Having blogged, written, researched, travelled, and breathed all things related to my Grandfather’s unit, The 18th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force from the First World War, for the last four-years it would only be natural to have an interest in seeing Peter Jacksons documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old”. Having grown up with the documentaries like “The World at War” (1973-76), war documentaries seemed a rather pedantic affair full of the screaming of Stuka sirens and repeated clips of the same night-time artillery attacks in black and white, its narration giving a basic overview of the big picture of the historic events. Then, some documentaries would extend our knowledge and sense of a war such as Ken Burns’ “Civil War” with its extensive research and well written dialogue coupled with some of the starkest war photographs taken in a conflict, became an expectation for audiences and raised the bar for production values and quality of content. Burns did not disappoint with “The War” and “The Vietnam War” had deeper content to show on the screen as the introduction of movie cameras changed our ability to document conflict. The immediacy and intensity of combat is especially prevalent in the “The Vietnam War”. On the film length format “Restrepo” and its following “Korengal” offer that raw rush as incoming rounds are almost felt during those Afghanistan War documentaries.
Peter Jackson had no such advantages of Burns’ “The Vietnam War” and the directors of “Restrepo” and “Korengal” – he did not have sound or colour in any of the source content for this epic documentary of the British experience of World War 1.
The strength of Jackson’s vision and work was a technical desire to make the film stock of 100 years ago accessible to a modern audience while focusing on a theme that is consistent and focused and avoids the possible dilution of such a wide subject. There was a wider cinematic documentation of World War 1 buy British authorities and media outlets and it would be easy to try to offer too much diverse content. Jackson does not ignore the African, Middle East, Turkish Campaigns or the naval and air force theatres of the conflict, not to speak of the Canadian, ANZAC, Indian, South African, and other nation’s contribution. He simply does not have time to pay proper homage to these subjects and, wisely, focuses on the European theatre, most specifically the British Expeditionary Forces in Belgium and the Somme. There are glimpses of Commonwealth forces in his film, but they are not his focus. It is the regiments and men, almost without fail “other ranks”, and not the officers, in which Jackson wishes to explore and we are brought on a cinematic adventure with him that may change the way you view history and documentary film.
Jackson and his team took approximately 100 hours of film, 600 hours of interviews and eyewitness World War 1 soldier audio, and other resources and pulled together a visual and aural tour-de-force. The combination of the visual effects using the old, often damaged footage and restoring it and pulling it together into a cohesive and meaningful visual tableau of the war and its effects is coupled ingeniously with dialogue of the veterans of the war to meld and weave a visual and audio expression of respect and homage to the men of so long ago. The film is shocking, funny, poignant, gruesome, and always on point. The viewer becomes immersed in the film as Jackson’s editing and structure connect us to the men in the film. Using wide shots of the natural frame of a shot Jackson will pull in on the facial expression of a soldier and we see the war through this soldier’s eyes.
An example of this is a sequence of soldiers in a sunken lane. The 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers had 2 companies and a Stokes Mortar team situated in a sunken lane at Hawthorne Ridge where a movie camera recorded these soldiers twenty-minutes before they went over the top. Of the approximately 300 men in this attack only 50 survived. Jackson massages the camera over these men’s faces. One soldier flips his rifle over on its back absent mindedly and upright again by the muzzle end repeatedly. A young soldier behind this soldier, a boy really, stares at the camera with a sad, deep, resignation as Jackson draws the frame to this young man so we can see that resignation. These men know what is about to happened and there appears to be no delusions to the horror that awaits them and Jackson captures it effectively and repeatedly.
Jackson treats his subject with adroit editing, combining the recorded narrative of the First World War veterans speaking with the movie segments we watch. The narrative enhances our experience. But it is not just the aural narrative that helps use immerse into the movie. The artillery does not boom. It reverberates bodily shocking you into increased awareness and you await the movement of the artillery crew as they action the weapon and load another shell and pull the lanyard. Then, two men are shaving, and you hear them say the words they said 100 years ago. The skillful use of digitization and colourization utilizes the work of those who spoke of their memories as old men is also combined with skillful use of voice actors saying the words of those men in those silent films from a century ago. Using profession lip readers Jackson has enhanced his film and we can “hear” the comments of a young soldier as he sees the movie camera and says, “Hey boys, we’re going to be in a movie!” How very right he is.
And what a movie.
It is wonderful and terrible. Be warned. There are some very stark and horrible still shots of the dead and some wounded. Jackson does not shirk from the horror but has weaved such a strong empathy for the men in his movie that when we, the audience, see our first dead soldier we recoil at the sight and the thought of the dead, once living, and very much made living by the documentary. It was an emotional reaction, for which I was not expecting having seen many terrible scenes in documentaries (such as those of Japanese being killed during the Tarawa, Iwo Jima). Jackson presents this necessary subject in a raw, visceral manner and it works. No one is eating popcorn now. No one is sipping their drink. We are rapt with attention. These men matter and so we should take the time for them to matter to us.
There are some niggling historical issues with the film but that is not Jackson’s fault and should not dissuade one from seeing this film. It is recommended. The 3D effects were effective but may not have been necessary as the 2D version of the film probably does not lose anything from the 3D version. Jackson introduces the film with a clarity of language that is reflected with the clarity of his vision for the film he wanted to offer to the audience. It is simply one of the most powerful documentaries I have ever seen. Jackson creates a tight focus on his subject, the infantry and artillery men of the British Forces and uses this as a basis to help us understand why it is utterly important that “They Shall Not Grow Old”.