Movie Review: Peter Jackson’s WWI Doc ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ Uses Groundbreaking FX To Flesh Out The Horrors Of War
War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Never forget that.
Directed by Peter Jackson
The most astonishing aspect and also the most eerie thing about the British soldiers in They Shall Not Grow Old, the very riveting, technically amazing documentary by Peter Jackson, The Lord Of The Rings uber-director, is that everybody — every cheerful man, full of zestful life, we see here — well, they are all long dead.
And yet here they are — eager ghosts from a seemingly abstract Middle-Earth of horrific conflict more than 100 years ago — bunched together in totally normal, fully relatable colour as mostly young chummy faces smiling for the camera, relaxing and goofing around with nary a worry in the world.
They seem oblivious to the abject beyond-medieval hell of the horrendous trench warfare which they would soon be heading towards in the dastardly soggy killing fields of Belgium far away from home. While we, the viewers, are terrified by this ghastly fate collectively awaiting them.
Did these freshly-scrubbed, khaki-fitted chaps go to war only last week because it sure looks like it here? Just so you know, on the British side of World War I alone, over a million soldiers died.
“We weren't afraid of anyone, one Englishman was worth two Germans ..... England couldn't possibly lose,” one optimistic narrator recounts here as army recruitment posters, an enthused society and a very stiff-upper-lip country expected them to do their patriotic duty by fighting their arch enemy, Germany.
Boys lied about their ages to sign up because it looked like a big group adventure with their mates which would take up only a few short weeks. Instead, Hell went on to four years of unspeakable carnage embroiled in miserable snake-like trenches, endless barbed wire, withering machine gun fire, shattering explosions, grotesque bodies, dead horses, rampant rats, relentless diseases and mud so thick helpless poor souls were left to drown in them.
The gripping footage here focuses primarily and decidedly on the plight of the ordinary British foot soldier a long-gone century ago in the First World War (1914-1918). It is mined from 100 hours of actual film stored by Britain's Imperial War Museum while the authentic narration accompanying the visuals are gleaned from 600 hours of archived interviews done by BBC decades ago with now-dead veterans who fought in the actual combat.
Normally, footage this old comes jerky, scratchy and speeded up in black-and-white tones with zero sound that creates the distance, the silence and the faraway nature of events that occurred so long ago as to become irrelevant in our time. Especially for audiences here in Asia where WWI seems to be a conflict confined only to Western countries.
But Jackson, whose granddad fought in WWI, and his tech wizards have brought back a war of faded, basically obliterated memory right into the trenches of our sight and mind, as though it's happening right now like the ongoing battles in Syria or some war-torn place at this very minute somewhere.
Using digital colourisation, 3D conversion and an unique, painstakingly detailed technique of filling in scenes in-between using computer imaging to make the frames operate at our modern-day speed, Jackson's top-notch restoration crew have given these scenes of ancient history and bygone people here an instant immediacy and turned them into a very compelling Saving Private Ryan: Great Great Grandfather Version.
For added effect, Jackson also employed lip-readers to figure out what was said in the sequences and then used actors with regional accents to say those same words to enhance the realism. “Well done, lad, well done,” a higher rank barks to his exhausted troops spookily.
Which makes this whole thing somewhat exploitative as essentially a creepy séance-like contact reaching out surreally from beyond the grave. But, man, we just can't look away because it really seems like it was shot just yesterday.
Just to put things into perspective, cameras back in those early days needed handheld cranks to roll the film, Brits called themselves “Britishers” then, and the Titanic had just sunk in 1912, only a couple of years before this “Great War”. But as Jackson shows starkly and graphically here, what the damn hell was so “great” about the Great War?
If anything, the earnest young men volunteering dutifully and generally blindly to give their last full measure of devotion for this huge nationalistic endeavor here look like they have been right royally duped.
“They say your past comes up when you're going to die. But I hadn't had much past since I was only 19,” one survivor reveals poignantly as his gung-ho enthusiasm turns into grim realisation.
There is no big picture here, no self-righteous leaders proclaiming anything, and no obvious reason why these people are even fighting and killing other people (despite the deadly horror, many of the captured Germans are portrayed as regular blokes who are victims of the dubiously hateful hysteria of that era too).
There's just a rabid call to arms which required some marching, some training, some cheery camaraderie, a hop across the English Channel to continental Europe and suddenly they are in the godforsaken, rain-soaked mud fields waiting for orders to fix scarily long bayonets and go “over the top” into inevitable and insane slaughter.
The first dramatic moment comes about 20 minutes into the documentary after the war-building introduction of high zeal is established with everything still historically jerky in black-and-white monochrome.
Then, suddenly, as if by a magic wand, like in The Wizard Of Oz, the soldiers, the very participants who will go through hell and die in droves in this Great War, come into full-colour starkness and the jerky movements slow down into something normal and modern which looks real and immediate.
As the sound of laughter and chatter of life start to break in, the faces come up close and personal and as the ensuing human drama of innocents opens up, we can see the broad smiles, bright hopes, dark truths and, rather unavoidably, the rotten teeth. Dental care a century ago, it appears, wasn't what it is now.
But the true care here is, of course, wielded by Jackson. His restoration of lost souls, distant memory and forgotten time is tender and brutal at the same time.
There are gruesome shots of the random dead here — luck is the ultimate arbiter of the fate of the little man in a big war — but thankfully, we are spared a surplus of those images as Jackson cuts to comic-book renderings to put the horror across. It is as effective a sobering sight as it is frightening.
For this most terrible war of inhuman deprivations, Peter Jackson himself knows when and what to humanely deprive us of. (****1/2)
They Shall Not Grow Old is showing exclusively at The Projector.
Photo: Warner Bros Pictures