Commentary: They Shall Not Grow Old

Apologies for the size, but I wanted to use this image because reasons

This year, the centenary of the end of the First World War (or the Great War, as it was called in its day), has seen a number of commemorative events, many of them centred on the day of armistice, November 11. So it was interesting how quietly the documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, directed by LoTR helmsman Peter Jackson, was released a week or two ago. Audiences were given just two opportunities to see the film, on December 17 and December 27, although I learned yesterday a wider release is planned.  Given this, I was lucky enough to secure a ticket at the 10 am showing yesterday in Ancaster.

When we arrived, the theatre was packed–it was clear that every seat was sold, and it was only by spotting a couple of individual sets in one of the rows and asking whether others could move over that my husband and I were able to sit together and avoid the very front row.  The audience was typical of that that visits Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum–mostly middle-aged or older (but with a few younger people mixed in), a number wearing shirts or other items with a military theme.

Director Peter Jackson introduced the film, telling viewers a little about the project to make it and how it came to be.  The Imperial War Museum had commissioned him to do “something interesting” with the over 100 hours of wartime footage they had in their archives.  Jackson had noted he had seen much of that footage many times (with a couple of interesting exceptions), and at first struggled as to what to do with it.  But seeing what computer techniques could do to restore and revive the footage, and then (as he later states) finding interviews in the Museum’s archives interviewing WWI veterans gave him his focus.

The movie starts off in the familiar grainy, scratched black and white we’ve seen many times in other films about WWI.  We hear about the early days of the war–the idealism and enthusiasm to set off on a great adventure–in the voices of the men who lived it.  We hear about and see England in 1914, the recruitment process, the parades, the patriotism. We see how the men were equipped and trained, and then shipped to Belgium.

And then, as the war becomes real for these men, the footage shifts to the restored colour version–to audible gasps within the audience.  And no wonder–suddenly these soldiers are alive again.  While not all of the footage could be restored to the same quality (and obviously, it’s not high definition), what has been done with it is far beyond mere colourization.  Again, the footage follows the daily life of the soldiers in the trenches in their own voices, and it’s these trenches that in some way become the star of the film.  So many other movie depictions have, despite how much they have tried, made trench warfare utterly too clean and tidy.  This particularly applies to the images of the dead and wounded, which regain their visceral impact (pun partially intended) by being restored to colour.

The film does not focus on a single actual battle–this is not a movie about strategy or tactics. The demands of the footage and audio available meant that to get the best usage out of what was on hand, Jackson had to keep the narrative relatively generic to the experiences of British soldiers in Belgium. However, a general segment about what it was like to go “over the top” is part of the film, accompanied by some of the very limited footage available depicting a raid, along with images from period news sources.  The movie concludes with a return to the black-and-white footage once the veterans return to Britain, touching on some of the struggles they experienced.

What makes the film truly revealing is the half-hour segment at the end where Jackson goes into more detail about the process he took to make the film.  He talks about the fact that the jerky nature of much of this footage comes from the fact that the film cameras were hand-cranked–meaning that the footage is in no way a standard 16 frames per minute, something that must be taken into account for the restoration.  Jackson shows what a difference just a difference of plus or minus one frame per minute can make to the footage in making it seem realistic.  Another thing he points out is that the soldiers in these films were used to sitting for portraits, and that those filming them clearly had issues getting them not to pose, but to move around about their regular business.

The process included visits to Belgium to understand the colours and shape of the landscape, including, wherever possible, visiting actual or similar locations to those found in the footage. Jackson was able to find a sunken road seen in one particular set of images and to add context as to where the soldiers seen in the shot were located in relation to the ongoing combat. He was also able to bring back to life old footage that had shrunk or become nearly black because of age, and as a result had not been seen or used for many years. What he is able to do with this footage and the details that are revealed will astound you.  The image I selected to go with this post is one of these.

Jackson used artifacts from his own collection to get the colours of both British and German uniforms correct and for sound effects.  He was particularly fastidious about the artillery (he talks about bringing in one of his own large guns, “as one does”), including recording the sounds of artillery bombardment using similar-sized shells during military exercises in New Zealand.

But the detail that astounded me most is how the voices of the soldiers were put back into what had been silent footage. Jackson employed lip readers to understand what was being said, and then made sure he hired actors with the right accents to reproduce the speech.  In one particular set of footage, an officer reads a short “pep talk”-type speech to a group of soldiers. Jackson was able to identify that the soldiers were likely with the Bedford Regiment, allowing him to understand how the officer probably sounded. He was also able to identify the date the film was probably recorded–and then found, in archives, what is likely the exact message the officer read to his men that day.   This care in reproducing the sound landscape of the war is as much a triumph as the video restoration.  It even stretches to the popular ditty used for the end credits, where he drafted a group of British diplomats serving in New Zealand to give appropriate British voices to the song.

If there is one weakness of the film, it’s what Jackson mentions during his commentary:  There is much footage that could not be used as it was peripheral to the central story he tells in the film.  This includes footage of women’s roles (in factories and as nurses), that focusing on other allied forces (other Commonwealth countries, France, and the United States), and that showing the air forces, fighting in their first major war.  Jackson teases us with snippets of restored (but not colourized) footage, making the viewer acutely hope that there will be subsequent films using these techniques.

I think particularly touching was the personal connection Jackson reveals with the subject matter.  He talks about his own grandfather, who served in the war and was badly wounded, gradually declining in the years after until he was more or less an invalid upon his death in 1940.  He implores viewers to talk to their own families, while memories of elders who might have served in the war might still be accessible.

This is a movie worth seeing in a theatre.  And lots of people already have – the film has made $5.4 million US in just two days in a limited number of locations.  Wider release is expected in the New Year, so you may not have lost your chance to see it if you missed it in the past couple of weeks.


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