Last night — in the presence of Duke of Cambridge Prince William — the London Film Festival hosted the world premiere of Peter Jackson’s new film, They Shall Not Grow Old, a heartbreaking WWI documentary that focusses on British soldiers fighting on the Western front. It’s a towering technical achievement that takes 100-year-old footage, and modernises it in a way that makes the Great War somehow contemporary. Most importantly, it tells the story of this brutal conflict through the men who lived it.
The Painstaking Process of Bringing the Dead Back to Life
Peter Jackson — the writer-director responsible for both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies — calls They Shall Not Grow Old his most personal movie. And that’s clear from the words which appear onscreen at the end of the film, with the documentary dedicated to his grandfather, who fought in the British army from 1910 to 1919.
Jackson was asked by the Imperial War Museum to take archive footage and BBC recordings, and turn them into something fresh and original. So he employed all the technology at his disposal to make the sound, speed and colour familiar to 21st Century eyes.
“I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world” Jackson says of the film. “So they can regain their humanity once more, rather than be seen only as Charlie Chaplin-type figures in the vintage archive film. By using our computer power to erase the technical limitations of 100-year-old cinema, we can see and hear the great war as they experienced it.”
The challenges were many and varied. Modern film runs at 24 frames per second, but this footage was anything from 10 frames to 16. So Jackson and his team used that computing power to construct those missing images for a consistent speed throughout.
They then began the painstaking process of meticulously colouring each frame of film. Resulting in one of the movie’s most jaw-dropping scenes, when black-and-white footage of the men training transforms into vibrant colour when they reach the trenches. Jackson also employed lip-readers and voice actors to figure out what the soldiers were saying, and bring their conversations and speeches to life onscreen.
The results are stunning, this combination of ancient filmmaking techniques with modern technology reaching through that fog, and giving voice to a generation that’s long gone.
An Inspiring Account of the Great War
They Shall Not Grow Old is the story of WWI, told by people on the front-line. So over those remarkable images, we hear — through BBC interviews — accounts of those who actually served on the Western front. But the story starts long before, kicking off with war being declared, and capturing the heady excitement felt throughout Britain.
Men enlist for what they hope will be a “civilised war.” And boys too. With 19 the minimum age, but teenagers of 18, 17, 16 and 15 encouraged to lie so they can join the fun. Their enthusiasm and optimism is positively heartbreaking.
Training on home soil follows, as the army endeavours to take a motley crew of “weedy, skinny children” and turn them into soldiers. So civilians are clothed, trained, taught to march, and fed a diet of plum and apple jam.
Their training soon becomes more serious, as boys are given weapons, and taught how to kill. They’re taught to develop what one soldier ominously calls “animal instincts.” Then, after just six weeks, they are sent to France to fight.
Crafting a True Horror Movie
It’s at this point the film changes from black-and-white into colour. And while Peter Jackson is no stranger to horror movies — having started out making the likes of Bad Taste, Braindead and The Frighteners — this passage of film is true horror. It presents the unspeakable and at times the unwatchable.
The soldiers spend their days avoiding bullets, bombs and mines, and find themselves surrounded by the bodies of officers hung from barbed wire. The stench from decaying flesh infests their trenches, attracting huge rats who feed on the dead. Mustard gas is another killer. Meanwhile winter brings frostbite and trench foot, with the wounded sinking to oblivion beneath the mud.
The waiting is the hardest part, tension building as the men prepare for zero hour. Fear takes over, and hysteria frequently sets in. Then the call comes, and it’s over the top to face the might of the German war machine. And near certain death.
There’s very little footage of the deadly exchanges in no man’s land, so Jackson uses illustrations from magazine War Illustrated. While when the killing stops, it’s film of the men burying their fallen friends in mass graves. With 600 going into this particular battle, and just 100 making it back.
Highlighting the Tragedy and Futility of War
It isn’t all bad however, with Jackson showing another side of the conflict, capturing the camaraderie that developed between the soldiers in happier times. We watch them eat together, shave together, sing together, play together, and even go to the toilet together. And we’re not talking about number ones.
They Shall Not Grow Old is filled with smiles and laughs and cups of tea. So many cups of tea. The soldiers play rugby and box together during their fleeting time off, and swap English cigarettes for French wine. Which they drink between those cups of tea. Hammering home the fact that these were ordinary blokes thrust into extraordinary circumstances.
But perhaps the most remarkable footage concerns German prisoners of war, captured towards the end of the conflict. Because there’s no anger or hatred on display. The opposing soldiers communicate as best they can, share the odd joke, and even treat the wounded together.
The English voices explain that they felt respect and sympathy towards their German counterparts. Both sides are unable to explain the conflict, and agree that war is both useless and futile.
They Shall Not Grow Old, Nor Will They be Forgotten
They Shall Not Grow Old documents a conflict that’s beyond comprehension. But by modernising the footage, colourising the imagery, and giving the pictures sound, Peter Jackson puts it into a kind of context, taking away the distance between now and then.
But it’s the faces that stay with you. The boys who look like the kids with whom you went to school. Or the men who look like fellas in your office or at the football. It’s those faces that humanise the Great War, and ensure that these soldiers will not grow old. And thanks to this film, will not be forgotten.
Following the screening, Jackson was at pains to point out that the film only captures the voices of those who survived, with the dead sadly remaining silent. While he also said he hoped that other archives open up their vaults to this process. And on this evidence, that can only be a good thing, with They Shall Not Grow Old a powerful and emotive documentary that brings history to life in spellbinding fashion.
They Shall Not Grow Old plays at the Imperial War Museum later this month and screens on the BBC in November.