other, without any notation as to who is speaking. They are all very British male voices, and while you could generally tell when a different person started speaking, there was no way to tell if this was the same guy who had taken off his stripes on the way over to France because he had heard that officers were targeted, or the guy who insisted that they were all proud to do their duty. There was no way to tell if the man who said that he lied about his age in order to join up was the guy who had never been more frightened in his life, or the man who said that battle was just a job of work and so he got on with it. The man who says that they were trained to stab bags of sand in preparation to bayonet human beings is never connected up to anyone's experience of actual battle. And there is no way to tell if the man speaking at any given time was an officer or an enlisted man, if he saw combat, if he did a week in the trenches or the whole bloody four years.
These men do not have the same story, nor do they tell the same story. The sergeant in charge of turning a raw recruit into a soldier, the boy from the factory who is undernourished and weak, the Boer War veteran, have the commonality of the trench, yes, but where they came from must surely change how they saw their time there. There was one story that stuck out of the narrative, in part because it was an actual story, with detail, choice, and consequence. In the battle montage, the voice says that there was a fellow soldier with horrific, fatal wounds who was crying for his Nana. The narrator shot the wounded soldier, and says, "It was the right thing. He would have died. I couldn't just let him suffer. But it hurt me. It hurt me very much." In this incredibly homogenized and denatured montage of battle memories, it sticks out.
I also question the way in which Jackson carefully distances distinctly different views from each other. You do not hear a man saying, "We were none of us afraid" and another saying "I was never more afraid in my life" one right after the other. Rather, there are other voices in between, and that stark juxtaposition is missing. This cannot be accidental, and I assume it is in service of the conceit that Jackson is telling the "generic, average" story.
Something that I didn't realize until later, but which seems very important, is that every one of these voices is the voice of a dead man. I am certain that Jackson has the unimpeachable legal rights to use these voices in this way, but none of these men could have consented to it. None of them had the opportunity to look at how Jackson used their voices. The interviews were given in a particular context, and presumably much of what was said was in the response to questions. All of that is stripped away, and I do wonder exactly what was lost, and if the speakers would agree or disagree with the story that was told using their voice. (In the coda, Jackson mentions that one of the videos, of men in the sunken lane, are all in their last half-hour of life. They all died in the battle that followed. This, too, stands out because suddenly there is context for those smiling boys in uniform, a bit dazzled to be in moving pictures, a bit scared about what comes next, and trying not to show either emotion.)
One final detail also very much bugs me. The film starts with men whistling "Hanging on the Old Barb Wire." I know the lyrics well. It is an anti-war song, a sarcastic commentary on the horrors of war, and how those horrors are not shared equally across the ranks, how the officers live well and better based on rank, and how the common soldier dies in horror and mud to maintain that social status quo. (As an aside, I believe that at this point in history, officers were usually chosen from the upper classes, and so the difference between officer and enlisted man was usually a difference of social standing as well as military rank.) The whistling gives the song a haunted air. The credits are to the sound of a half-dozen diplomats flown in for the occasion, singing an energetic rendition of the cleaner verses of "Mademoiselle from Armentières." So, what story is Jackson telling by starting with a war protest song, full of pain and class consciousness, but stripped of its lyrical detail, narrating a story in dead men's voices but stripped of context and detail, then ending with a legendarily dirty song, cheerful and complete with lyrics, sung by live men who have (probably) never seen war?
Jackson was asked to create something never seen before. He did. The visuals are stunning. But it is also the first time I have seen The War to End All Wars portrayed as generic, denatured, bereft of agency, and vaguely cheerful around the edges.