This isn’t just another war documentary, it’s an important historical document. Despite the upsetting imagery, I sincerely hope it’s shown in schools to acknowledge the Centenary of the First World War’s end. Peter Jackson has really pulled out the stops on this one, crafting something thoughtful, affecting and deeply personal.
An account of British soldiers’ experiences during the First World War from joining up to life in the trenches and the horrors of battle, all in the survivors’ own words.
So the central gimmick being sold in marketing THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD (and whatever the honourable intentions behind the film, it is a gimmick) is the restoration and colourisation of a massive amount of footage from 1914-1918. The film’s aspect ratio gradually widens as soldiers march towards the camera and the WIZARD OF OZ moment that greets our brave boys’ arrival in Belgium is admittedly striking.
Even more so than the image restoration, the craft evident in the foley artistry is astounding. Every diegetic sound had to be matched perfectly to what is on screen, appropriate soldiers’ accounts had to be selected from a vast catalogue and knitted together. Little touches like the whir of a film projector dying away as the footage opens out and colour seeps in, snaps of post-recorded conversations between soldiers matched to the footage by lip-reading experts (“Hi mum!”) brings this story to vivid life.
The colourisation is at times jarring, looking almost uncanny, but your eye gets used to it and the sharpening and smoothing of the image does make the people on screen seem less lost in the past. I think the act of giving black and white footage the same pastel colour palette as a lot of the propaganda posters of the time was an intentional artistic decision, and it almost works.
This is my favourite kind of documentary; unbroken stream of consciousness and propelled by emotion rather than facts. I can’t stand talking heads or chronological analysis and have always thought just letting the subjects speak for themselves is far more effective.
The thing the documentary gets across so effectively is that these men were just ordinary guys. They were happy and dedicated in a lot of their work, they forged unbreakable friendships with their fellows and took great pleasure in winding each other up in their off time. As well as the horrors of the battlefield, frank stories are told of more mundane horrors of makeshift toilets (precariously perching on a plank over a pit of filth) and the more naive young soldiers having…eye-opening experiences in the Belgian provinces while on leave.
The bodies strewn across abandoned battlefields are upsetting, but not as much as a line of soldiers blinded by gas shuffling to be seen by the medics or a man in and amongst the walking wounded who has escaped battle physically intact but with a telltale tremor in one hand. Perhaps most upsetting of all is the story one soldier tells of his elderly father not believing the horrors he has been through when he gets back home and having the nerve to regurgitate what he’d read about the war back in Blighty.
This is a social history of war. The candid images of soldiers just being themselves, the importance of the few creature comforts available like jam (plum and apple) and tea, the mad dash prompted by a beer delivery. It didn’t really occur to me that “life in the trenches” wasn’t the whole experience, but only one facet of a regular work rotation, or that the war wasn’t personal on any level. There’s some great footage of German prisoners of war hanging out with their captors, chatting and smoking, trying on each other’s helmets. The Germans of course speak decent English and we just speak louder and slower. Make They Shall Not Grow Old part of your remembrance this Armistice Day, carry on the tradition of telling stories of bad times and good, and never forget. SSP