Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old uses the latest in digital effects, 3D, frame-rate tinkering and colouration to take audiences back to the Great War 1914-1918, showing us what life was really like in the trenches. The resulting documentary is ground-breaking, poignant and eerie.
Made to mark the end of the First World War and dedicated to Jackson’s grandfather, who served 9 years in the British Army, from 1910-1919, They Shall Not Grow Old uses extraordinary archive materials from the BBC, London’s Imperial War Museum and several international sources. Bits of the footage selected has been glimpsed before in television documentaries, but you won’t have seen it like this, that’s sure. The level of detail revealed by digital cleaning tools, along with the 3D, which brings an incredible depth of focus, is often jaw-dropping.
Gone are the scratchy old black-and-white clips running at the incorrect frame rate, instead replaced with shocking images of such vivid clarity, the effect is haunting on a level rarely achieved before.To see not just worn out and sometimes emotionally frazzled faces of battle-hardened British serviceman staring into the camera, other times they’re smiling, lost in thought, or horsing around for the benefit of the cameraman, but also violently churned up landscapes filled with barbed wire as far as the eye can see and dead bodies rotting and liquifying in the soil, it brings a new understanding and appreciation of daily horrors and profoundly grim episodes of the war. Lip-reading experts were drafted in too, to gauge what the men were saying, so their words and dialogue could be reproduced.
The film begins with the outbreak of the conflict in the late summer of 1914, following men (including teenagers) cheerfully signing up, heading off to boot camp, taking the boat to France, their first impressions of the Western Front and the horrifying baptism of fire that is going over the top. They Shall Not Grow Old is narrated by a near-constant montage of unidentified voices recorded by the BBC in the 1950s and 1960s for the broadcaster’s stunning 1963 series, The Great War, narrated by Michael Redgrave.
The men comment on everything from French hookers, trench foot, moaning about army-issue cigarettes, dealing with lice, boredom in between the action, what it’s like running across a field with heavy artillery reining down and people dying horribly left, right and centre, living among dead bodies and how they slowly recognised the utter pointlessness of the war they were fighting.
Beginning in monochrome before opening up into astonishing (hand-tinted) colour, a bravura tactic derived from The Wizard of Oz, They Shall Not Grow Old is a fitting and masterfully crafted tribute to the dead and those who came back to find a disinterested country and mass unemployment. Jackson and his entire production team have produced a film which is both a form of cultural monument and a monumental cinematic achievement.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn