They Shall not Grow Old
A film directed by Peter Jackson, reviewed by Robert Henderson
This is a unique film in terms of its making. Peter Jackson has taken contemporary footage from the First World War and coloured the original black and white film in the most detailed and lifelike fashion, using special software to bring it to a speed which makes the movement entirely lifelike. Amongst the many arresting sights are the early tanks which were surprisingly efficient at riding over the very difficult rough ground created by the vast trench systems which all too easily dissolved into seas of mud.
Jackson used lip readers to discover what people were saying and then voiced their words using the accents the speakers would probably have used based on their regiments. British regiments have a strong tradition of recruiting from particular areas, and were what is known as Pal’s Battalions”.
Finally, he added sound effects for guns, shell and bomb blasts and even a yellow green mist to replicate the use of chlorine gas. The attention to detail is astonishing.
They shall not grow old opens with film untouched by sound, colour or speed alteration. When the remastered and altered film arrives it is like watching a magician perform a particularly spectacular trick. The original jerky, silent and drab film of the period suddenly becomes as vivid and real as any modern example of cinematography.
The film starts by showing how Britain prepared for the battle to come as recruits were inducted and trained, doubtless impatiently waiting for “a crack at the Hun”. There were some surprising sights, such as the large number of motor vehicles in London despite the motor car being expensive and barely out of its childhood.
The film concentrates on the war on the Western Front (the primary theatre of war in WW1) and deals with the infantry soldier, artillery and tanks. There is nothing about the war in the air or at sea, but that does not matter because the story Jackson is telling is about the soldier on the ground, the “poor, bloody infantry”.
Jackson decided not to use a single narrator. Instead, when comment and explanation is needed he uses recordings of the words of men who served in the war drawn from the vast library of recordings held by the Imperial War Museum.
The voices of those used in the opening passage are surprising ones, men who even after they had experienced the horrors of the trenches still spoke, always matter of factly, about doing their duty, of doing their job. Some went further and admitted that the war was the happiest time of their lives. This is reflected in the faces of the men who more often than not are shown smiling and joking. There was little if anything by way of combatants lamenting the futility of it all.
These were men of a stamp whom I can remember from my childhood (I was born in 1947) because there were then plenty of men still alive who had served in the Great War. They rarely complained and would take in their stride setbacks which would floor many today. Those from a later generation who served in WW2 were much the same. These were ordinary men who had stormed the beaches on D Day, served on the Russian convoys (where, after being torpedoed, being in the water for a few minutes signalled death from the cold) or flown with Bomber Command when the death rate for aircrew was 50%. Such things put life into perspective and made trivial many of the daily annoyances of living. All this goes against the pervasive idea of the Great War as an unmitigated horror for those who served.
Even when talking about their feelings on days when they were scheduled to go over the top, the tone was invariably down to earth. The soldiers were more afraid of being severely injured than of being killed. Like a cricketer waiting to go in to bat, the nerves they felt evaporated once they were out of the trenches and marching towards the enemy.
But this is not a film which sentimentalises war. It is unsparing in showing the physically appalling aspects of life in the trenches, everything from the shattered and decaying bodies of the dead to gangrenous “trench feet” and the oceans of mud and the general privations that war brings.
This is a very rare film that offers no obvious grounds for criticism. It has all the attributes of a first class documentary which in a strange way it is, an act of reporting a hundred years after the event. One final thought. I saw this film in a cinema. If you can catch it on the big screen rather than on your television or computer screen do so.