Coinciding with the centenary of the Great War, I think it’s safe to say They Shall Not Grow Old is a once in a lifetime achievement, and Peter Jackson does not disappoint. The result of hundreds of hours of research in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum and the BBC, he has pulled off a previously impossible feat — namely, bringing to life the images of men who fought in the war a hundred years ago. Named after the (altered) quotation from the popular Laurence Binyon poem, For The Fallen, this film is at once a look at the social impact of war from the point of view of those who fought, a critique of the lofty political rhetoric surrounding the conflict, and a celebration of the lives involved across the globe.
They Shall Not Grow Old
Director: Peter Jackson
Release Date: 16 October 2018 (11 November wide release)
Rating: PG-13 (UK 15)
They Shall Not Grow Old premiered at London Film Festival back in October, but was up for a general UK release this weekend, specifically for Armistice Day. When the trailer was released, it was just a short glimpse of the brilliant feat that this film is. And while Jackson is best known for his epic Lord of the Rings adaptations, I feel that They Shall Not Grow Old is right on par with his earlier work: it inspires the same wonder, doing what no other filmmaker has done in that kind of depth, and presents viewers with something visually arresting and completely unique. There’s little doubt that his commitment to the project is owing to his lifelong passion for the War, fuelled by his family heritage (his grandfather was a British soldier) and the end product is symptomatic of many, many hours’ patience. Some 3D enhancement has been applied, but technology never gets in the way of the action: it acts as an aid to the footage, which is captivating enough regardless.
Opening with the kind of archive footage we’re accustomed to from school history lessons, it was accompanied by voiceovers of actual war veterans, many of which were gleaned from the BBC’s 1964 documentary series The Great War. The 16mm icon taking center stage expands as the voiceovers progress, filling the screen and allowing us to process the real-life stories, matching them up to images of men going about their day, eating meals, marching or making curious eye contact at the camera. Overlaid are propaganda posters, declarations reading ‘Women of Britain say – GO!’, ‘Enlist To-Day’, and ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?’ It’s clear to see that the emotional impact of this early propaganda and the film’s first minutes paints a convincing picture of the narratives young men were fed in order to enlist.
The stories that the veterans tell are really quite touching, and the tiny details are what make them so compelling. Boys as young as 15 queuing to sign up on their lunch breaks, those too young to enlist told to ‘leave the room, come back, and say you’re 19’. It’s a humanizing effect to show that the men on screen – remembering that this is the first time that any of this footage has been brought into the public eye – had their own ambitions and motivations in joining the army. Even today, seeing that they were so young, living sheltered lives and thrust into the promise of an opportunity to go abroad and ‘do their bit’ – it’s sad with hindsight, but shows how easy it was to become enticed by the war.
Then, about half an hour in, an electrifying change happens: the monochrome footage becomes colorized, and the effect is instantaneous. Previously unknown faces smile and laugh, landscapes are filled in with detail and the images are slowed down to avoid the Charlie Chaplin-style stick figures that have become synonymous with archive footage. Instead, with smooth, fluid pictures, each frame painstakingly hand-colored and visibly labored over, the men become real, matching up with the veterans’ voiceover. At times it was so realistic that I expected the camera to whip round and speak to, say, a presenter visiting a war zone: it could have easily been filmed within the last couple of years, looking as vivid as it did.
It must be noted, though, that the cautionary rating (higher than usual for a film of this style) is in place owing to some graphic and upsetting images. Of course, in war you can’t separate the brutalities from the romanticized stories of honor and glory: Jackson was absolutely right to include everything he did, especially images of wounded and fallen soldiers. Accompanying these are often harrowing stories delivered via voiceover. These should carry a warning that glorifying the war isn’t necessarily the best way of remembering it – millions of individuals were murdered, on each side, and losing a whole generation of young men was something from which the world never really recovered. I can imagine that those working on restoring the images were given ample time to dwell on how the war really shattered lives, and those of us watching are definitely encouraged to pause and think about what the centennial is marking.
However, the evocative images of violence are all part of the bigger picture. For the most part, Jackson leaves us with happy memories, watching men and boys of all ages laugh with each other over dinner, or nod playfully to the camera when walking past during a march. The lip-reading capacities of the foley artists are absolutely astounding, and the way the sound has been mastered to fill in the clatter of the trenches or the footsteps and wheels along country roads is so realistic it could have been filmed in recent times. Not only this, but the voice acting is authentic and apparently inseparable from the veterans’ anecdotes. A surprise “Hello Mum!” from one chirpy soldier is precisely the kind of candid moment that makes the documentary so believable and the individuals so endearing.
The documentary does a very competent job of lacing together a story of the war from the eyes of those who lived it, bringing them to life in a unique way that has not been attempted on such a scale before. There are moments that may upset some viewers, but it is an important landmark in commemorating an unspeakable tragedy, and an important film for anyone to see. While archive footage was once only available to scholars and researchers, Jackson has made it beautifully accessible, retelling the stories of those who will no longer be forgotten. It will receive a US release in December, with a special introduction from Jackson explaining his perspective on the importance of seeing the footage in color, allowing an even wider audience to gain access to this truly special piece of work.