What makes the documentary so unique is it examines World War I—the first major conflict fought after the invention of the airplane—from an aerial perspective. Although it uses a vantage point high above the trench lines to look at the war in a new way, the best part of the film is its deeply personal nature. It never loses sight of the fact that the aerial photography recorded bloody battlefields upon which millions of young men fought, suffered, and died.
As the documentary explains, the new age of aerial reconnaissance made artillery fire—the leading killer in World War I—far more accurate than ever before. For example, Keane shows how the decision of a German unit to cultivate a garden near their camouflaged barracks inadvertently gave away their position to British aviators, which enabled a devastatingly accurate series of Allied artillery strikes on the German troops. In the documentary Keane also walks the surviving stretches of trench lines with historians, who describe the grim reality of combat on the Western Front. One of the battlefields Keane explores is the Somme, where on a single day—July 1, 1916—over 19,000 British soldiers were killed and nearly 40,000 wounded. By the time the Battle of the Somme ended in November 1916, over one million British, French, and German soldiers had been killed or wounded, and yet the battle lines between the Allied and German armies had barely moved.
Most memorable of all, Keane’s documentary includes archival footage of a remarkable 1919 flight by the French pilot and war veteran Jacques Trolley de Prévaux. Armed with a motion picture camera that he attached to his aircraft, Trolley de Prévaux flew from the Belgian coastline to the French citadel city of Verdun, recording for posterity an unforgettable record of the war’s unprecedented devastation. Trolley de Prévaux’s 1919 footage, which was taken just months after the war ended in November 1918 but was only discovered a few years ago in the French military archives in Paris, is quite remarkable. In the spirit of Trolley de Prévaux, Keane takes to the air with modern pilots to fly over the same ground that Trolley de Prévaux flew over. As Keane shows, if you look hard enough, the beautiful countryside of modern France and Belgium still bears hidden scars of the conflict that cost some 16 million lives.
In a really nice touch, Keane concludes his documentary with a visit to Trolley de Prévaux’s now elderly daughter, who tragically never knew her parents. The reason was because they did not survive World War II. When Nazi Germany conquered and occupied France in 1940, Trolley de Prévaux and his wife served in the French Resistance. In 1944 the Gestapo captured, tortured, and executed them, just before the Allies liberated France from the Germans. It’s thus quite moving to see the daughter’s reaction when Keane shows her the footage of her father’s airship flight in 1919.