“Mostly, they were just boys, as we were. They seemed to be glad to be captured. They were out of it.”
What struck me most as a viewer were the faces, the procession of almost invariably smiling faces – the assembled weight, minus any pretense of pageantry, of an entire generation of British youth girding themselves, steeling up their courage, gearing up for war. The images, seen faraway, largely lack distinguishing features yet are familiar, static black and white, grainy, jumpy, degraded in spots, over or underexposed in others, confined within a comparatively meager square occupying the dead center of a massive IMAX screen. In that square, smiling face after smiling face, looking around in a mixture of bemusement and anticipation, not entirely ignorant of the horrors they have yet to confront but, to a man, nevertheless outwardly unconcerned. The voices come in quick succession against an utterly quiet backdrop, so many voices that might as well be floating in space for their simultaneously stark contrast and descriptive synergy with what’s happening in that square. These are the voices of dead men, of course – every man who fought in the first World War is now dead – but, more importantly, they are the voices of men who might have and, perhaps, given the law of averages, should have died on the battlefield or in the lead-up to battle and yet lived to tell their tales. They are not harrowing tales individually, given over to theatrical exaggeration or attempts at enhanced profundity, because these are not storytellers. They are starry-eyed, big-hearted boys who were fortunate beyond words to live long enough to become dutiful and plainspoken old men.
Peter Jackson’s extraordinary documentary They Shall Not Grow Old observes the comportment and follows the example of its subjects explicitly, instead of upstaging them or hammering home some heavy-handed moral about the futility of war. It is the closest thing to a “neutral” consideration of war that I believe I have ever seen, an interested but dispassionate mosaic assembled out of thousands of otherwise spare bits of picture and sounds, an overarching story that not only accumulates out of nothing but becomes three-dimensional in the telling. These were boys who performed a grueling mission of critical importance to the best of their abilities, with diligence, humility, and surprisingly minimal prejudice. So, in his way, does Jackson, who, rather than setting out to produce a conventionally exciting film of the sort at which he is among Hollywood’s elite, seeks only to show these boys as they were, unvarnished, though with fleeting innocence, and, in the echoes of the decades-removed interviews that serve here as the only narration, provide them with an illuminating and animating voice, wisely trusting the combination of subject, approach, and insight to be riveting in the end. The day-to-day existence of a World War I British infantryman facing down German forces across the no man’s land of trench-ridden, rapidly deteriorating Belgium or France was one of crushing mundanity punctuated by occasional close brushes with a violent, ignominious death. Jackson is right there in the trenches with the soldiers, perceptive but unobtrusive, up to his figurative elbows in the mud, blood, and muck.
To that end, he has been given carte blanche access to the legendary combined video and audio archives of London’s Imperial War Museum, who commissioned the project on the assurance their bounty should figure disproportionately in the construction of the finished product. How could it possibly not? This footage has featured heavily in almost every WWI documentary ever made. We’ve surely seen it before, if never remotely like this. Since Jackson has estimated the archives provided some 100 total hours of video and 600 hours of interviews for his intrepid team of reconstructionists to parse, what made it to screen would represent the culmination of an arduous, almost impossibly painstaking process even if the film pieces had been assembled as-is. Instead, a trans-Pacific partnership comprised of Jackson’s cottage effects houses in New Zealand and colorization specialists in America performed laudable work restoring the images, via the use of modern technology, to as close an approximation of their original condition as possible. When that proved insufficient to the famously exacting Jackson, the team launched a wide-ranging, multi-pronged remastering process, performing digital touch-ups and exposure corrections, slowing the hand-cranked battlefield footage by one or two frames per second until it looked as if it had been shot yesterday. The important thing to remember when regarding They Shall Not Grow Old, an achievement four years in the making, is that, almost without exception*, it was, in fact, not shot yesterday, or last year, or merely some time last century, but over a century ago.
*The fascinating “making-of” documentary that immediately followed our IMAX screening should likewise trail the feature, no questions asked, once it has been released for purchase and begins making the streaming rounds. In it, in addition to showing how, among other things, regiment uniforms and huge artillery guns from his personal collection of WWI memorabilia were used to inform some of the digital magic here employed, Jackson singles out an idyllic grassy glen in Belgium that looks today almost exactly as it did in 1914 and displays side-by-side images of it filmed on opposite ends on the intervening century. That he could innocuously use this modern footage as an insert shot in the feature with even the most attentive viewer left none the wiser is a tribute to the level of effort and care taken in the visualization and construction of “They Shall Not Grow Old”.
