Now a full century on from the armistice that brought the First World War to an end, we are at the greatest risk yet of succumbing to cultural amnesia about that conflict’s horrors. Yearly remembrance traditions aside – the routine nature of such services often put an emotional dampener on the subject – we are growing increasingly untethered from the events of 1914-18: since 2012, there are no more living witnesses to the war that was fought in the East and the West, on sea, land, and, for the first time ever, in the air. Memories are fading, despite the fact that we’re not exactly lacking for material to connect us to those years – this is one of the most written-about periods in history. There endures an impression that World War One is so moored in the past that it’s effectively divorced from our modern world, although the poetry of that period certainly proves a poignant counterbalance to that effect. In other mediums, however, that sense of detachment persists: the jerky black-and-white of the wartime footage from that time tends to isolate its subjects in the past, as if the Tommies and Jerries (as they were known in the UK) are only myths from a bygone world.
That’s something Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s latest work, a passion project a lifetime in the making and inspired by one of the most enduring pieces of poetry about the First World War, seeks to correct. To mark the Armistice’s centenary, Jackson (working for free) has produced and directed an innovative documentary work that revitalizes the wartime experiences of those who fought on the Western Front. Working with previously unseen footage and audio material from archives at the BBC and the UK’s Imperial War Museum, Jackson and his army of VFX specialists have transported the mud and the blood of Europe’s trenches into the realm of modern comprehension by way of breath-taking visual and aural renovation. Six hundred hours of first-hand spoken testimonies and over a hundred hours of footage have been blended and whittled down into Jackson’s shortest film in twenty-plus years: the 99-minute-long They Shall Not Grow Old, a sincere (and largely effective) effort at commemoration that rivals, in its spectacle, the kind of blockbusters being made today. Yards of film taken on the training grounds and battlefields of Europe have been painstakingly colorised, converted into 3D, slowed to a natural speed, mined for dialogue detail by lip-readers and fully dubbed with atmospheric sound to encourage audiences’ complete sensory immersion in a period of history that increasingly feels out of reach.
There is no political discussion of the War whatsoever here; Jackson’s film features only the voices of those who personally witnessed its action. The veterans’ narrations are like a barrage filling nearly every second of the film with scores of individual spoken accounts having been cut and assembled to approximate the average experience of a British soldier serving on the Western Front. Their words guide us chronologically through the decision to enlist, the weeks spent in training on home soil, the moment of departure and the weeks, months, years (if they were lucky) spent in combat. Near the end, we also learn of their tragic abandonment upon returning to peaceful society, but before that, and in precious detail, we hear of the boys too young to fight (nineteen being the minimum age) who were nevertheless advised by enlisting officers to “go outside and have a birthday”, the grueling inductions into military life they were given at barracks, and their startlingly diverging impressions of life on the front line: war was “hell” for some, and an indispensable exercise in masculinity for others. More surprises come by way of humanistic admission and omission: the men talk with unexpected fondness about their Bavarian rivals (far less “cruel” than the Prussians), whereas there is a striking silence around shell-shock, which we generally consider to be the War’s primary cultural legacy. Given their frankness on other topics, it feels unlikely that the interviewees’ neglect of PTSD is down to any emotional reticence in this area; instead, it’s perhaps more revealing of our own era’s tendency to fixate on the psychology of war. The film’s reluctance to interrupt the veterans’ voices is certainly frustrating in some sections – we’re barely given a moment to process the poignancy of one veterans’ startling confession, delivered in a cracking voice, for instance – but in this instance, it provides a valuable reminder that history is much bigger and more complicated than the dominant narrative that frames our thoughts on the War today.
As if to mirror the soldiers’ shock at what they found at the Front, Jackson saves his visual ace until the moment the action arrives in the trenches. Without warning, color surges into the black-and-white footage, just as the atmospheric din of the battlefront drowns out the narration. It’s a stunning, spectacular moment in a film full of them: one that lays bare to audiences the unconsciously distancing parameters we’ve grown accustomed to viewing the First World War through. In colorizing the footage, Jackson has removed for us the subconscious, reflexive need to remind ourselves that, despite the monochrome artifice of the image, what we’re seeing really did happen. In color – albeit pastel-toned – the footage (somewhat paradoxically) regains authenticity and is returned to its proper rawness.
That’s true not just of the gruesome pictures of gangrening limbs, the bloody, gaping wounds, and the exploding mines sending earth into the sky, but also of They Shall Not Grow Old’s more tranquil scenes. There’s a pastoral beauty to the few seconds we glimpse of soldiers on horseback splashing through a shallow stream, just as there is an instant emotional reaction to seeing the men’s laughing faces transform from the relative flatness of black-and-white to the three-dimensional ruddiness of their actual complexions.
On that note, it is striking that Jackson’s film barely features any images of non-white soldiers, millions of whom fought on the Allied side (including in the trenches of the Western Front, the site of the documentary’s focus). There are the possible limitations of the archives to consider here – the lack of attention given to imperial soldiers and their voices here may be a fall-out from the racist biases of the institutions that conducted the interviews – but the sheer volume of video footage sorted through for this project does suggest there could’ve been more visual acknowledgement included in the film. Given that the film is soon to be made a firm fixture in the history curricula of UK schools, the scant attention it devotes to the many soldiers and contract laborers of color of the Western Front makes They Shall Not Grow Old feel less definitive a documentary piece than it had the potential to be.
For those whom it does depict, They Shall Not Grow Old does the extraordinary service of making them real again. Far from being a gimmick (as colorization is often maligned as), its technical accomplishments only underscore the film’s unrelentingly humanistic approach as each laugh and each thousand-yard stare is restored to heart-breaking immediacy. In the now-total absence of those who witnessed the War, They Shall Not Grow Old feels like it will open audiences up for a new type of human connection with that era of our past.