film review / memory

Colorizing and Fictionalizing the Past

The technical wizardry of Peter Jackson's "They Shall Not Grow Old" should not obscure its narrow, outdated storyline.
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There is no doubt that Jackson and his team have accomplished a remarkable feat. It’s both startling and deeply engaging to see how modern computer technology can make the past look so vibrant and familiar. This is not only the result of the color — historical footage has been colorized numerous times before. But in slowing, restoring, and putting the film in 3D, Jackson, as The Guardian noted, makes the viewer feel like they’re “stepping through the looking glass” into a hyper-real, immersive world.

Still another observed, “the colourisation, and everything else, is … a means of enfolding you in the experience. It is an indirect way of reminding you that this really did happen to people like you and me.” In the screening I attended, some of the scenes were met with audible gasps and murmurs of sympathy from the audience. Especially in the United States, a country where the First World War is not a part of living memory in the same way that it is in Britain, the film appears, to echo another reviewer, to “reveal in full digital clarity…‘the truth untold.’”

And that was the very real problem I had while viewing this film: that these technological achievements stand in for “truth,” and obscure just how constructed the “history” Jackson is telling actually is. All documentaries (and indeed, all histories) are fictionalized to some extent — the choice about what to include or exclude makes a narrative far more coherent than reality ever was. However, Jackson’s technological achievements should not obscure the narrow, old-fashioned, and outdated story he has constructed. Some of the liberties Jackson takes are not of enormous consequence.

We have no idea, for example, what the precise shade of the grass around Ypres was, just as we do not know the real eye color of the soldier whose irises are colored blue in his closeup. It is impossible to know if the man whose voice was dubbed with a Bedfordshire accent really did speak like a native of Maulden. Perhaps we can excuse these choices as a form of artistic license. But they also point to the constructed nature of the film, and its inherent bias towards a white, imperial, and, above all, male narrative, one that historians have been working to overcome for a generation.

On the role of non-British and non-white men, Jackson’s film is silent.
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