Daily Archives: March 20, 2019

Film Review – They Shall not Grow Old

Director: Peter Jackson

Running time: 99 minutes

Robert Henderson

This is literally a unique film in terms of  its making. Peter Jackson has taken contemporary footage from the First World  War (the Great War)  and  coloured  the original black and white film in the most detailed and lifelike  fashion  and used special software  to bring the film to a speed which makes the movement  entirely lifelike. (Amongst the many arresting sights  in the film are the  early tanks which were  surprisingly efficient at riding over the very difficult rough ground created by the vast trench systems which  all too easily dissolved into seas of mud. )

Jackson used lip readers to discover what people were saying and then voiced their words using the most probable accents the speakers would have been using based on their regiments (British regiments have a strong tradition of recruiting from particular areas, and what were known as Pal’s Battalions” ).

Finally, he added sound effects for  such things as guns, shell and bomb blasts and even a yellow green mist to replicate the use of chlorine gas.  In short, the attention to detail is astonishing.

They shall not grow old opens with film untouched by sound, colour or speed alteration.  When the remastered and altered film arrives it is like watching a magician perform a particularly spectacular trick.  The original jerky, silent and drab film of the period  suddenly becomes as vivid and real as any modern  example of cinematography.

The film starts   by showing the  Britain of the immediate days after war was declared is shown preparing for  the battle to come as recruits are inducted and trained, all very chipper as they doubtless waited for “a crack at the Hun”.

There were also extraneous surprising  sights, for example the very   large number of motor vehicles in places such as London  despite the motor car being very expensive and barely out of its childhood.

The film concentrates on the war on the Western Front  (the primary  theatre of war in WW1) and deals with the infantry soldier, artillery and tanks.  There is nothing about the war in the air or at  sea, but that does not matter because the story Jackson is telling is about the soldier on the ground, especially the “poor, bloody infantry”.

Jackson decided not to use a single narrator. Instead, when comment and explanation  is needed he allows recordings of the words of men who served in the war drawn from the vast library of recordings held by the Imperial War museum. to provide it.

The voices of those  used in the opening passage are surprising ones, men who even after they had experienced the horrors of the trenches still spoke, always   matter of factly,  about doing their duty, of doing their job. Some went further and admitted that the war was the happiest time of their lives.  This is reflected in  the faces of the men who  are more  often than not smiling and joking  is  rife. There was little  if anything by way of combatants lamenting the futility of it all.

These were men of a stamp whom I can remember from my childhood (I was born in 1947) because there were plenty of men who had  served in the Great War still alive and kicking.  They rarely complained and would take in their stride setbacks which would floor many today.  Those from a  later generation who served in WW2 were much the same.  This difference in mentality compared with now is unsurprising because these were ordinary men who had stormed the beaches on D Day, served on the Russian convoys  (where,   after being torpedoed,  being in the water  for a few minutes signalled death from the cold)  or flown  with Bomber Command where the death rate for aircrew was 50%.   Such things put life into perspective and made trivial many of the daily annoyances of living,

All this  goes very strongly against the general idea of the Great War as being an unmitigated horror for those who served.

Even when talking about their feelings on days when they were scheduled to go over the top  the tone was down to earth. The soldiers were  more afraid of being severely injured than of being killed. Like a batsman waiting to go in  to bat the  nerves they felt evaporated once they were out of the trenches and marching towards the enemy.

But this  is not a film which sentimentalises war. It is unsparing in showing the physically disgusting aspects of life in the trenches, everything from the shattered and  decaying bodies of the dead  (both British and German) and examples of  gangrenous “trench feet”  to the oceans of mud and the general  privations  that war brings.

This is a very rare film  in that it offers no obvious grounds for criticism. It does what it says  on the tin without forced sentimentality or undue  reverence. It has the attributes of a first class documentary which in a strange way it  is , an act of reporting a hundred years after the event.

One last thought. I saw the film in a cinema. If you can catch it on the big screen rather than  your television or computer screen do so because it is much more impressive .

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