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Director/Producer Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies) described his new documentary about WWI, They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), as made by a non-historian for non-historians. It is true that anyone – historians, non-historians, die-hard war buffs, Lord of the Rings fanatics, those with no affinity for either hobbits or military history – can appreciate the genuine effort and authenticity that clearly motivated this project. A true cinematic event, They Shall Not Grow Old, focuses on a very familiar subject and injects it with new life through a series of painstaking technical feats that have managed to transform decaying archival footage into vibrant, moving human portraits. The documentary serves as an invitation for us all to revisit this well chronicled historic event, and observe in striking and revealing detail, the people who lived, fought, and died in the First World War.
Rather than offer a comprehensive overview of WWI, the documentary has a tight focus on the experience of British soldiers who served on the Western Front. The story is told through a combination of archival footage (much of which is heavily updated with color and sound), contemporaneous material like wartime magazine images, and a realistic soundtrack, comprised of authentic foley sounds and primary source narration. That last element makes the whole effect of the documentary so much more powerful. The only voices we hear throughout the documentary are those of actual veterans who served in the war and lived through this time. There are no historians or talking heads filling in context or speculating on motives or conditions on the ground. The veterans’ audio is taken from archived interviews from the 1960s and 70s. The chorus of their voices tells the story of the war – from the days leading up to the conflict, to their training and time in combat, all the way through to the end of the war and their return home. Maintaining a brisk pace throughout, the documentary at times feels like an over-caffeinated Ken Burns work. But its relative speed is actually welcome and effective; the film stays true to its clearly defined purpose and we are never at a loss for what’s going on or why we’re being asked to pay attention to this or that. Some particular moments in the story stand out. We hear how excited the young boys on the British side were to enter the war (many, some only 15, lying about their age in order to serve). After seeing combat, we hear them condemn war, and the abysmal conditions of trench warfare in particular. In some touching moments, we see British soldiers interact and joke with their German prisoners, who, they have come to realize, are not very different from them. In other moments, we sympathize with the soldiers, who having returned home after the war, struggle to find work and can’t seem to get their family or friends to understand the depth of the horror they just endured.
The most remarkable thing about this documentary is how it was made. At the screening I attended, following the documentary itself, they played a short making of video, which provided a lot of insight into the tremendous care and effort that made the finished product possible. The filmmakers explain how there were a lot of barriers to resurrecting and rejuvenating the old archival WWI footage that was used as source material. Much of the original footage was shot at different film speeds (the cameraman at the time was manually hand cranking the camera). As a result, all of the various clips had to be normalized to match the same speed. The quality of the original footage was often poor (either too dark or too light) and had to be thoroughly treated. The most obvious update to the original footage was the coloration process. Jackson describes how his team took great pains to not only give the soldiers and their environment color, but to make sure the colors were authentic to the actual time and place being represented. Another major update to the initially silent footage is the audio track. The filmmakers created realistic foley sounds for the artillery and overall environment, as well as voices for the soldiers. In order to give voice to the once silent dialogue, a team of lip readers performed the miraculous task of decoding the originally mute conversations. A voice track was then recorded to sync up with the images on the screen. The result is impressive, and the overall effect is to draw us deeper into the world of the story, and help us to more easily relate to the people on the screen.
I was not initially inclined toward this documentary, as, I’m sure like many others, I feel I’ve seen enough war movies and documentary footage to last a lifetime. But this is quite different from other films or documentaries about war; the technical achievements that went into its production, and their effect on the audience, make this a standout. The experience of watching this got me thinking about how war is represented in documentaries and dramatic film, and the pros and cons for the audience in seeing these stories told through either one format or the other. As an example, we could think about the experience of watching They Shall Not Grow Old, and the WWI it depicts through documentary footage and narration, and how this compares / contrasts to the experience of watching an iconic movie like Saving Private Ryan, and the WWII it depicts through dramatic interpretation and fictional characters. I think there are some obvious similarities. Both works offer compelling arguments against war – in Saving Private Ryan, the opening scene is a visual dissertation on the horrors of war; in They Shall Not Grow Old, we see countless still photos of dead young soldiers, and hear the voices of veterans condemning war and admonishing future generations to do everything possible to avoid it. Likewise, both the documentary and the dramatic film are effective at getting us to relate to the characters (or real people) on the screen. I think the difference really comes down to the overall effect. The dramatic film, enables you to escape, to one degree or another, into a separate reality with its own rules and logic, and with its own timeline (past, present and future), even when it is based on real life. The documentary serves as a source of information, a chronicling of an actual time, place, or people, a means of enriching your understanding of a topic. They Shall Not Grow Old achieves the rare feat of checking off both boxes– it both enriches our understanding of The Great War, and also offers us a compelling visual world that we can get lost in.
Don’t let the subject matter of this documentary fool you – there is a lot more here than exciting battle scenes or war trivia. They Shall Not Grow Old provides us with a carefully constructed bridge – in the guise of utterly transformed archival footage and primary source narration – between ourselves and the men and boys who lived and died during this momentous conflict. In crossing this bridge, we receive the gift of perspective and insight into the thoughts, fears, and desires of people who were either previously unknown or seemingly unknowable to us. Jackson has said he hopes the documentary will get people to think about their own family’s history, and in particular their relative’s involvement (either direct or indirect), in WWI. A humble purpose, and one which I think this documentary serves well.