As we approached the centenary of World War I, it was clear that a huge event like that wouldn’t just be talked about for a while and then forgotten; the Great War went on for four years and there would be reason to acknowledge many historical aspects of that time. In Britain, an arts program called 14–18 NOW was created by the government, aiming to cover the war from different cultural perspectives.
There would be many artistic interpretations of the war. Danny Boyle directed ”Pages of the Sea”, where tens of thousands of people gathered on beaches to honor the millions who left the country a century earlier to fight on the continent. Perhaps the most famous of these projects became a documentary called They Shall Not Grow Old.
Peter Jackson was hired to direct the film, and he certainly had quality material at his disposal. The archives at the Imperial War Museum in London were opened where he was shown hundreds of hours of footage shot during the war and rarely, if ever, shown to the public. He was also given permission to use hundreds of hours of interviews with veterans from the war, recorded many years earlier by both the museum and the BBC. What to do with all this? Jackson wanted to make a personal film about the war, not a traditional documentary. There would be no need for narration; the soldiers should do all the talking themselves. His grandfather William fought in the war and Jackson realized how close you could get to these men in the trenches if you knew how to use the films and the interviews properly.
The soldiers’ voices accompany the footage but are never recognized as individuals with names; instead, the filmmakers create a seamless portrait of The Soldier as one, a witness to the insanity of the war, continuously filling us with fascinating information on what the training was like and the unspeakably detailed horrors of the muddy, bloody and rat-infested trenches in France. The voices come unfiltered, inviting us to share a mindset from 100 years ago. How we think about wars in general has certainly changed.
Looks like it was shot yesterday
The director didn’t want us to see the war through a series of black-and-white and scratchy reels where everybody moves like Charlie Chaplin. Considerable energy and skill has gone into the process of transforming the footage into something that looks like it was shot yesterday. Sound effects and pieces of muted, improvised dialogue reinforce the feeling that what we’re watching takes place here and now. It has an emotional and sometimes downright eerie effect; there were moments when I really needed to remind myself that this is not a reenactment, but the real deal.
Jackson and his collaborators, especially editor Jabez Olssen, are at the peak of their powers, drawing us into the intensity of the conflict, especially during a battle near the end where they almost have us believing that we’re watching minute-by-minute footage from the action; the testimonies from the soldiers go a long way creating that impression.
There were complaints from historians who pointed out that Jackson was disrespecting the original filmmakers who had shot the footage. By manipulating it to such an extreme degree, only to satisfy bored modern audiences, Jackson was ignoring the historical value of the films themselves, they argued. This is one of those instances where both sides are correct. Jackson is treading on dangerous ground, but the impact he was aiming for is undeniably delivered like a punch in the gut. Action-packed – but it’s equally educational.
They Shall Not Grow Old 2018-Britain-New Zealand. 99 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Clare Olssen, Peter Jackson. Directed by Peter Jackson. Editing: Jabez Olssen.
Trivia: Released in a 129-min. version. Also shown in 3D.
Last word: “We had so much stuff. Honestly, 600 hours of sound and 100 hours of footage. There is probably five or six films of this sort that could be made from that archive … Give me two and a half hours and sure, the nurses would have been there. [But] you need to do something focused and intensely and do it justice, or you kind of spread yourself too thin. It was a decision I had to make. […] We’re simply taking 100-year-old footage that looks appalling … We’re not adding anything that wasn’t there on the day it was shot. We’re simply bringing it back to what it was 100 years ago. That’s exciting, because in doing so we’re bringing these guys back to life.” (Jackson, The Guardian)