Aside from playing at the London Film Festival and having a very brief run in cinemas, a copy of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old will also be sent to every school in the UK. 100 years on from the end of World War I, it ensures the 700,000 British soldiers who gave their lives can be seen by a new generation. With those who survived the Second World War now also dwindling in number, it’s more important than ever that children who are more used to social media battles and video game wars see the stunning colourised footage in this film.
The memory of those who went to the Western Front is not only bought to life in vivid colour but also in immersive 3D. The technical wizardry seen in Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films pales in comparison to the way he shows the ugliness of war in all its inescapable detail. The film was pieced together from over 600 hours of footage supplied by the Imperial War Museum along with hours of audio from the BBC archives.
It’s a story told in the own words of the men who were lucky enough to make it out of the trenches to return home. From the very beginning we hear voiceovers of veterans who recall the details of life leading up to the war, their eagerness to enlist in anticipation of it being 'civilised', the intense training regimes needed to prepare them and the routine of surviving out in a field of battle. None of the men heard speaking are given names until the very end but they serve as a collective representing all of those who were there.
They Will Not Grow Old starts off in black-and-white in London with images seen in a small central rectangle. The men describe the days and weeks leading up to their arrival in France, detailing the uniform, grub and strict daily routines as they are put through their paces by the British Army. Upon landing on the other side of the channel, Jackson opens up to a full screen, the old grainy footage fading away and the men and surrounding landscape suddenly filled with rich colour.
Through the years we have become accustomed to war films and their attempts to envelop us into its harsh world. This is as real as it gets and we see the grimy, muddy trenches filled with fresh-faced nervous boys – some as young as 15 – all shuffling into position for the fight. Almost everywhere you look German shells explode in the air and all across no-man’s land, and the piles of dead rats are almost as high as their dead comrades strewn all around them.
If the men weren’t constantly fighting off lice and drinking water from used petrol cans, they were trying to avoid going blind from mustard gas and snipers picking them out through gaps in the sandbags. It all leads towards the Battle of the Somme, and here Jackson turns to sketched drawings to visualise the battle scenes as the veterans describe the deafening cacophony of sound as they charged towards their enemy with the end of the war in sight.
One issue that can be raised with the film is the lack of room Jackson gives to both the images and audio. There is a lot of visual information to take in and the dialogue is non-stop from beginning to end. These men’s stories need to be heard but they also deserve to be given space to breathe. For the audience to digest and process the enormity of what they are seeing, the words and pictures need more time to settle.
What Jackson and his technical team have achieved here is nothing short of staggering and we learn at the end this was made in honour of his own grandfather who also fought in it. There was nothing glorious about victory for those who went to war and when they returned home no-one understood their experiences, let alone wanted to talk about it. Now, 100 years later, their voices can echo on and hopefully there is something everyone can learn from their experiences.
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