'They Shall Not Grow Old': World War I Documentary Review
They Shall Not Grow Old: World War I Brought to Life
Peter Jackson's Stunning Documentary Puts You in the Trenches
The documentary "They Shall Not Grow Old" is a stunning and engrossing look at what life was like for the British men who signed up and served in the trenches during World War I.
Made from original footage provided by the Imperial War Museums' archives and audio recordings of veterans of the war, the film focuses on the daily grind of army life, the ups and downs of serving in the military, and the sheer depth of the experience that the men went through. Director Peter Jackson purposely avoids dates and names of battles, which actually gives the viewer a fuller taste of military life. After all, it is made abundantly clear that one day meant little more than any other if you were stuck in a mud-filled trench with shells raining down on you.
That's not to say there isn't a sense of narrative. The movie begins as war breaks out and ends after the Armistice in 1918. In between we get to see men lining up to enlist, training, being sent to France, surviving the trenches, attacking the enemy, capturing Germans and finally coming home. But there is little heroics shown. It's mostly day-to-day life, and it is fascinating to watch.
Over the footage come the remembrances of the veterans, talking about how scared they were, or how little they had to lose, or what the sounds of the shells did to their insides. In addition to avoiding dates, Jackson also eschews a narrator and third-person commentators. Nor does he identify any of the voices speaking during the movie (They appear only in the credits).
Those are smart choices because it leaves you feeling as if you are sitting in a roomful of old soldiers reminiscing as they watch footage of the war.
Watch the Trailer for They Shall Not Grow Old
Technological Advances Add to the Realism of the Footage
At the showing we went to there was a brief introduction by Jackson before the documentary began. He said he had been approached four years ago and asked to make something "unique and original" from the footage and audio recordings. He said it was a daunting task, but felt he could bring something different to the screen by making a documentary that focused only on how the British soldiers experienced the war. To do that, he used modern technology to colorize the footage, since, as he explained, the soldiers lived in full color.
In a brief "Making Of" segment, shown after the documentary, he said he and his team boiled down 100 hours of World War I footage and 600 hours of audio recordings (which were made in the 1960s and 1970s) to make the 99-minute movie. He said he had to leave aside amazing footage and stories about the air war and the sea battles, and basically ignore the Allies completely. (He does include some footage of German soldiers who had been captured. Many of them were turned into stretcher carriers out of necessity.)
In addition to colorizing the footage, they were able to normalize the speed of the film. Because the cameras during the war were hand-cranked, the film was exposed at anywhere from 10 to 17 frames per second. That's what causes the kind of herky-jerky movements we are used to seeing from film of that era. Using computers, they regularized the speed, bringing the footage as close to the modern-day 24 frames per second as they could. In the "Making of" segment, we see a bit of footage shown at the speed it was taken, then at the current speed. It really makes the scene so much more life-like.
All the footage shot was silent, of course. But anytime there were people in the scene talking, we can hear them. How did they accomplish that? Lip readers, Jackson explained. He hired lip readers to figure out what was being said then hired actors to say the words. Honestly, it was so well done that during the movie it didn't even dawn on me that the mumblings and small talk we were hearing weren't original.
Perhaps the funniest bit of improvisation in the movie is the song being sung over the closing credits. It is a version of the bawdy barracks song "Mademoiselle from Armentieres," which was popular during the war. Jackson chose to include it with only days remaining before the finished film was due to be handed in. Since he was working in New Zealand, there was no time to fly singers with British accents down to record the song. So he rung up the local British Embassy. The result is that over the closing credits we are hearing a number of male workers from Her Majesty's government who were sent over to Jackson's studio for a few days!
"They Shall Not Grow Old." had a limited showing in U.S. theaters this month, and it isn't out on DVD yet. I suspect it will bring in a number of awards, and then will be re-released. When it is, see it. You will be amazed.