The critics agree: Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old (2018, now playing in select theaters), is a masterpiece of filmmaking, brilliantly combining restored original film footage from the archives of the Imperial War Museum with oral histories of the last of the veterans, recorded by the BBC in the 1960s, to tell the story of the ordinary British soldiers who manned the trenches and fought at the Somme. No arguing about any of that. It is amazing on both counts. We live in a time easily impressed by technological wizardry, and there is plenty here to go around. As we see from the very first frames, Jackson’s digital restoration includes getting the speed right, so the old images don’t “jerk.” They move like we do. There is even some use of 3D. We are hooked. I found the film impressive on two other counts as well—not technical, but just as important.
First was Jackson’s decision not to try to do everything for everybody. He aims to recapture the experience of English infantrymen only—not the politicians, not the officers, not the navy or the flying corps, not the women back in the fields and factories—and by fair implication to capture the experience of infantrymen in any of the other belligerent armies. A British trench is pretty much a German trench is pretty much a Russian trench. This proves plenty to do, and he found no shortage of material to work with.
Jackson renders a historical experience visually, with sound added, as that experience has never been portrayed before. He bids us remember. Period.
Second, Jackson takes no political stand. In the thirty-minute afterword that follows the feature in which he explains how they made the film (and that everyone where I saw it stayed to see), he states his reason for making it: to help us remember what happened a century ago on the Western Front. Right up to that point I had been holding my breath, expecting to be told, yet again, what a pointless waste it all was. Jackson does not say this. He does not say anything at all in the film itself. The film has no narrator, no omniscient historian. Jackson renders a historical experience visually, with sound added, as that experience has never been portrayed before. He bids us remember. Period. From that simple premise, something quite remarkable is the result. The film deserves a wider release and all the prizes it can win. It is a serious and impressive work, the more so for avoiding politics then and now.
Still, Jackson made some thought-provoking choices in the documentary, in two areas. Let us begin with its much-remarked technical feats. The voices from the oral histories, captured fifty years ago, are masterfully integrated with the visual footage. They voice the movie. There are other voices however, also discussed by critics. The old Imperial War Museum footage, of course, is silent. Jackson employed forensic lip readers to figure out what some of the figures onscreen were saying. Then he researched what part of Britain they likely came from and hired actors to record what they said in the correct accents.
The result is uncanny. Two examples stand out: There is a poignant scene of soldiers huddled in a trench (and a quick shot of the same trench today) about to go over the top. Their officer is reading them the pep talk that he has received from the higher-ups; it is not quite St. Crispin’s Day, but that’s the idea. In a fine piece of historical detective work, Jackson’s researchers unearthed the order of the day, ascertained from the uniform insignia where the unit was from, researched what their officer would have sounded like, and recreated his voice. The effect is stunningly real. In another scene toward the end, the men happily parade past the camera in 1919, and out of the trenches forever. One lanky lad looks straight at the camera with a big, broken-toothed grin and declares brightly, as if out of Masterpiece Theatre: “We’re in the pi-tures!”
How far should we go to bring the dead to life? This question relates to a second issue raised by the colorization of the original footage. Colorizing classic movies, in my view, has been disastrous. Jackson’s colorization, in contrast, is a worthier use of the technology. As Jackson points out in the afterword, those men saw it all in color then, so why shouldn’t we see it that way now? Any cameraman in World War I, offered the hypothetical choice between filming in black-and-white or in color, undoubtedly would have chosen color. Jackson’s colorization is, as with so much else, masterly; he traveled to Flanders and took thousands of stills to capture the right palette. Only in some of the faces is it just enough “off” to alert us that the scene was not originally in color, just as the voices sometimes attached to them are not really their voices.
Yet once alerted, I worry about how much I am supposed to see and hear, and how much might be better left to lie. Jackson believes that this level of added authenticity—this enlivening of old film with color and voice—enhances memory, which is his purpose. He may be right. Perhaps everyone in the audience did go home, as he bid us, and tried to revive the memory of those in their own families who served. But more likely, most went home yet again with the now-standard handwringing reaction to World War I history: it was all so unspeakably awful and stupid that we can’t ever let it happen again.
What are we being asked to believe is real in the war footage? One particular moment in Jackson’s use of colorization prompts this question directly. The first twenty minutes or so are shown in black and white until the troops arrive in the trenches. Then the film switches to color, as if to say (as critics have approvingly echoed) that this was the moment when reality kicked in. All that pre-war stuff from the golden last summer of 1914—the country lanes, village churches, friendly pubs, Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly—was a fraud, or at least sentimental guff, but the mud and the rats and rotting corpses were real. But it could just as well have been played the other way around: the last summer of peacetime rich with life and color, the trenches starkly black and white, implying that you’re dead-or-alive at any moment.
Rejection of the war would not set in until later in the 1920s when the “war” (or, more accurately, antiwar) poets, novelists, and filmmakers got to work.
A subtler but similar issue is the use of the voices of actual soldiers from the oral histories telling us what the lads thought about it all in 1914, and then what they thought about it after it was all over and they were back home in 1919. Going in, they tell us that the fight for King and country was just a job to do. England was England and the Empire, and therefore England’s cause was right and justified. England was certain to win through in the end. After it was over, they sound equally matter-of-fact, even bemused about it all, particularly in their agreement that nobody who wasn’t there really “gets it.” But no one yet sounds cynical or embittered. Rejection of the whole thing would not set in until later in the 1920s when the “war” (or, more accurately, antiwar) poets, novelists, and filmmakers got to work.
What those in the oral histories remembered about 1914 was that England went in for the sake of honor as much as geopolitical or economic interest: Germany violated Belgian neutrality, which Britain guaranteed, as in 1939 Germany invaded Poland, which Britain was pledged to defend. The men recorded in the oral histories report believing these violations were a perfectly adequate reason for going to war and for doing whatever “bit” might be required of them. Today’s audiences cannot believe that to be true. It is conventional wisdom to see these men as the hapless victims of comfortable politicians, stupid generals, wicked arms merchants, and capitalism generally—the whole pack of cards. Like it or not, the voices in Jackson’s film insist on a different story.
Critics of They Shall Not Grow Old tell us that no film comes as close as this one to capturing the experience of trench warfare on the Western Front. This is no doubt true. But if, in addition to sharing the experience, viewers cannot at the same time credit the motive and honor the sacrifice of the men who fought in the war, then we “experience” their story superficially, as voyeurs still watching the same old horror show that we in our wisdom know never should have happened. When viewed this way, Jackson’s noble attempt to connect us with this past leaves us more cut off from those men, and they from us, than ever.