To mark 100 years since the end of The First World War, director Peter Jackson has restored archive footage of the conflict with dramatic results. But should some things just be left as they are?
Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson has just revealed the results of his latest project: the enhancement of hours of First World War footage – fully colourising it and adding a soundtrack.
The film, They Shall Not Grow Old, combines archive footage from the Imperial War Museum and interviews with those who fought – and is being released in UK cinemas on Tuesday 16 October.
The result is striking. The enhanced and coloured footage, along with the soundtrack, brings the viewer a lot closer to what the war must have been like for those fighting in it.
Full colour war
As Peter Jackson told the BBC: “Our image of the First World War was as a black and white war, but it was not a black and white war. It was a war in full colour if you were a soldier there.”
“I wanted to give people a feeling as accurately as I could… to what it was like to be in that war and just what it was like from a human point of view.”
And the film certainly does that. Here’s a preview:
But are there some things that shouldn’t be restored? As CGI and film technology progress, there are clearly broad ethical questions to be asked about whether films should be left in their original state or restored.
But for me, black and white footage can only go so far in educating modern audiences about historical events – and there are few events as important as The Great War; if a better medium is available to do this, like colour film, why not use it?
There’s a clear educational purpose to They Shall Not Grow Old, IE. to accurately as possible show audiences now what the war looked and felt like then.
I think things are different when restoring entertainment, as George discussed on Convo last year raising questions about artistic ownership and vision.
The colourisation of black and white films isn’t a new thing: it’s been going on since at least the 1980s, as this extensive Wikipedia list of b&w classics that have been colourised shows.
And – probably because most of these early colourisations looked fairly terrible – there’s been a backlash against them from the beginning, with some film journalists describing it as “Hollywood’s new vandalism”.
One classic that resisted the colourisation craze in the 80s was Citizen Kane – a film which, as a megalomaniac journalist, I’ve always been a huge fan of.
Kane avoided this fate after the entertainment company proposing to colourise it found doing so may have breached Orsen Welles’ contract with the film’s production company.
But the question remains, would colourising Citizen Kane have made it a better film? Probably not, I’d say.
B&W is best?
Orson Welles (who produced, directed, co-wrote and starred in the film) will have planned everything from the script and the casting to the sets, locations and lighting with the limitations, but also virtues, of black and white in the back of his mind – If he’d planned this all for colour, the film would likely have been quite different.
Film critic Roger Ebert has said of colourisation: “What was so wrong about black and white movies in the first place? By filming in black and white, movies can sometimes be more dreamlike and elegant and stylized and mysterious.”
Colourising Citizen Kane, though technically possible, probably wouldn’t enhance it and might actually make it a worse film – all the good things that go with black and white, pointed out by Ebert, having been lost.
But what do you think? Have your favourite black and white films or TV shows been colourised – and what do you think of the results? Do you think Peter Jackson’s enhancement of black and white footage is useful for remembering the First World War?