Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old is a ground-breaking recreation of popular history told from the point of view of the average infantryman which manages to revive a beating pulse in otherwise forgotten archival footage that had been given up for dead. What is more debatable is whether it should be considered a documentary or a work of art, adding further ammunition to a continuing argument between authenticity and creative invention that can be traced straight back to the birth of cinema with the Lumière Brothers' Arrival of a Train at a Station in 1896 and the 1916 production of The Battle of the Somme. In his recent Observer review, Mark Kermode made the trenchant comment that the most common criticism of digital cameras, editing systems, and projection equipment is that they have removed the “texture and humanity” from cinema. In an era when spectacular action scenes can be rendered with CGI and motion capture body suits, many modern movies seem somehow “weightless” due to a process that Kermode called “the inconsequentiality of artifice.” Alongside Avatar director James Cameron, Jackson has toiled laboriously in the trenches of the digital revolution for decades, with his two turgid Tolkien trilogies constantly pushing the envelope in terms of computer-generated entertainment and providing his latest project with sufficient combat experience and creative expertise to warrant serious Oscar consideration for its remarkable technical achievements.
Not only did the Lumière Brothers produce the first primitive documentaries, or actualités, they also famously claimed that "the cinema is an invention without any future" and declined to sell their camera to other filmmakers such as the fabulist Georges Méliès. Consequently, their role in the history of film was brief, but they also experimented with a number of colour photographic processes in the 1890s including the Lippmann process (interference heliochromy) and their own 'bichromated glue,' a subtractive colour process, examples of which were exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in 1900. In 1903 they patented another colour photographic process, the Autochrome Lumière, and later invented the colour plate, which really launched colour photography as a mass market medium. When Ted Turner founded TNT seventy years later, another heated debate was inaugurated among cinèastes about the sacrilege of colourising classic black-and-white movies. Jackson has succeeded superbly in achieving the difficult task of restoring old footage and make it look young again, revivifying history and those who created it with an infusion of fresh blood.
By utilising state-of-the-art digital technology to restore flickery black-and-white footage of British soldiers in training and the trenches Jackson has created a sort of visual transfusion, an immersive experience into what life was actually like for ordinary servicemen on the Western Front. But the colourisation effects employed in They Shall Not Grow Old are made to look deliberately artificial (as, of course, was monochrome film in the first place) and the painterly approximation of reality presents a challenge to what audiences will accept as 'real,' providing both a kind of Brechtian alienation effect and a means of embedding the audience in the experience, an indirect way of remembering what really happened to people just like us. Not only has he colourised and sharpened it, but also employed lip-readers to dub in what the men were saying, as well as diaries and letters for narrative voiceover. The soldiers are restored back into a spectral sort of existence, like ghostly revenants summoned up in a séance, their individual faces oneiric and unforgettable.
When Jackson was first approached about working on this film in 2015 he was promised unlimited access to the Imperial War Museum film archives. Since the film was a co-production with the BBC, he was also given access to their film and TV library and simply told he could do whatever he wanted with the project just as long as it was respectful and entertaining. The film begins in black-and-white, switches to colourised footage for the trenches, then back to monochrome as the soldiers return home. Experiments in colour motion picture photography go back about ten years prior to WWI and some colour footage made in an early process called 'Kinecolor' was shot, but not used in this film. Aside from the impressive colourisation of the monochrome film (which Jackson has said would have been even better if he had had more time), he also wanted to make the hand-cranked camera footage play at normal speed so the action would not appear jarring and jerky. This was accomplished by a sophisticated computer algorithm that surprised even Jackson with how well the digital scanning process was able to make the footage appear smooth and continuous. To his credit, Jackson did not receive any directing fee, but Wingnuts productions has obviously reaped a financial profit, as well as the much deserved technical kudos. It took editor Jabez Olssen and his Park Road post-production crew a year just to review over 600 hours of interviews with over 200 soldiers, and 100 hours of original footage. Much of it had never been seen before and a deliberate choice was made not to identify the soldiers or specify the battlegrounds, since that would ground the film in too many facts and slow it down. Instead, the goal was to produce a movie about the lived experience of being a soldier under extreme conditions of mass carnage and physical deprivation.
To achieve this end, Jackson eschewed the kind of authoritative voice-over narration we might expect for such a documentary. Instead, he wanted audiences to hear the voices of real soldiers who experienced the conflict first hand. The original footage was shot back in the 1910s before the ability to synchronise sound and pictures had been invented. At the time, the film was advanced by cameramen turning handles at a roughly constant speed, whereas to synchronise with sound, a constant-speed clockwork or electric motor is required. Consequently, all the dialogue and sound effects were added in post-production, with no historians, narrators, or political commentators, and the voices we hear are those of veterans, many gathered by the BBC during the making of its 1964 documentary series The Great War. As we watch a line of soldiers marching through mud-sodden entrenchments towards the front, the footage miraculously metamorphosises from silent black-and-white stock to colour film with sound, as though telescoping one hundred years of film history into a single moment. We are suddenly surrounded by young men whose faces are as close and clear as those of people we pass in the street every day, albeit with much worse orthodontics.
