‘I think the magnitude was just beyond their comprehension’ says one voice at the close of this fascinating, intensely personal, curatorial documentary by Peter Jackson. The speaker is a First World War veteran describing his return to civilian life; in one fell blow, he strikes on the problem with current perceptions of the war experience. Fundamentally, there has always been something distancing about the jolty silent film footage that provides the modern viewer’s only way ‘into’ the trenches. Embracing new technological advances, however, Jackson has changed the game and produced the most visually visceral and true-to-life Great War documentary ever made.
Four years in the making, the film has been composed entirely from archival material. On screen, we see contemporary footage, posters and illustrations from the Imperial War Museum collection, whilst aurally a near-constant stream of voices from sixties and seventies BBC interviews offer insightful and well-matched veteran commentary. As anecdotes tell of how sixteen, seventeen and eighteen year old men were advised to fake their ages for enlistment, Jackson zones in on the youthful faces of fresh recruits smiling and laughing at a film camera of the sort they had probably never encountered before in their lives. Although the narrators tell a survivor’s story – ‘this is how we looked at the thing’ – most of these young men will soon be dead.
Jackson pulls no punches in addressing the cruelty of war. Majestic shots of devastating explosions play out alongside footage and photography depicting strewn corpses, both human and animal. It’s deeply harrowing even in black and white and gruelling to watch. What’s worst is that the visuals don’t do the experience justice, with one veteran describing his nasal endurance as being akin to smelling a dead mouse ‘but hundreds and hundreds of times worse.’ That said, I confess to never having seen a funnier documentary concerning such a dreadful period of history, nor one with so many comedy arses. This is a film very much concerned that its protagonists should not simply be seen as helpless victims.
Of course, no cinematic account can really put a viewer in Flanders fields but boy does Jackson come close. Teaming up with some of the wizards behind his Lord of the Rings films, Jackson has restored old film reels, removed their scratched imperfections, re-graded them, altered their speeds – from anything between 10 and 20 frames per second to 24 – and painstakingly coloured their frames to radically modernise the images.
The effect is jaw-dropping. It is powerful and it is brilliantly humanising. Chaplin-esque figures become real before your eyes, gaining personality along with natural motion. ADR sound accompanies the pictures – including lip-read recordings to give the soldiers a voice for the first time in a hundred years: ‘Hello Mum!’ – and this could have been filmed yesterday. So impressive is the quality of the material that remembering to actually listen to the narration becomes an increasingly distracted occupation.
As a documentary, outwit its technical achievements, They Shall Not Grow Old does have flaws. Most notably – perhaps due to the limitations of the material itself – there is little sense of the vast scale of the conflict, whilst those who didn’t know better, might be forgiven for mistaking the Great War’s length for a much shorter time frame on this evidence. Specific battles go unmentioned and the eastern front is a story for another day. Whilst the film does benefit from an intensification of its focus, there’s diminishment too in allowing a very specific narrative perspective to define the direction.
Ultimately, such qualms feel trivial to the bigger picture. An aesthetic masterpiece, Jackson’s film has the potential to revolutionise the way we learn about the early-twentieth century. If it is sacrilege to colourise fictional cinema from the period, doing so to factual now feels vital. There is, for example, no stronger pectoral account of just how poor dental hygiene was among young men in 1914. Outstanding.