They Shall Not Grow Old

I Saw They Shall Not Grow Old last night, Peter Jackson’s First World War documentary. It was a breathtaking artistic and technical achievement. I hope you got to see it; yesterday was a limited release, and I haven’t heard when, or if, it will be shown again in theatres. One hopes it will eventually make its way to the usual streaming services.

Drawing upon a hundred hours of archival footage from the Imperial War Museum in London, and 600 hours of 1960’s and 70’s audio interviews with veterans, Jackson told the story of the war experience of the average British infantryman. He digitally restored the film to an amazing degree of clarity, and enhanced it to smooth out and slow down the jerky, speedy footage we’ve all seen from that era of nonstandard frame rates in hand-cranked movie cameras.

Jackson also colorized the mid-section of the movie, to an astounding level of detail – largely by referring to his personal collection of WWI memorabilia. I guess the guy who directed and produced the Lord of the Rings trilogy can afford to indulge a penchant for WWI uniforms, helmets, rifles, and artillery pieces (yes.) He managed to get the British uniforms the right shade of khaki, and the German the right shade of field gray, along with unit patches and other adornments. He even went to France and Belgium and took thousands of photos so that his colorizers could get the grass right.

All of that was incredible enough, but the soundtrack was perhaps the greatest marvel of all. He hired lip readers to discern what the soldiers were saying in the silent footage. Identifying, where possible, the regiments of the soldiers from their uniforms and insignia, Jackson hired actors from the corresponding parts of the UK to record their words in the correct regional accent. It was so well done that it seemed completely natural.

This movie was clearly a labor of love for the director. Jackson spent half an hour explaining the project after the closing credits; don’t miss that part. He comes across as a quirky but regular guy. He points out that many of our parents or grandparents had a relative who fought in that first global conflict — like my father’s father, who as a teenager served aboard a battleship in the US Navy, and witnessed the scuttling of the German Fleet in Scapa Flow. Jackson’s New Zealander grandfather was wounded early during the Battle on the Somme, and met and married his grandmother while recuperating in England. Likewise, Jackson’s partner had two relatives killed in action.

I’ve long had an interest in military history, so this film was right in my wheelhouse. My wife doesn’t share my affliction, but has ancestors from the north of England, and very much enjoyed hearing the soldiers tell their stories and watching them mugging awkwardly before the camera. The movie was a cultural record of the times, when being filmed was a novelty.

There were many moving scenes, but the most poignant one depicted a company of men huddled in a sunken roadbed before attacking the German lines a hundred yards away. Their fear was palpable, their expressions clearly rendered in the loving restoration of the footage. Within a half hour, they were killed almost to a man.

I can’t recommend this film strongly enough.

Michael Sebastian @mikeseb