February 2, 2019 – This unique documentary by Peter Jackson, the BBC and the Imperial War Museum, brings World War I, which ended 100 years ago, to life in a new, high-tech way.
Rather than trying to do an all-inclusive documentary, Jackson, wisely I think, chose to focus on one aspect of the war, that is the personal experiences of average British infantrymen fighting the Germans on the Western Front. It is all about life in the trenches as well as deadly machine guns, artillery and poison gas.
The film opens in a small screen format (roughly 4:3, or 1.33:1, like old TVs) in black and white, showing civilian life just before the war, in 1914. The voices on the soundtrack are from actual voice recordings of people who lived in that era, talking about what the mood of England was like just before the war. This continues through the beginning of the war as we follow people through enlistment and basic training.
Once the men arrive in France, however, the image shifts to a more widescreen format (1.78:1 or 16:9, like a widescreen TV) and the black and white is digitally colorized (more on this later). The change in the video is dramatic and the people seem to come to life on the screen.
Using the same chronological approach, the movie goes from soldiers on boats crossing the English Channel to France, marching to the front and getting into the maze of trenches, so confusing the soldiers need guides to lead them to their designated locations.
The horror of war is on display in the film, with vivid illustrations of the devastation caused by machine gun fire, phosgene and mustard gas attacks, bombs and heavy artillery attacks. In one attack by the British forces against the Germans, no man's land, between the trenches is so covered by bodies of dead soldiers that soldiers could not avoid stepping on the bodies of their comrades, and tanks rolled right over those bodies.
While there is some actual footage of an attack, it was far too dangerous for a movie cameraman to capture a full-scale trench warfare assault. For such an attack, depicted in the film, Jackson used illustrations from war magazines sold during the war. This is explained in the 30-minute “making of” documentary that followed the film in some theatrical presentations.
The movie follows the soldiers through the war, to its conclusion, when the film switches back to the earlier 4:3 black and white format to show to soldiers going back home to England, and the difficulties they had reintegrating to society. No civilians wanted to talk about the war, and nobody could relate to the experiences of the soldiers except other soldiers. The film's extensive credits are accompanied by a popular soldier's song from the era, “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” (AKA “hinky dinky parlez vous”) Jackson had a group of Englishmen sing a long version of the song, of which there are many verses, discarding the most sexually explicit verses, of which there are many.
The “making of” documentary, narrated by Jackson (he also narrates a short introduction to the film) shows how the high-tech color grading, colorization, foley sounds, dialog and cannon fire sounds and other effects were done. Recordings of actual cannons were used. The color of actual WWI uniforms (from Jackson's own extensive WWI memorabilia collection) used in the war were used to make the colorization accurate. Even the color of the landscapes from the Western Front were copied from photos of the area taken by Jackson himself.
Both Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh have relatives who fought in World War One. Jackson has an extensive collection of World War One items, including 70 flight-worthy vintage WWI aircraft. Jackson's intense interest in the subject is evident in the film, as is his attention to detail. He's a fine director, skilled at doing large, complex projects (“Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” movies) and for this film, he put together a large, dedicated team to make an exceptional documentary film.
I missed the first couple of opportunities to see this in late 2018, but luckily, it was brought back by popular demand, and I was able to see it in 3D at the Regal Fox Theater in Laramie. Unfortunately, it is in limited release, and may not play much longer, but it looks like it will stick around is here through February 14, 2019, at least. This film rates a B+.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.