An as­tound­ing film. We will re­mem­ber it

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - FOOD -

World War I. Pop­pies, Re­mem­brance Sun­day, two min­utes’ si­lence, jit­tery black-and-white footage, grow­ing up in the Six­ties and see­ing old men with a miss­ing arm or leg, my friend’s grand­fa­ther who had been gassed and still screamed in the night, my own grand­fa­ther who re­fused to talk about any of it. But un­til Peter Jack­son’s They Shall Not Grow Old I had never felt it. Not re­ally. The clos­est I ever came to feel­ing it was, per­haps, the fi­nal scene of Black­ad­der Goes Forth, which is em­bar­rass­ing but there you are. But Jack­son’s film reached back down the years with such clar­ity it was as if you could stretch out to these men, some as young as 16, and touch them. He took them from his­tory and put them along­side us. World War I was real and hor­rific. I know that now.

The film com­bined footage and au­dio from the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum ar­chive. The footage, which had been sta­bilised, had also been sen­si­tively colourised. It started in black and white but segued into colour after 20 min­utes and it was elec­tri­fy­ing. I don’t know why colour would have such an ef­fect but sud­denly these men were no longer from some­where back then. They be­came alive. They be­came like you or I as ev­ery lit­tle de­tail leapt into life, par­tic­u­larly the ex­pres­sive­ness of faces. The teenage faces could have been of any boy shop­ping in Foot Locker to­day. The men’s faces could have been of the man who was be­hind you in Sains­bury’s just now. There were scenes of these men and boys, whom it felt like we could know, lark­ing about – lark­ing about with their Ger­man pris­on­ers, even – but mostly it was snap­shots of hell: bod­ies blown apart or black and bloated, horses blown apart, wounds, trench foot, dysen­tery.

The oral his­to­ries cov­ered ev­ery­thing from the lice – ‘funny lit­tle things, like lit­tle lob­sters’ – to the stench of de­cay­ing corpses – ‘nasty, sickly… bits of hu­man body ly­ing around be­came an every­day thing’ – to the re­al­i­ties of com­bat, ‘I sud­denly had this pain in my left hand and looked down and saw a hole in it.’ Or it was, ‘A shell had hit this man. Knocked off his left arm and his left leg… He was call­ing out for mummy so I shot him. I had to. He’d have died in any case and I had to put him out of his mis­ery.’ The voice then broke, tear­fully, and said sim­ply, ‘It hurt me.’

There were no talk­ing heads or his­to­ri­ans. Based on foren­sic lip-read­ing of the old footage, and voices pro­vided by ac­tors, some­times the men even spoke for them­selves. ‘Hello mum!’ one said as he passed the cam­era. ‘We’re in the pic­tures!’ ex­claimed an­other. The nar­ra­tive came from telling the story chrono­log­i­cally, from the men first sign­ing up to their re­turn after the war, where there was no hero’s wel­come await­ing. In­stead, it was mass un­em­ploy­ment and, most heart­break­ingly, com­plete in­dif­fer­ence. ‘They knew we came back cov­ered in mud and lice but didn’t un­der­stand the strain of wait­ing for some­thing to drop on your head… the mag­ni­tude was beyond their com­pre­hen­sion.’ They Shall Not Grow Old is the near­est we will ever get to com­pre­hend­ing and, al­though Peter Jack­son di­rected all the Lord Of The Rings films, this is his mas­ter­piece, and it will be his legacy too.

Com­bat and power was also the theme of the first of David At­ten­bor­ough’s new se­ries, Dy­nas­ties. It fol­lowed a group of chim­panzees in Sene­gal, West Africa, and in par­tic­u­lar it fol­lowed David, the al­pha male de­ter­mined to hang onto be­ing big boss. Four years in the mak­ing, it was stun­ningly filmed and pow­er­fully emo­tive. In the night, two of David’s ri­vals, Jump­kin and Luther, set upon him, so that by the time the film crew ar­rived in the morn­ing it looked like he was dead. A fin­ger had been torn off. His in­juries in­cluded a grue­some open gouge to the thigh. But, amaz­ingly, he was still alive. The troop had moved on. Could he catch up and re­in­state him­self as leader?

It was vis­ually stun­ning, like I said, but even though it is im­pos­si­ble not to see our­selves in chimps, it also felt too an­thro­po­mor­phic as well as ma­nip­u­la­tive. In my mind I kept see­ing the edit­ing suite and the se­lec­tion of footage based purely on the strictly male, Game Of Thronesstyle story the mak­ers had de­cided to tell. Where were the fe­males? We saw them lick­ing David’s wounds, which was as­ton­ish­ing, but oth­er­wise they were un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated and we never found out if they took sides or any­thing. All those ba­bies David had fa­thered, did it make the moth­ers feel a par­tic­u­lar al­le­giance to him? Or not?

The two shows are con­nected, in that Jack­son’s film brought home how lit­tle changed we are from us­ing vi­o­lence to set­tle our power dis­putes, al­though you only have to look at the world to­day to see that too. I don’t know what the an­swer is. Let women have a go at run­ning things? It’s prob­a­bly worth a try.

Colourised World War I troops in Peter Jack­son’s film

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