Saturday, 8 February 2014

Re-imagining Death: World War I With Martians 

A still from the tv movie The Great Martian War - History Channel UK

I've just watched The Great Martian War, on how the martians attacked earth in 1913. The film, produced by History Channel UK, is a combination of science fiction and alternative history of World War One. Using a convincing Specialist Factual Documentary style with interviews with 'experts, survivors and veterans', and making the film look archival in nature, the viewer is successfully pulled into the war with the martians.

While beautifully rendered, amazing technology of the martians, and a great story, I felt still very uncomfortable about watching this 90 minute re-imagining. I had to ask myself::  

Is it exploitation of the war? Or is it one way to bring their story to a wider audience and honour the dead?

In order to answer this question, I wanted to know more about the film maker's intentions and approaches to the material. I found a Q & A with the producers, they address the issue of World War One directly, saying:

"We all agreed it could only work and be worthwhile if the story we set out to tell honoured the experience of the people who really lived through the horrors of the WWI era and in some way used convincing science-fiction as the way to tell some truths about the nature of the war, the enslavement of mankind by the machinery of war and its terrible and lasting consequences."

Part of this was to do their homework, and become well versed in the events before, during and after the war. The placed these real events in their narrative, such as: The United States remains neutral for much of the war, women throw themselves into the construction of munitions, and have the final blow of the Spanish Flu at the end of the war.

The producers also state that they decided it was not proper to use real archival footage of fighting or the dead. They did, however, choose to use images of men in trenches, soldiers on the march or training. They re-created first person accounts with excellent actors. That was a smart decision: if they had many families of the men, as well as historians alike would cry exploitation.

Wounded at Amiens
Canadians wounded at the Battle of Amiens lying outside of the 10th Field Ambulance Dressing Station. George Metcalf Archival Collection, Canadian War Museum.

But, does The Great Martian War trivialize World War One? We have seen this argument before in reference to past historical events. In the 1980s and 1990s, many people found the influx of movies on the holocaust of World War II very wrong. One was Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He asked in his piece for the New York Times:

"Why this determination to show ''everything'' in pictures? A word, a glance, silence itself communicates more and better. How, after all, can one illustrate famine, terror, the solitude of old people deprived of strength and orphans robbed of their future? How can one ''stage'' a convoy of uprooted deportees being sent into the unknown, or the liquidation of thousands and thousands of men, women and children? How can one ''produce'' the machine-gunned, the gassed, the mutilated corpses, when the viewer knows that they are all actors, and that after the filming they will return to the hotel for a well-deserved bath and a meal?"

But World War I is not the holocaust. It has no veterans left alive to point out that they like or don't like film adaptations of 'their conflict'. Enough time, a hundred years, has passed. Our collective memory is not as raw as it is with World War II and the holocaust. Even then, we have tons of movies and video games set in both world wars such as Sergeant York and Stalingrad.

Personally, at no time did I feel like the intention of the film makers was to dishonour the dead, or minimize the impact of the real war. My answer then has to be The Great Martian War was done with a lot of sensitivity and understanding.

However, it did leave me cold.

I kept looking at the faces of the real men in the archival footage that had been alive, asking "I wonder if they made it? Did they end up dying in the mud?" I could not divorce myself from the real events long enough to be fascinated or appreciate the effort the film makers did. I did have to study it a great deal in my undergrad, and afterwards as well.

So is it too soon? Maybe it's not a matter of time. Maybe it's more that they used archival footage at all. That the release of the TV movie comes now at the anniversary might be too calculated? The use of the interviews as well: I could imagine real veterans talking about their horrors too well. I kept asking myself: how would the real veterans of the war see this film?

We can't ask them.

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