Although I started writing this shortly after I had seen the movie, They Shall Not Grow Old, it’s taken me awhile to get my thoughts about this viewing together. However, the short of it is that this is an amazing film, and definitely worth seeing. Peter Jackson, the director, is a genius; the type of person who can create a film like this because he has the vision for it, technical skills and the ability to push what is possible, and works incredibly, incredibly hard to make sure that each small piece of the puzzle is right.
They Shall Not Grow Old is, in one sense, a documentary, because it tells the story of an actual historical event. On the other hand, unlike a typical documentary, there’s no narrator, no maps, and no real overview of what is going on as far as the history of dates and generals and world leaders and the like. The film, instead, attempts to show something of what your “generic” British soldier would have seen and experienced going off to war and fighting in the trenches on the Western Front. The Imperial War Museums approached Jackson about doing a film to commemorate the centenary of the end of World War I. His task, were he to accept it, was to take about 100 hours of historical film and try to come up with something in a “fresh and original way”.
Now, as I was growing up, I spent significant amounts of time with two of my great-grandmothers, both of whom were born around 1900. We never discussed World War I, but when I was a kid and my dad would be watching some show about World War I, there was a connection there in the back of my head that despite the black and white pictures and despite the funny-looking film, this was the world as it was when my great-grandmothers were young. However, both now are over twenty years gone, and so too is everyone in those films, regardless of how young they were then. The world, too, has changed a lot. No longer can time pass in epochs of centuries with very little changing, in the course of 150 years now, the world seems to have been transformed not once, but twice. In this world, most men wear hats outdoors, women wear dresses that go down to their ankles and wear aprons when doing work. There is some motorized transport, but horses with carriages are still more common in the streets. It’s a world that is industrializing rapidly, but is still not at the point where everyone has electric lights in their homes.
What Jackson did to present this old footage in a “fresh and original way” was nothing short of genius. First off, he cleaned up a lot of the film that he was working with, removing scratches, dust, and other imperfections. Secondly, the old film shrinks ever so slightly over time, so even with the intended hardware to play it, it doesn’t fit correctly anymore, resulting in the film jerking and jumping as it is being played. Next, he corrects for over-exposure and under-exposure, which has probably resulted in a lot of film being seen again which hadn’t actually been viewed in ages, due to it looking almost completely white or almost completely black. However, there were three things that Jackson did which make this movie stand out, and will, I believe, do a lot to keep the memory of World War I closer to people’s consciousness’. The first thing he did was Jackson and his team went through the footage and they corrected the frame rate. When film was shot in the 1910s, the film was hand-cranked through the movie camera. Most people handling the camera cranked at a speed that was slower than what looked “natural”, resulting in the films having quick, jerky motion. Now, for the first time, everything looks natural in playback. The second thing he did was colorize the footage. The footage now looks very similar to a lot of film from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s. However, for the first time for most of us, we get to see and experience the color pallate of the world of the 1910s. No, I don’t expect that every color is 100% perfect, but it’s close enough to really get a feel for how things looked. Third, not only did Jackson add color, but he added sound, being extremely particular about trying to get not only the words of the people speaking in front of the camera, but ambient noise of the battle, and other sounds, such as music, including whistling, which was popular at the time.
Jackson’s narrative begins with the UK of the early 1900s, though the only “narration” of the film are recorded audio interviews the BBC did with WWI veterans in the 1960s and 1970s. (Jackson went through about 600 hours of audio recordings separately from the film he was given to work with. In hearing these men recall their WWI experiences as older men, I’m reminded here somewhat of Frank McCourt’s descriptions of Ireland in the 1930s, insofar as England in 1914 isn’t necessarily an easy place to live. The weather is oftentimes lousy, and as the country industrializes, there is back-breaking, soul-crushing work for the masses, and not necessarily a whole lot else for those who were not born into families with a lot of prospects. Charles Dickens is not so long dead, but the world he wrote about seems to belong to an age in much more distant memory. To me, it seems like the beginning of a larger social shift as well, one where the old order is being done away with, but there are a lot of people – particularly young men – who have more or less been forgotten as the social order has changed. One of the things that may have been most shocking to modern ears is hearing the men talking of being 16 or 17 years old, and being excited to enlist and get fighting, to do something with their lives. At the beginning, at least, the minimum age to enlist was 19, and many, many young men lied about their ages, and the military more or less turned a blind eye to this. These young men may have been naive about the war, but they certainly seemed as though they were more young men than children. There seemed to be a sense of being proud of being British; that on one hand, this was a small island nation disconnected even from the most of the rest of Europe, but at the same time, the Empire was still at its zenith; this was a period where it was true that “The sun never set on the British Empire.” Between the sense of invincible youth, and an invincible country, it made sense that there would be ‘optimism’ about the war, and that even if one did die, it was for a greater, more noble cause. However, the young men followed in the movie, at least, seem to be more from the lower classes, many of whom seemed to think that there were very few options for them besides enlisting, and fatalistically, that it was good that there was a war, as now they had something to do with their lives. Telling, too, was the little fact that upon entering the British Army, the average enlistee actually gained weight!
