Too often if we think about the First World War, we view the participants as jerky, silent figures divorced from reality. Part of the reason is that’s how we’ve always seen them, in silent, black-and-white films that are scratched and faded, with strange movements as the film plays at a different speed than movies from even a few years later. Those were the days when film cameras were hand-cranked by the camera operator and could vary in how many frames/second were shot. The standard speed for the earliest motorized cameras was 16 frames/second but the hand-cranked could go down to 12 or 13, or up to 18 or 19. The sprockets in the film often deformed with age so the film jerked, and multiple printings left the footage either faded or so dark the footage looked black.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, the Imperial War Museum in London asked Peter Jackson, creator of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy and one of the most technically-gifted directors of today, to make a documentary. They had no requirements other than using original footage, of which they had over 100 hours available. They’d also collected over 600 hours of interviews with veterans that could be used.
Trying to tell the whole story of the war, including the first extensive use of airplanes, the sea war with the U-boats, and the four years of battles, would have been impossible in a single documentary film. Instead Jackson chose to focus on the trench warfare of the Western Front with the British Imperial forces, to give the audience a feel for what the average soldier of any nationality went through. At the same time, he not only restored the footage in the film, he used all the technical skills available today – colorization, computerized focus on detail, dubbing sound, 3-D – to make the footage as perfect as if it were filmed using today’s cameras. The result is They Shall Not Grow Old, a tour de force of filmmaking.
At the beginning of the film, Jackson plays off of a technique used in The Wizard of Oz. While we hear soldiers describe how they learned the war had started, and the time from their enlistment to their arrival at the front, Jackson keeps the 4:3 aspect of film from those days, in black and white and with the jerky movements. But when the men reach the front, the film opens up to today’s standard screen ratio, the color appears, and the speed is corrected. It’s a stunning moment, drawing you back in time.
Throughout its 99 minute running time, there’s constant narration provided by snippets of conversation from thirty or forty soldiers who actually were there – all of whom would be dead by now. Many of them were under the legal age of nineteen required to volunteer. Some were as young as fifteen, but if they looked old enough the recruiting officials would turn a blind eye. Their matter-of-fact tone is endearing as they describe the first adjustments to Army life. As they come into battle, living in the trenches, the tone remains but conveys the inhuman conditions they faced – surviving a gas attack, artillery barrages, rats that infested the trenches and grew fat feeding off the dead.
Jackson went to incredible lengths to ensure the film’s veracity. To dub in when soldiers speak in the original footage, he used lip readers to decipher the words, then researched the uniforms to discover what area of England the soldier came from. He’d match actors from those areas with the soldiers so when they recorded the words, they did so with the proper accent. One clip had an officer reading from a piece of paper. Jackson and his team scoured the regimental archives until they found a statement from the time of the filming that, when read, matched the lip movement in the film. For the sounds of a bombardment, the recording technicians set up microphones where the New Zealand Army was doing live fire artillery practice, using guns of similar size to the WWI era weapons. When you hear shells whistle over you then explode on the screen, they were actual battle sounds.
Following the credits, Jackson has added a half-hour documentary on the making of the film. In it, he tells about one of his inspirations in making the film. His grandfather was a veteran who survived the full four years of the conflict. However, he’d been injured often and his health failed. By the time he died at age fifty, twenty years later, he was a bedridden invalid. Not all of the casualties of that war fell in battle.
While that generation has passed, the next generation who knew them the best, their sons and daughters, are now passing away themselves. This was a true world war, and if people look back they’ll likely find a relative who served. (For myself, I had a grand-uncle in the merchant marine during the war, dodging U-boats.) Film has been a way to bridge the gap of years. When Saving Private Ryan twenty years ago, it helped vets finally share with their families what they went through in battle, after decades of stoically remaining silent. With They Shall Not Grow Old, we discover the generation prior to the one we call The Greatest had their own amazing story. The story of those young men shouldn’t be lost to history.
Here in the United States, They Shall Not Grow Old is being released through Fathom Events, so it only shows up in theaters on certain days. I’d missed the two days it was shown in December, but then it came out on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and I got the chance to see it. If you get the chance, make sure you see this stunning film.