Last night I finally got to see They Shall Not Grow Old, a First World War documentary directed by Peter Jackson. It was magnificent—the best World War I documentary I’ve seen. Nothing I can say to recommend the film is as powerful as watching it, so: Go see it.
There are a couple of directions you can take a documentary on a topic as big as World War I. The one I think most of us are used to, courtesy of Ken Burns and the History Channel (once upon a time, anyway), is a God’s eye view, with talking heads by historians, maps, photos and sometimes reenactments and, depending on the subject, real historical footage. This approach mirrors the top-down narrative approach of most historical books on topics this big and historically remote.
They Shall Not Grow Old takes a different tack, one I’ve appreciated more and more since discovering Sir John Keegan in grad school. In his seminal, discipline-changing book The Face of Battle, Keegan sought to explore not the cause-and-effect relationships leading to entire wars or even particular battles, but instead the “what was it like?” experience of combat. This gives us a grunt’s eye or worm’s eye view, a view in which the concrete details of daily existence—or the end of existence—are the focus, as they were for the people living through it. What was the weather like? How did it feel to be there? How much could you see? How did you sleep? What did you eat? And when? Did your boots rub and make blisters? How did a trench smell? What did it sound like? Perhaps most importantly—who were these soldiers?
They Shall Not Grow Old narrows its focus from the entire war to the lived experience specifically of British soldiers on the Western Front. Jackson, in a special behind-the-scenes feature that played after the end credits at the showing I attended, said his aim was to present “an accurate but generic depiction of combat” for this subset of soldiers. The film is the better for it, I think, in the same way that Dante or Jane Austen have told us so much about the human condition by minutely examining and dramatizing their tiny corner of the world. The effect of a film like this would not have been as powerful had it tried to encompass all the nations that fought.
The big draw is the scrubbed up and colorized footage from the war, and rightly so. Jackson and his team have done something really remarkable here. By slowing the old film’s framerate, stabilizing shrunken and jittery old film prints or negatives, and repairing scratches and dust, the footage ceases to be an artifact and becomes footage again—a view of people, like us, going about their business, like we do. It’s a cliche, but this hundred year old footage comes to life.
Jackson, assisted by foley artists, has also added sound to the film, further enhancing the sense of what it was like. Perhaps the most impressive feat is adding voice to the silent footage. Jackson enlisted forensic lipreaders to discern what, exactly, the men in the footage were saying (my favorite: “Hi, mum!”) and then, in some impressive historical detective work, figured out what regiments the men belonged to and hired actors from those respective parts of Britain to record the dialogue. Mutters, giggles, coughs, exclamations, jokes, and even mundane talk—a sergeant pointing out where to lay down a load, an officer reading a pep talk to his company—all make it real.
Finally, the film features no talking heads by academics or novelists, no narration by voiceover artists, but instead a audio montage of actual World War I veterans recorded during the 1960s and 70s. You’re seeing the world they saw, as much as they saw it as Jackson could manage, and hearing them describe it themselves. It’s a profoundly unselfish way to tell the story, stepping back as much as possible and bringing the audience to the past, not subjecting the past to the present.
The end result is impressive and profoundly moving. Even those of us who have been moved by these photos and jumpy old newsreels have never experienced them like this. Over the course of the film, you feel like you get to know some of these anonymous faces; something of the character, the feel of the British tommy comes through, and when they suffer and die you feel it with them. The audience I watched the film with laughed with the soldiers, chuckled at their antics, cringed at their injuries, and cried when tragedy struck.
This film presents the kind of understanding—of these men, of their lives, of what they lived through—that you can otherwise only get from memoirs and makes it graphically real. Jackson and his team deserve all the praise they’re getting.
They Shall Not Grow Old is a fitting monument to a vanished generation. Go out and see it as soon as you can.