Of course, the reality was different because this was a war unlike any to this date. This was a war dug into trenches where the powers that be threw millions of lives out into no man’s land in a fight over inches. In some sense, this wasn’t exactly new; from what I understand, many of my relatives came over to the United States in the 1860s and 1870s because they didn’t want to be part of the European elite’s growing penchant for “rent-an-army” type games, where princes and dukes pocketed wealth by “renting” out their armies to other princes and dukes and what-have-you. Sure, many used religion as a way to maintain the status quo, as well, so it’s no wonder that even by the 1860s, there was enough of a growing sense of nihilism and godlessness that Dostoyevsky was writing about it in Notes from Underground. I found it interesting, too, that besides the fact that one of the interviewees spoke about going to church with all the other enlistees in the beginning, more as a part of the army’s process of “civilizing” the “young savages” than anything else, I don’t recall there being any mention of the men talking about God or faith in any of the interviews. Whether this is due to Jackson’s choice of interviews, the interview questions themselves, social norms of the day, or whether these men by and large didn’t feel it was all that important, for whatever reason, is impossible to say.
As an American who has spent a lot of time in Europe, I hardly even notice people speaking with “British” accents. If someone is speaking in the standard London or Southeast England dialects of today, after about two seconds, my brain has switched over to Brit, to the point where I will sometimes just start talking in that manner as well, hardly realizing it. And I’ve had people from the area tell me that my London accent is beautiful; that the only thing that gives me away is that I’ll occasionally use the more American terms rather than the British ones. That being said, I didn’t grow up in the UK, and there are a couple of dialects that I can pick out, but that’s it. And so, I feel like I lost a good bit with the film by not recognizing the dialects that the interviewee men spoke with. Your typical British person could probably tell instantly where all these men were from, so although they remained anonymous in the film, there was some amount of being able to place him, but I couldn’t do that. Furthermore, Jackson decided not to clutter up the film with lots of text, so there’s no other way to know who these people were. In one sense, that worked, because then the viewer’s eye was really focused on what was happening, and the men who spoke, spoke not just for themselves, but for the places that they represented, which is powerful. However, I felt like there was such a barrage of voices and dialects for which I had no clue that even when it came to speakers whose dialects I should have recognized, such as the Australian and Canadian, my mind was too overwhelmed to process it correctly. If I had one suggestion here, I’d say that when this comes out for home viewing, that there be an option to turn on text, that at the very least might let us know who is speaking and from what unit as well as identify some of the units.
I stuck around to watch Jackson’s “Making Of” film, which is certainly worth seeing. Importantly, too, it gives a little more context to a lot of what was shown. As we left the theater, a lady next to me immediately said to the friend she was with that she felt like the “Making Of” should have been shown beforehand to help people understand the movie better. I understand the sentiment, but I feel that had he done that, he would have really undermined a lot of the viewer’s initial sense of being bewildered and overwhelmed by the forces of this war.
As an aside, I noticed that the age of the crowd was almost entirely 55+. The film was rated R for disturbing war scenes, which is no joke. On the other hand, I can’t help but think that 20 years ago, this would have been PG-13, since there was probably a better understanding then that war is hell and that a war documentary is going to have some disturbing imagery. (The flipside to that is that when it comes to other categories, such as sexual content, the ratings have gotten more and more lax!) Originally, this film was set to run in the US on December 17th and 27th, 2018, but it looks like there will be a wider release in a few weeks. This is definitely a movie to see, and, as I’ve heard from the wonderful “Bookworm Room” blog, it’s definitely worth it to see in 3D, if possible.
(And a couple more links with people’s impressions: Finnigan Schick at City-Journal and J. Christian Adams at PJ Media – which was actually the piece I read that informed me about the movie existing in the first place, and it was convincing enough to make me want to see it myself!)
As a second note: When I was a child, probably around 1990 or so, I watched a multi-part WWI documentary at home that ran on cable television. I don’t remember a whole lot about it, but the final installment was about the music of the period, and included the songs “Good Morning Mr. Zip-Zip-Zip, K-K-K-Katy, , How Ya Gonna Keep’em Down On The Farm (which my mom, understandably, hated), and, of course, some “acceptable for a documentary” version of “Mademoiselle from Armentieres” (a song which also ends up in They Shall Not Grow Old). However, now I have no idea which documentary this was, though it would be interesting to know which one it was!