Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Bombed Last Night

I have been to the documentary mountaintop and it was not only dazzling, but moving.

Also, mind-blowing. I just saw a movie filmed on location on the Western Front from 1914 through 1918 and voiced by members of the Royal Artillery, the King's Royal Rifle Corps, the Royal Sussex Regionals and other units of now-dead men.

If that's not extraordinary, I don't know what is.

Everything I had read about Peter Jackson's new documentary "They Shall Not Grow Old" spoke to me except his name. It's not like I ever saw "The Lord of the Rings" or "The Hobbit" trilogies after all, so why would I know him?

Because I never like to know too much about a film before I see it, I'd only read a couple of things about the documentary. So when I sat down at Movieland, it was a pleasant surprise when instead of the film, the screen filled with Jackson's corpulent form as he began introducing his passion project. He went on to explain that he'd gotten involved with the project when Britain's Imperial War Museum had asked him to use their footage and audio tracks to make a unique film to commemorate WW I.

Unique was the operative word here.

Not sure how he could use 100-year old footage in a new way, he eventually came up with a brazen idea. First, he'd use the existing footage, but adjust the frame rate so everyone doesn't look sped up like in old newsreels. Second, he'd colorize the film to make the figures in it more relatable. And third, there would be no talking heads, just voice-overs from actual WW I vets who had been recorded by oral historians back during the '60s and '70s.

The icing on the cake was when Jackson invited us to stay put after the credits for a half-hour documentary about how the film had been created.

No one needed to ask this documentary dork twice to hang around.

Peter Jackson, I'm sorry I had no clue who you were. I'm not sure which idea was the most clever or well-executed, because everything you did caused the soldiers to come alive on screen, which amounted to a cinematic miracle.

Early on, he mashed up old WW I posters with moving footage of soldiers for a combination of colorful but static propaganda ("Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?") with a black and white inset of soldiers marching and drilling.

The truly magical moment occurred after about ten minutes of vintage black and white film which suddenly morphed into color, like Dorothy touching down in Oz.

One thing I especially loved was the minutiae of what the former soldiers recalled about their days in the army. Almost all of them complained about the absence of strawberry jam for toast because apparently the army served apple plum jam exclusively. But having to shave daily, even when on the front lines, they accepted as just military protocol.

Much of the imagery was hard to stomach because you knew it was real. I don't need to see bloated corpses, dead horses or a man's hands and feet diseased with gangrene. To a man, all of them commented on the sickly smell of decaying corpses, made all the more vivid because of seeing them in color.

As one vet put it about seeing bodies with lungs or guts on the outside, "It was a fantastic exhibition of anatomy." How's that for a positive spin about seeing so much carnage?

And don't get me started on the ubiquity of bad teeth or seeing the Scottish regiments in kilts, marching onto the battlefield with bagpipes and who knows how little underneath.

Yet another winning decision was to have a forensic lip-reader transcribe what men were saying when their lips are moving so that British actors (of the correct dialect for the unit) could dub in the dialog. As for what the men were doing while they were in the trenches, that was left to the vets in the voice-over.

Answer: thinking deeply and, because most of them were 14 -19 years old, telling dirty stories.

And because these were British soldiers fighting on the Western Front, they were always looking for a way to get hot water for a cuppa tea. Solutions included using the hot water from their water-cooled machine guns or from a locomotive engine.

For the scenes set during battle, Jackson had no actual footage (obvi), so he used illustrations from War Illustrated, a weekly paper during the war that used artists' sketches to keep the home front abreast of the fighting. Conveniently, Peter had several hundred of them at home. As it happened, he also had an extensive collection of WW I uniforms, which came in handy when the digital team was colorizing the onscreen uniforms.

"I also had a few pieces of WW I artillery, as you do," he deadpanned, saying they used it to reproduce the sounds of them being fired.

And not to sound like an idiot, but I'd never considered the origins of the phrase "the walking wounded" until seeing tonight's footage of bleeding and broken men somehow able to walk to the unit's next destination.

It was fascinating hearing these veterans talk about how they bore no malice to the Germans they were fighting. "They were just doing what they were told, just like we were," one observed. There was even footage of the German and British troops laughing and trying on each other's hats once the ceasefire had been declared.

Even the soundtrack, aside from the voice-over, was expertly done. If a soldier in the screen lit a cigarette (because these boys smoked constantly), there was the sound of a match striking. If someone joked and you saw laughter, there was the sound of laughter. Eerie for otherwise silent footage.

Most of the soldiers had joined the army as teenagers, so it was all they knew, making the transition to civilian life very difficult even with the free wool suit the army supplied them with on discharge.

Several said they were too far gone and too exhausted for the real world and no one wanted to talk about the war once it was over. Employers made it even clearer, posting ads that read, "No servicemen need apply."

Sounds like we're not the only country to mistreat its returning warriors.

When the film ended, I was gratified to see the extensive listing of all the men who had been interviewed, along with their units. Next came a credit thanking the oral historians who'd captured their memories.

But what really surprised me was that all but a half dozen people in the theater got up and left while the credits were playing. How in the hell do you watch a technological masterpiece like that and not be curious about how it came to be?

My new hero Peter talked about restoring and cleaning up the 100-year old film to the point that it was so concise that he was able to zoom in on lesser tableaux and blow them up as details. So while the original cameraman had been filming mortar going off, Peter showed us soldiers being shot, their horses falling over in the process.

He talked about how his goal had been to tell one small story from the many of that war, specifically that of an average British soldier and his feelings and thoughts. So we saw a battle-fatigued soldier marching, his hand trembling uncontrollably, saw men sleeping in cubbyholes created between sandbags 100 yards from the front with shells whizzing overhead and saw men with bandaged faces, their bloody mouths the only recognizable feature on their entire faces.

As I sat there watching the film, it occurred to me that brilliance of it was that it was a film for non-history types, but Peter clarified that even further, saying it was a film made by a non-historian for non-historians.

And, when you get right down to it, made for a documentary dork like me.

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