They Shall Not Grow Old - 2018

They Shall Not Grow Old

Peter Jackson's documentary on World War I using remastered original footage from 1914-1918 supplied by the Imperial War Museum in London is an impressive storytelling feat. Using the comments of actual WWI veterans audibly superimposed to correspond with the images on the screen, a narrative slowly comes together showing how the typical British soldier dealt with training, transfer to the fields of France, and then bursting into a long colorized section, what the experience of trench warfare, shelling and mustard gas was like. The many voices, from recordings made during the 1950s and 1960s, simply state the reactions the soldiers had, what they thought during crucial moments, and how the slaughter affected them.

The narrow focus of the documentary leaves out a great deal of history about the war, never specifically recalling certain battles, strategies, leaders, politics, cultural events, or even what countries were involved other than Germany vs. the British, though a little side trip is made to recount how the British (and captured Germans) felt about the Prussians (did not like them) and what was the feeling toward Bavarians (admired them). The Scots soldiers are easy to identify (they're in kilts) but otherwise we might be looking at men from England, Wales, New Zealand, India, Canada, or even America at any given moment.

This exploration of what the fighting soldier experienced without consideration of all the rest that drives forward the machinery of war limits any understanding of the event except in human terms of the cost (with over one million casualties, the cost was immense). Jackson does extend the story a little past the 1918 armistice marking the end of hostilities to provide a brief look at the coldness or indifference that awaited returning soldiers to the UK who were often ignored and even treated with outright discrimination as they tried to integrate back into the workforce. No mention is made of the disastrous collapse in Germany in the wake of 1918, probably because this would inevitably be a narrative thread pointing the way toward Hitler and the desire for getting even after the badly thought-out treaty of Versaille, each big stories themselves and hard to define in a brief way.

Jackson's team reworked the old footage using CGI to radically improve the image quality and to rebuild elements that were heavily damaged. After the end credits of the documentary stopped (I saw the movie at a Fathom Events screening at a Regal Theatre), Jackson appeared on screen to give a tour of how the documentary was made and the decisions they faced as they put it together from the old film and audio recordings.

Why the colorization of the footage during the warfare section of the piece? Jackson says he needed to make the story acceptable to 21st century audiences who have certain expectations, plus he felt he knew for certain that if color film had been available during the 1914-1918 war, these 20th century cameramen without hesitation would have used color over black and white. The superiority of color to show depth of field isn't mentioned by Jackson, but it is obvious on the screen as masses of soldiers move across vast battlefields, the distances and sizes of those battles are much clearer to comprehend through color. The stark images of dead soldiers and the general carnage of trench fighting is also made clearer through color. Jackson shows off some of his collection of World War I artifacts and how they were used to accurately pinpoint the correct colors for uniforms and equipment. Modern photography of France was used to accurately recreate the coloring of grass fields and roadways, such as the famous "Sunken Road" of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

The only area the documentary that was lacking was in not allowing a fuller telling of the human reaction of the soldiers, which is an irony considering the focus. Only a bare demonstration of religion is made in They Shall Not Grow Old, yet we know historically the war was perceived by many as a religious war between the Allies as righteous defenders (or avengers) of Christendom and the Germans led by Antichrists bent upon Apocalypse. Perhaps it's just as well that Jackson avoided these propaganda images, however much embraced at the time, yet I would have wanted to know the reaction of the soldiers in the trenches, did the experience make them more religious in their faiths, or less? Did they leave the battlefield atheists, or more in awe of their god (or gods)? Did these events in the lives of these predominantly young men lead to the radical politics of the 1920s (and beyond), or conservatism? Jackson gives us a view of the sex lives of the men (brothel stories in French towns are related to us as an important part of the narration) yet politics and religion are absent, as if these people in the midst of war had no deeper feelings than survival instincts, frustration and shock at the whirlwind of destruction all around them, something I find as lacking normal human circumspection.

Complaints aside, Jackson's work in They Shall Not Grow Old enlarges how old footage can be used through the magic of CGI in telling documentary stories. The narrative structure is unique and powerfully expresses a sense of what that war was like at a gut level, and the voices lend a humanity and sense of identity with an assemblage of accents and speaking styles. The added in singing, bagpipes and whistling also builds up the sheer humanity of the proceedings. Jackson used clever film techniques to bridge the limitations of the old silent film scraps, and it is clear from the after credits section that he holds a deep personal fixation on the war (a person doesn't collect World War One artillery and uniforms on a whim), and this passion for doing the job justice comes through.

Page November 2018

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