Commissioned for the Armistice centenary, Jackson considers this his most personal film, due to his lifelong fascination with WWI and the personal resonance he felt through his grandfather who died before his birth due to war injuries. Such was his interest in the subject that when production on the documentary began he already had a large personal collection in storage of WW1 uniforms and weapons to be used for reference. Jackson was determined to present in the documentary only vintage film and artwork from the period and not to stage re-enactments, but uncertain how to depict the intense hand to hand combat in the trenches, of which there is no existing footage. Fortunately, he had a collection of a serial magazine The War Illustrated, which contained dramatic pencil sketches drawn during the war. Since these propganda pictures were highly slanted in their depiction of the British soldiers as plucky heroes and the Germans as cowardly Huns - a sentiment entirely at odds with what is said by soldiers in the audio archives - they were cropped in order to avoid overt xenophobic jingoism. The title is a slight mis-quotation taken from Laurence Binyon’s pious and patriotic poem For the Fallen, who wrote "They shall grow not old," with Jackson putting the words in a more logical order. As Kermode astutely observed, Wilfrid Owen's The Old Lie might have been a better choice, but an approximation of the tough, savvy spirit of Owen’s presentation comes from the closing credits, when the bawdy marching song Mademoiselle from Armentières is performed in its cynical entirety. They Shall Not Grow Old is an arresting snapshot of the lives of British soldiers who fought in Europe, many of them having lied about their age in order to enlist.
While the digital restoration and colourisation of the original footage has been carried out with meticulous attention to detail, even more complex was the correction of the film’s pace. The century-old film stock with which Jackson was working was shot at anything from 10 to 18 frames per second, with the rate often changing within a single reel. Silent movies projected at the modern speed of 24 fps create a skittering, agitated effect that immediately assigns such footage to the far distant past. Jackson and his team used computers to build interstitial frames that recapture the rhythms of real life, tuning into the music of the soldiers’ movements and breathing intimate life into their smallest gestures. The process is highly technical, but the effect remains powerfully emotional, as though the technology had somehow pierced the surface of the film, allowing repressed memories to come pouring forth. A rich tapestry of background sound effects transports us from training camp to battlefield, even including the soft hum of a flickering projector in the film's prologue and epilogue, while actors provide regionally authentic dialogue based on forensic lip-reading of the silent footage. “Hello Mum!” chirps one private as he marches past the camera. Later, we both see and hear an upper-class officer issuing instructions for the forthcoming attack.
The recorded and archived testimony of soldiers who were “scared that the war would be over before we got out to it” strikes a particularly resonant chord. While the unspeakable horrors of conflict are unflinchingly presented, the film still reveals an unexpected sense of humour among the British troops, who were vigilant about restricting cooking fires in the trenches for fear the smoke would invite hostile artillery, but soon discovered they could use the heat from their rapid fire weapons to boil water. One veteran remembers the trenches as “a sort of outdoor camping holiday with the boys, with a slight spice of danger to make it interesting.” Another recalls the “terrific lot of kindness” at the front, a collegial camaraderie often lacking from the rigidly hierarchical and class-structured society back in Blighty. Watching the sequence in which one squaddy playfully mugs for the camera, juggles a beer bottle, then strums it like a guitar, feels profoundly authentic and hence intensely moving.
Because Jackson drew
all his footage from the BBC and IWM archives, They Shall
Not Grow Old is limited in scope, restricted to the
Western Front and presented solely from the British point of
view. There is nothing from the French or German
perspective, or about the fighting on the Russian and
Italian Fronts, nor the Dardanelles, which might have meant
a loss of focus and intensity. Nor is there much new
information for historians, but that is not the point. As it
is, the film fills contemporary audiences with anger and
amazement at the incompetent cruelty of a governing class
and generals whose mechanisation of the war put the largely
teenage combatants through hell. Soldiers died simply by
slipping off a duckboard and sinking into the mud. We see
graphic imagery of fat black rats (“and you knew how they
got fat”), trench foot, and lice. The details are
harrowing, with some soldiers expressing their candid
enjoyment of the war, others their nauseous acceptance of
its horror, and even total anaesthetisation to what they had
witnessed. And Jackson's film does reveal one aspect of
military life that no Hollywood production has ever done -
the trench latrines, over which the troops would squat,
perched together precariously on a plank, and sometimes
falling into the effluent. Despite all the horror and
deprivation, when the Armistice eventually arrived, many of
them felt only a sense of disappointment and anticlimax
(“It was like being made redundant”), both unwilling and
unable to share their experiences with anyone except other
veterans when they returned