||[Nov. 18th, 2018|01:24 pm]
We did not go to Danny Boyle's Pages of the Sea last Sunday, although we could quite easily have gone to Roker, one of the participating beaches. Why did we not go? As you know, I was feeling ambivalent about all this remembering, and marked the moment of the Armistice by composing a post about it. And I was afraid the event would be horribly crowded, that too. Seeing photographs of the event, I think I was wrong on both counts: here's my favourite picture (the photographer reserves his rights, but it's worth clicking through. Also, a description of the event, and more photographs in this set.).
Why Pages of the Sea? It's a line from Carol Ann Duffy's poem, The Wound in Time, which also does a fine job of balancing solemn commemoration with actual remembering.
We did, though, watch Peter Jackson's film, They Shall Not Grow Old, though I watched a fair bit if it with my hand over my eyes. It's an astonishing piece of work, opening with the familiar jerky black and white film flickering in a small square in the middle of the screen, the men's voices telling cheerfully how they had signed up, singly and in groups (and many of them so young) and been trained for war. And as they set off for France, the image began to fill the screen, the motion became smoother and more natural, until suddenly there was colour. Like Summer Holiday, only completely different.
It was fascinating, but I wasn't as moved by it as I had anticipated. There were moments when I had to look away (not always fast enough!) but overall it left me with more questions than emotions. I'd have loved to see an accompanying 'making of', not so much for the technical 'how did they do that?' questions (some of which are answered by this Radio Times article) as the editorial questions: who filmed this in the first place? And how, and why? What choice did Jackson have from the material available to him? Likewise for the commentary, which is compiled from oral archives recorded in the 60s and 70s by the BBC and the Imperial War Museum. Jackson comments on its extraordinary stoicism, which is true, but only part of it: against the background of every idea we now have about the war, it is positively cheerful. Not just in the opening scenes, when you might expect the film-maker to select extracts which reflect the light-hearted, optimistic expectation of a war which would be over by Christmas, not just the matter-of-factness of the descriptions of life (and death) in the trenches, the cold, the mud, the rats, the man next to you falling dead from sniper fire, but at the end of the film, the men who looked back and 'wouldn't have missed it for the world'... These were, of course, by definition the survivors, and more, the survivors who were prepared to speak to authority about what they had survived.
Meanwhile, the camera reminded you all the time of what voices were not saying. Who was the intended audience of these scenes? The cheerful groups at mess tables, or marching past the camera shouting "Hello, Mum!", I can imagine these scenes being shown: but the squalor of the trenches, both in tragic mode (those youthful faces now looking up from corpses half eaten by the mud) or comic (the rows of bare bottoms strung along a pole above a latrine pit), would this ever be shown to those at home? The footage of life in the trenches was so immediate and candid, too, it was a struggle to remember that it wasn't filmed on the ubiquitous iPhone, but on heavy cameras that had to be manhandled into position.
'Manhandled'. that's another thing: this was the war as we have only recently learned not to think of it, exclusively male and white. Was it Jackson's decision to focus in this way, to exclude the women who overcame official opposition to do their bit at the front? Or are they absent from the IWM's archive, neither seen nor heard? Similarly, it's a very European view of the war to be made by a New Zealander: Jackson talks about his interest in the war beginning with stories of his grandfather, who signed up (admittedly with the South Wales Borderers) in 1910, but fought at Gallipoli as well as in the Somme.
Against all this, my last question is trivial, but I stumble across it every time I try to think or talk about the film: how did they decide on the title They Shall Not Grow Old? The phrase draws so much power from Binyon's For the Fallen, and then stumbles, because it's wrong: I keep wanting to say the familiar words, ",They shall grow not old..." Does it work with that association? Someone must have decided it does.
And that's it, a century plus a week has passed. Will World War II be commemorated in the same way? I find that unthinkable, it seems such an entirely different matter (don't ask me why).
This entry cross-posted from Dreamwidth: comments always welcome, at either location.