World War I in Colour: the Definitive Illustrated History With Over 200 Remarkable Full Colourphotographs

by Charles Messenger
ISBN: 0091897823

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A Review of: World War I In Colour: The Definitive Illustrated History With Over 200 Remarkable Full Colour Photographs
by James Roots

Britain's Nugus/Martin Productions set out to upend the perception that the Great War was fought in black and white by using digital scans to colourize about five and a half hours' worth of surviving movie footage. They then isolated 200 frames from the results and wrapped them around a serviceable text by Charles Messenger to produce World War One In Colour.
While the technology has made some advances since Ted Turner performed colourized sacrilege on classic Hollywood movies some twenty years ago, it remains an awfully long way from producing something more than the mere illusion of real colour.
The photos in World War One In Colour are mostly a muddy green and brown, mixed in with overly-strong blues. Naval pictures make the sea look terrific, but unless the ships were grey in reality, they look as though the colour was shakily hand-inked onto nitrate. The blues of the sailor uniforms overwhelm their surroundings, exacerbating the lack of balance in the tints.
The best effects show up the mud of the battlegrounds and trenches, but when the colourizing process itself bleeds heavily into brown and green shades, it would be a wonder if the mud didn't end up looking handsome.
The process is not helped by the very poor focussing of the photos. The original footage was seldom in sharp focus; digitizing it and painting it in a computer only emphasizes the blurred edges and soft subjects that result from a single frame-capture.
The argument of Nugus/Martin Productions is that the "colour images give an intimacy and immediacy to those distant horrific events." Is that what we want or need? Page 33 shows a tiny boy saluting in the perfectly-tailored uniform of the German Army; does the colourizing of this appalling image give it more impact or less? Doesn't it make him more cute and endearing, rather than more horrifying?
There is one small section where, perhaps, the colourizing does have an unexpected benefit. Chapter 1 is full of 1914 photos of chuckling volunteers, recruitment rallies, the war leaders enjoying social events, fresh troops marching to the front with huge carefree grins on their faces. Colouring these scenes helps us appreciate the truth of the clich that everyone thought the war was going to be a six-month lark, a Boys' Own Adventure.
It was an innocence they were to lose very soon, and that the world has never yet recovered. Nor ever will.

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