By Alex Gehrlein ’19
I admittedly don’t know all that much about the first world war. I remember little more than trenches and Franz Ferdinand from my history classes, and haven’t watched much beyond All Quiet On The Western Front. The main reason I even saw this film was out of love for Peter Jackson, and a need to see something new from him that didn’t have the name Tolkien attached. We all know Jackson from Lord of The Rings, and hardcore horror buffs might even appreciate the madcap comedy of Dead Alive or Bad Taste. His career has taken him over every terrain of filmmaking, but the last thing I would have ever thought to call him would be a great documentarian, probably because this is his first documentary, but I am more than happy to call his first effort a roaring success.
The big problem with historical footage is that it feels impersonal. Black and white film was never the best tool for capturing history, and watching the jerky, scratchy, grainy footage of the early 1900’s is a very detached experience. You forget the real people in front of the camera, and see it as more of a document than a looking glass. Jackson’s goal with the film seems to be to bring us in closer to the first world war than ever thought possible using this footage, and he does so with a masterful selection of restored and enhanced clips.
We are lulled into the main action by transitioning from still photos and original black and white footage to the colorized film and then pulled back out. You are taken on a soldier’s journey, and the intensity of color matches that of the real life action.
Unknown faces in the hoards of young men are imprinted with character by the recorded recollections of veterans played in conjunction with them. The varying views of the commentators give a broad portrait of the war, and seem destined to have matched perfectly with the footage they accompany. It is easy to see why this process took four years in total, as the unfathomable number of hours needed to select the right sequence of footage and audio goes above and beyond the difficulty of any standard film production.
Not only is this a great documentary, but it’s a technical marvel. Few movies are able to give such a comprehensive understanding of a particular time or place, especially when so far removed from the events they depict. No material was made especially for this film. No voice over was written. Jackson has told a sweeping epic using literal “found footage” in a way that rivals his best work, and in the purest sense of the word documentary.