That meager grayscale square set into the sea of movie screen black like a lone lit window in an otherwise silent house veritably teems with youthful activity. Though the age threshold for admission into the British military was nineteen, we hear minor variations on a familiar refrain from the cascade of everpresent voices: “I turned sixteen years of age the week before I joined up.” “‘How old are you?’ asked the recruiter. ‘Eighteen,’ I replied. ‘So you’re nineteen, is that right?’” “I was fifteen years old, but no one batted an eye.” At first it is embarrassingly, if perhaps understandably, disorganized, with throngs of newly enlisted boys assembling as if for a class photo but physically unable in their excitement and curiosity to hold any pose longer than a few seconds. By and by, the chaos begins to shape itself into something useful – a line against a wall, a rudimentary marching column – and we notice, concurrently, that the square itself is slowly growing larger. The column begins to march in earnest, and, even though, as the film informs us later, nearly one million Britons laid down their lives over the course of World War I, this still seems like an amazing continuous formation of mobilized humanity**. The voices come in such quick succession on the soundtrack that they almost overlap one another, adding contextual reinforcement to images that almost certainly are not them in actuality but might as well be, images that, as the square in which they are contained expands, are also gradually losing their texture, the faces their fine features, the bodies the very shadows they cast, saturated right out of existence.
**The shot that stayed with me the longest comes much later and is also the longest continuous shot in the mosaic, of an unnamed company on its way to the front, streaming past the stationary camera in a cobblestone path-wide but otherwise amorphous mass with neither clear beginning nor hope of an end. They march by for what must be minutes on their sober but obedient way, in what first brought to mind the dread-soaked shot, in Jackson’s own “Return of the King”, of Frodo, Samwise, and Sméagol climbing the steps of Cirith Ungol as the neverending Orc mobilization stretched out beneath them, but soon enough took on almost the feeling of a swell of fleeing refugees. How many of these kept their grim appointment with an early grave we can only speculate.
When it has finally filled the edges of the screen, the frame essentially fades to white and then disappears. The pictures resume after hardly a moment’s breath, appreciably the same and yet radically transformed – now in noticeably muted but still eye-pleasing color and seemingly uncompromised, no longer static widescreen. It’s hard to understate the impact, which is the operational difference between peering through a window and walking through a door. The bulk of They Shall Not Grow Old is given over to a simple but studious, absurdly panoramic and sensorily immersive visual contemplation of the bunkered life of a typical WWI British infantryman, remarked upon by the lucky alumni who survived it. The sequences involving actual warfare are few – what civilian cameraman in 1914 had either the skill or nerve to film such carnage? – and the surreal details often run together – drinking water out of a gascan and still being able to “taste the petrol”, unobstructed groups of three or more men seated in public on a single, suspended plank of wood and, rears to the breeze, defecating into the mud below – eventually congealing into a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. We’ve spent our lives as spectators of war at a fixed distance artificially removed from people, regardless of allegiance, with whom we have so very much in common. Jackson’s ace technicians draw in the eye with color but also provide pastoral soundtracks to the background, employing Foley artists, voice actors, and even lip readers to meticulously fill in every lingering sensory blank.
These are not faceless soldiers by any means. They are, in fact, often quite striking in physical appearance – sharp chins, kind eyes, unruly ears, ready grins, only slightly crooked teeth. We know these people intrinsically, if not their names. We are these people, or, rather, they were us. As to the question of the seeming preponderance of smiling faces, Jackson later explains that few enough people in 1914 had ever seen a film camera, let alone been followed by one around a defenestrated, muddy ruin for weeks on end. Then, as now, the tacit appeal of any spotlight can coax the meekest turtle from his shell. It is the sheer numbers of this combined soldiery that are overwhelming, and enough to make us instinctively want, despite the warm, computer-enhanced intimacy and immediacy – or, perhaps, because of it – to retreat/revert to a more comfortable if antiquated way of viewing them – as statistics rather than people. They Shall Not Grow Old is a subtle but spectacular accomplishment then, in that, by seeking to so thoroughly humanize its combatants rather than romanticize their war, it actively fights against the homogenization of this rabble of plucky kids even as it weaves the disconnected snippets from 124 narrators into one single, unforgettable voice. Peter Jackson is reaching back across the generations here in a heroic effort to reconnect ours with the essential humanity of its great-grandparents. The lengths to which he went for the rewards he was able to reap must both be seen to be believed.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” (2018) 3.5/4 stars