They Shall Not Grow Old
Peter Jackson and I have at least one thing in common. Both of us had a grandfather who served in France during World War I. This vastly under reported war created huge shifts in every aspect of human existence. An entire generation of British youth was wiped out in four years. The United States became a heavy hitter. An obscure German painter became bitter and hateful and unleashed an even bigger world wide mayhem twenty years later. Barbed wire became a huge part of warfare, as did airplanes and tanks and submarines. The role of the horse faded to nothing. A flu pandemic spread to kill more people than the war claimed. It was a huge war with huge repercussions that has been largely forgotten.
Putting together a two hour documentary that feels like a good representation is an incredible undertaking, and one Peter Jackson is eminently qualified to create, with his history of crafting huge film projects like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and there were a lot of moving parts to this documentation. It begins with somewhat grainy black and white film of a line of soldiers marching casually past a fixed camera on a dusty French road. After a few moments you begin to notice that the four and five abreast, tightly packed line of men seems to be a never ending stream. They march past and march past while a voice over begins of men talking about their war time experience. This is the format for the entire movie. We’re shown beautifully restored video while the men who actually fought and lived through the war tell us what happened in their own words.
In a linear progression Jackson takes us from the home front where children play and people walk carefree on the streets, to ebullient young men learning to march, fix bayonets and gut dummies with abandon, and then arrive on the front to quickly learn what a hell hole they signed up for. And always, there are the voices of men telling us their experience. Suddenly, as we watch men walking toward the front over rough ground, carrying heavy burdens, the film suddenly fades into color.
This switch makes a huge difference in the viewer’s experience with the narrative. Instead of the faded, static, short pieces of jerky action we’re used to seeing from the infancy of film, Jackson’s documentary is beautifully modern and filled with close up shots, and sound and movements that look natural. Bombs sound as loud as they look. Horses scream when they’re blown to bits. Silently moving lips turn into speech. I began to notice that my feelings for the men I was watching changed from an observation of a time long ago to watching real people go through a horrible time and more than likely a horrible death on the battlefield. Everything is absolutely real, with not one second of recreation, or actors’ voices or professional narration. It was easier to see the facial expressions of the men with the closer, colored shots. I have never seen such a devastatingly emotional depiction of an historical event, especially one normally covered with a few often used bits of film.
When the war is done the film goes back to silent, grainy black and white, and the men who lived through it talk about how their lives were never the same and how badly they were treated by those who could never understand what they’d gone through. This is one of many things about The Great War that is seldom relayed in the few documentaries available but that Jackson makes sure to cover, like having only Plum & Apple Jam rations for long stretches of time, to just how prevalent and malicious was the rat population in the trenches, and what it was like to take three days of R&R with actual women and then back to the front. We see colorized shots of trench foot, which is basically having your feet rotted off from weeks on end of being soaked in urine, feces and chemically saturated mud. There’s a segment on the open latrines that the men shared by sitting on a log to crap into a long hole then wiping their butt with their hands, which they didn’t have the water to wash off. A “funny” story is told about the time the log broke and all the guys fell into the hole. He covers gambling, drinking, going over the top, being friendly with the enemy, and the prevalence of battlefield euthanasia.
That’s a lot to cover in a couple of hours, which means there’s a LOT that’s left out, like the role of women and colored soldiers in the war effort, political machinations, advances in medicine including the beginning of acceptance that there can be mental health injuries, issues on the home front, and how widely the war affected the whole world, not just Britain. That last is especially disappointing to me. I would love to see even half as much effort given to the American experience in the war. Books and films on that subject are fairly uncommon. The British experience is the usual story and that leaves me only able to speculate about how much of it is what my grandfather went through. Maybe on the two hundredth anniversary in 2118 someone will give it a whirl.
If you do get a chance to see this and you’re watching the dvd, be sure to check out the special feature in which Peter Jackson lets us see just how incredibly involved and meticulous this effort was. How he and his team went through 100 hours of video, a lot of which has not been seen since it was shot and had to be restored frame by frame, and 600 hours of audio. He also talks about how much was left out because he wanted a tight, linear storyline, like the Flying Corps, submarine warfare, the home front, women nurses and drivers, colonial troops from all over the world which marked this as the truly first world war. He talks about the technical aspects of creating the documentary, like adding foley and speech, the latter by hiring professional lip readers and then voice actors with the proper accents for whatever accent the men were probably speaking in at the time. There’s an often used scene of a man reading from a printed page to some soldiers about to sortie that has only been seen silently until now. The lip readers couldn’t tell what he was saying so Jackson found what was probably the speech in a dusty old archive and read it aloud to discover it matched the film exactly. He talked about cutting together the really affecting section on going over the top and going through No Man’s Land to the German trenches, zooming in on the sometimes forced lighthearted faces of men about to charge the enemy intercut with “shock cuts” (short and gory shots of very dead men) as a way to emphasis how many of them died, how horribly they died, and that they were real people. He talked about matching the uneven speeds of hand cranked film to a speed that makes all the movements seem a lot more natural than we’ve ever seen before. He talked about how he didn’t want a movielike musical score to draw attention away from the story, but made sure to include music of the era when he could.
If you are even the least bit interested in history, or enjoy watching documentaries or want to see what really happens when the entire world goes insane, see this film. Be warned, for being shot only twenty years after the invention of motion pictures there is a good amount of gore and images of terribly rough life. There is also colorized film of naked butts hanging over the latrine trenches, which was oddly appalling rather than humorous. I don’t have anything negative to say about this film. It’s gorgeous, meticulous, harrowing and thought provoking. I would have loved to see the Americans included but absolutely understand why it wasn’t possible. See this. It’s important and incredible, and a damn near perfect example of its genre.
‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ Trailer