On Friday lunchtime, I left the bright streets of the West End of London – goodbye Piccadilly, farewell Leicester Square – and along with a few dozen other souls took up a seat in the flickering dark of a cinema to watch Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. Jackson’s film, which restores colour and speech to real footage of the war on the western front, is both a technical miracle and a shattering human spectacle. “Bloody injury. Real dead bodies,” the British Board of Film Classification warns in rating the film “15”, the age of some of those hundreds and thousands of young men who feature briefly in it.
Jackson, whose grandfather survived the war in France, has devoted the three years since his final Oscar-nominated instalment of The Hobbit to constructing his film. It began with an invitation from the Imperial War Museum to spend some time with the footage and oral testimony in its archive, to see what could be done. The result sometimes seems less an act of cinematography than of resuscitation. Using painstaking digital colouration techniques and a small battalion of lip-readers, it kisses life into lost faces and voices. Bits of snatched conversation, a century old, are heard above the thunk and clatter of shell bombardment. Some are addressed to the camera. “Hold up, boys, here it comes, we’re in the pictures.”
Our understanding of the First World War is a collective memory of the memory of others. It always seemed natural that those memories, preserved in every family’s photo albums, had the full spectrum of life bombed out of them. That was not only a retrospective judgment. “I again work more in black and white than colour,” Paul Klee noted in trying to paint the war in 1917. “Colour seems to be a little exhausted just now.” But here it is, revived. They look you straight in the eye, these lads and pals, our grandfathers and great-grandfathers with their rotten teeth and mugs of tea, as if they had waited all this century to be liberated from sepia.
The new proximity is profoundly unsettling. I was reminded of Austerlitz, that meditation on war by WG Sebald, in which “we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, and only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision”.
Jackson’s film marks the culmination of the 14-18 NOW arts projects, which set out with the aim of making remembrance memorable in new ways. David Cameron first announced a £50m grant for the commemorative programme soon after the Olympics in 2012. In doing so, he imagined a conventional lesson from the most unfathomable of wars: “These men signed up to prevent the domination of a continent and to preserve the principles of freedom and sovereignty that we cherish today.” Partly because a narrower idea of sovereignty ended Cameron’s premiership, and partly because good artists have an instinctive distrust of platitudes, the projects have established themselves in affecting ways. The 888,246 ceramic poppies pouring out of the Tower of London in Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, seen by millions, started that process. Jeremy Deller quietly developed it in his commemoration of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, in which groups of soldiers appeared across the country in shopping centres and railway stations, as if disinterred for some khaki day of the dead, singing: “We’re here because we’re here.”
What were these events? History lessons? Memorials? Deller talked about having remembrance be not an official event you attend but something that invades your reality, that shocks you into active sympathy. He worried, he said, about what would happen if his 1,600 Tommies were mocked by shoppers and commuters. What he hadn’t planned for was how to react if onlookers spontaneously burst into tears, which many did.
There may be similar reactions today when, in the idea of the film director Danny Boyle, on beaches around the country, large portraits in sand of some of those who died will be raked by local communities. The images will be committed to the memory of the internet, before being washed away on the tide.
The question of how we will remember the slaughter was built into the war. It is disturbing to recall that the words of Laurence Binyon’s Ode of Remembrance were written in the first month of the killing, not the last. It was, as Jackson’s film emphasises again, above all a war of incomprehensible inevitability; “we’re here because we’re here”. In keeping that horror in mind, there has always been the risk of patriotic self-indulgence.
In the 1930s, WB Yeats, brutally, did not include Wilfred Owen in The Oxford Book of Modern English Verse, on the grounds that “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry”. History has heard more defiance in Owen’s words, but if, 100 years on, we are not commemorating passive suffering, then what are we memorialising?
Does watching the footage of young men, now alive, now dead and dying, act as an engine of empathy? You hope so. Some of the most human moments of Jackson’s film are those in which survivors recall meeting the enemy: “The German soldier was a very nice fellow”; “he couldn’t care less who won, as long as it ended”. The inking in of the blood made both the terrible injuries and terrible ironies no more plausible, however. “That’s a very good story,” the woman behind me said to her husband at the end, and then checked herself: “A good way of putting it together.”
And what otherwise are you left with? At least this: everyone in the cinema stayed in silence to watch the credits of the vast ranks of technicians and sound engineers roll on Jackson’s film. We are used to seeing long lists of names in relation to this war. I don’t think I was alone in holding on to the simple gratitude that each of these names, like my own, belonged to someone that history had allowed to live and love and work – and to keep alive anger at the reality of those it had not.
• Tim Adams is an Observer columnist