Television and The Great War
80 years after The Great War's outbreak Hugh Purcell looks at how film moulded its popular image and fused fiction with reality.
The BBC has been asked many times to repeat its famous series The Great War; most recently to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War this August. It was, as we say with the usual tele-hype, a 'groundbreaking series', one of the first to make extensive use of archive film. The scripts by Correlli Barnett and John Terraine were powerful; their narration by the likes of Sir Michael Redgrave, Sir Ralph Richardson and Emlyn Williams eloquent, the memories of surprisingly young- looking ex-combatants (the films were made for the fiftieth anniversary in 1964) unforgettable. Yet now the series must be allowed to rest in peace.
One reason for this is that the archive film was used most improperly. It is an irony that when academic historians accuse film makers of over simplification and popularisation, it is the film archivists and producers who these days show a scrupulous respect for this source material. A documentary with the status of The Great War should not have flipped film back to front in order, even for intelligibility, to show the British and French on the left and the Germans on the right; particularly when the result reveals hundreds of left-handed riflemen! (Perhaps this technique was borrowed from Roy Boulting who used it in his feature film of Alamein Desert Victory). Nor should feature film footage from the 1920s such as The Big Parade have been used as if it was contemporary 'newsreel' shot during battle; or film of the Third Battle of Ypres have been used as if it was of the First Battle of Ypres.