Film Review – They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

The name Peter Jackson will evoke mixed reactions between audience members. Many will celebrate the masterful epic of The Lord of The Rings Trilogy (2001-3), whilst others will shrug at the less-than-perfect prequel adaptions The Hobbit (2012-14). Nonetheless, Peter Jackson can certainly be credited with an eye for the spectacular. And that is no less apparent in his latest whirlwind documentary They Shall Not Grow Old (2018).

Retracing real soldiers’ journeys who toiled through the trenches of World War One, a crew of specialists have painstakingly restored footage reaching back into the 1910s. The effort gone into restoration is obvious from the incredible detail of these videos, shortened from 100 hours of footage. As our contemporary society has become used to experiencing the past through damaged flickers of black and white images, to see the old world brought to life is truly breath-taking. Jackson emphasises this shock by opening the film with original archive footage; square, grainy and greyscale. But as the images grow to fill the screen, we transition to slow each frame down to real time and saturate it in colour. The results are truly awe-inspiring, with gasps lifting into the air from every audience member.

What’s perhaps even more incredible though is the dedication to accuracy. Jackson’s team have not simply painted in the pictures with what they thought looked good, but what would have actually been there at the time. Research into uniform and professional lip-readings is evident in each frame’s precision, creating an eerily realistic vision. The screen acts almost as a time machine. But with a dream like quality to it from the hazy, unfocused foregrounds and slow-motion movements. There’s other interesting editing too- posters and photographs not simply being displayed flat on the screen but experimented with and double-exposed. Overall the whole spectacle is a delight to witness.

Moving beyond the surface level, a deeper story is told from the narrating veterans. 600 hours of interview footage was reviewed and cut together to unveil the common story of the Tommy soldier. Though each narrator had his own personal stories and memoirs, we trace the chronological narrative shared by each one. From singing up and training; trench life and companionship; to weaponry advances and key battles. As Jackson says, it’s “120 men telling a single story.”

Original footage from the Imperial War Museum.

After spending over an hour and a half with these accounts, we develop a personal connection to them. Jackson gives a voice to experiences of real British soldiers. The stories are not romanticised or politically motivated; they are just there. Plain and honest. What the soldiers thought and felt and did. Unusually, the first half of the film takes an almost pro-war attitude as the soldiers explain the excitement of being part of something bigger. Patriotic values and a stiff-upper-lip don’t exactly advocate war but reflects a more positive outlook on it. However, these initial impressions soon subvert when the shellfire and blood begin to seep onto the screen.

Because of the raw, human nature of Jackson’s documentary, there are also the comedic elements of everyday life. Accidentally firing your gun, tripping over in the mud or saying hi to your mum at the camera reminds us that these men are just boys. Not distant martyrs we honour from afar, but sympathise with today. When the desaturation appears again, bookending the film in the growing and fading of images, we are told of the veteran’s rejection from society. Due to an established connection with the narrators and surreal experience of watching such lifelike footage, a saddening note rings through as the credits roll up. Not just for the horrors of war, but the comrade’s inability to express it.

A constant rumble of gunfire stirs beneath the entire documentary, to the point we become accustomed and no longer notice it. Therefor, when the artillery ceases on the day the ‘guns fell silent’, we actually hear the silence in the film. Peaceful and somewhat bizarre. Mirroring how the soldiers would have felt. It’s these small techniques Jackson instruments in his filmmaking that makes this documentary not just unique, but allows a renewed understanding of what the war really meant for these soldiers. Young boys fighting for their country. Without agenda, Jackson truthfully portrays both the good and bad of the Great War. The message is best summed up by one of the opening narrators, explaining “I don’t regret it. I wish it never happened, but I don’t regret it.”

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