Thursday, September 05, 2019

"They Shall Not Grow Old": review

Directed by Peter Jackson and dedicated to Jackson's grandfather, a British soldier who fought in World War I, "They Shall Not Grow Old" is a one-of-a-kind documentary from 2018 that skirts the line between true documentaries and something more embellished. What makes this film unique is that, while it uses century-old archival footage from the British War Museum, modern techniques have been applied to the film to colorize it, smooth out the jittery movement of the images, and provide an ambient soundtrack that evokes the actual conditions of war in that era: actors were hired to do voiceovers for some of the soldiers who speak on film; sound effects like explosions, guns firing, and even agonized screams have all been added in to provide an extra layer to the experience. Such a move both abstracts the documentary from normal documentary realism and brings the film closer to what the actual experience of World War I would have been like through the eyes of the typical British grunt.

Jackson is on record stating that he wanted to approach this project purely from the soldier's perspective, so the film isn't framed in the usual way, i.e., with specific dates, specific place names, and specific soldiers' names and ranks. This is, then, a bit of social history, an approach often favored by leftists who feel that too much historiography focuses on presidents, generals, wars, and sweeping political movements, with too little attention paid to the everyday lives of the common people. I found the film—and its carefully crafted narrative, which stitches together the recorded testimonies of actual soldiers from the war (these are not actors, and we never once see these soldiers on screen)—utterly enthralling, whatever ideology the social-historical approach might represent. These are the voices of men grown old, but who remember the Great War with an immediacy and a specificity that are at times charming, at times horrifying.* If this film serves to fill in the holes left by historians fixated on the generals, then I'm glad Jackson put this documentary together. I suppose there may be some controversy as to how true-to-life the documentary is, given the colorization, the sound effects, and the other forms of artifice, but speaking purely for myself, I found the experience of this film to be very dimensional, not boringly clinical the way most documentaries can be.

The film is frank in its portrayal of blood and guts. The horror of war is in evidence in almost every frame, and we follow a series of images and testimonies that come together to produce a story, a tale of young men who had no idea what they were getting into, and who had to deal with execrable conditions while fighting in the front-line trenches. Lice, latrines with no privacy, the reek of bloated and gassy corpses, the sudden and random loss of friends to snipers' bullets, the surprising civility and even friendliness of German soldiers taken as prisoners of war—these facets of World War I are all part of the experience of "They Shall Not Grow Old." This is the sort of film that, one hopes, ends up being featured in museums all over the world that are devoted to preserving the memory of World War I, the war that humanity foolishly thought would be the last great war in history.

*Verb tenses may be misleading, here, as you might have the impression that these veterans are still alive. Sadly, there are no longer any surviving veterans of World War I; the recordings of these men's testimonies happened years ago, when they were all old but still alive. Those recordings were archived and stored for years before Jackson's Weta Workshop production team got hold of them and cleaned up the audio. The amount of cleaning-up that was done to make this documentary, for both the audio and the video footage, is staggering to think about.

1 comment:

  1. I remember reading about this when it first came out. Still haven't seen it, but the search is on!



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