Should I Watch..? 'They Shall Not Grow Old'
What's the big deal?
They Shall Not Grow Old is a documentary film released in 2018 produced and directed by Peter Jackson. Made entirely with archive footage from the time as well as interviews from those who served, the film is a look back at life in the trenches during World War One from the viewpoint of ordinary foot soldiers. The project was made in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum and the BBC and was intended for release to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the end of the conflict on November 11th, 1918. The original footage had not just been restored but colourised as well with additional sound effects and voice acting added to create as realistic an experience as possible. It was released in limited theatres across the UK and US before being broadcast by the BBC on November 11th, 2018.
What's it about?
The film is made up entirely of restored footage taken at the time as well as interviews with those who experienced life back then first-hand. As we see literally hundreds of young men volunteer for the army at the outbreak of the war, we hear recollections about their training, their sense of comradery and how worryingly young some of them were when they were enlisted. Despite the minimum age for conscripts in Britain at the time being 18, we hear how many volunteers were signed up with some as young as 15.
After a brief initiation, the recruits were shipped out to the Western Front and the footage becomes colourised, depicting the endless brown fields of mud and the green uniforms of people unaware of the horrors they were about to face. Between the inhumane conditions of life in the trenches to the constant shelling by both sides and the grim fatalities that piled up around them, the romance of war quickly faded. The film also covers the end of the war on November 11th 1918 when the guns finally fell silent. What was their reaction to peace and how did they react when they returned to civilian life?
Release Date (UK)
9th November, 2018
Documentary, History, War
What's to like?
It's easy to overlook footage of war, given how it is broadcast direct to every TV in the land every night on the news. We've become desensitised to the sheer horror of conflict and you may feel that colourised footage of the First World War wouldn't offer anything new. But you're wrong - the individuals caught up in the conflict are instantly revived and suddenly become very real indeed, talking among themselves and sharing jokes. In an instant, these brave young men who sacrificed so much feel relatable and the true cost of the conflict is brought into sharp focus. The film makes no attempt to disguise the carnage with bodies lying at unnatural angles missing limbs or parts of their face, red blood staining uniforms and the muddy remains of the ground around them.
As amazing a transformation as the visuals are, the film also brilliantly marries the pictures to sound. Artillery which had been silent for so long suddenly booms and crashes once again, the sheer force of the explosions rocking the huge guns back on wheels before they slide back into place once again. Once again, its the soldiers who carry the most weight as they laugh and joke amongst themselves before finding themselves dodging bullets flying past or stepping over the bodies of the fallen. The film offers no music to alleviate the sombre mood and nor should it - this is as close to experiencing life on the Western Front as viewers today are likely to ever go through. And for that, the people we see and hear in this film have our eternal gratitude.
- Jackson considers this his most personal film, having had a grandfather who fought and died in the war. Jackson not only dedicates the film to his grandfather's memory but also refused any payment for his work.
- WingNut Films, Jackson's own production company, reviewed 100 hours of footage and over 600 hours of interviews from 200 veterans, although only 120 voices were used. WingNut also colourised all 100 hours of footage for free on behalf of the Imperial War Museum, despite not using all of it, in order to leave their archive "in better shape".
- The closing credits features a popular song from the time, Mademoiselle from Armentières. Jackson decided to use the song quite late in the production and to save time, he recruited native British members of the UK Government stationed in New Zealand to perform the song.
What's not to like?
From a technical standpoint, the film is superb and easily the most convincing colourised production I've ever seen. But there are times when this works against it - not because of a bad job but because it's suddenly too real. Ever since the conflict, these images have been in black and white and devoid of any sound. It helped to keep the war at a distance but now, you are thrown into a very real and bloody conflict, hearing stories are upsetting and genuinely powerful. That fourth wall has been broken down by Jackson's work and it makes you realise just how fortunate we are not to have to go through anything as horrific today.
I also wasn't sure why Jackson included the odd moment of humour in the picture. Granted, there were some comedic moments on the front line (in fact, you hear some people say that it wasn't too bad bar the fighting) and I understand that Jackson wanted to make this about soldiers rather than an actual moment in time. But given the other horrors we witness, it felt a little jarring to see troops laughing and smiling one minute and then see paralysing fear on their faces the next. It seemed cruel but of course, that's how things were. You never knew whether you'd be alive from one minute to the next and when the orders came to go "over the top", it basically seemed little more of a lottery whether you even managed to get to fight the Germans before getting blown up or shot in No Man's Land.
Should I watch it?
It is not an enjoyable experience but They Shall Not Grow Old should be an essential one. It brutally illustrates the futility and repugnance of war and the sacrifices made by countless millions so that we can live the lives we do today. As a tribute to the fallen, it is both heart-warming and heart-breaking as the film does a fantastic job of bringing to life men and stories that had been all-but-forgotten in this day and age.
Great For: remembering the dead, appreciating what you have, teaching younger viewers history
Not So Great For: the squeamish
What else should I watch?
Documentaries about the First World War tend to be shown as TV series, presumably due to the sheer amount of information and material needed to be shown to cover the subject adequately. As a result, most films will tend to focus on one person's story or experiences during that time. Testament Of Youth is an adaptation of the memoir by Vera Brittain, a woman who volunteered as a nurse during the war who later became a pacifist campaigner and feminist. Of course, the most famous film set during the conflict is arguably Lawrence Of Arabia, Peter O'Toole's defining role as T.E. Lawrence showing his personal struggles alongside his involvement with the Arab Revolt.
Another film that examines a key moment of the conflict is the 1981 Australian war drama Gallipoli. An early vehicle for Mel Gibson, the film looks at the experiences of several young men in rural Australia who enlist and are sent to the Gallipoli peninsula. Despite several historical inaccuracies, the film is not just about the loss of innocence during war but also highlights the identity of the fledging nation of Australia and its people at the time. A more recent film is Steven Spielberg's adaptation of War Horse, the tale of a young boy and the horse he raised dragged into the conflict and the adventures and tragedies faced by both.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox