They Shall Not Grow Old

 

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Peter Jackson brings the First World War vividly to life by remastering archive footage with sound and colour.

 

They Shall Not Grow Old

  

With the wealth of archive news footage, documentaries, re-enactments and television serials, one would have thought that we knew pretty much everything about the living hell of the front line in the First World War. Yet as those events retreat ever further into the mists of time, the focus on the true barbarity seems to be becoming ever sharper. Soldiers who returned from the front line initially refused to talk about their experience, largely to spare them the agony of reliving their nightmares, but also because they knew that anybody at home could not even begin to envisage the horror.

 

When the director Peter Jackson was approached by the Imperial War Museum to give their footage a new angle to coincide with the centenary of the Armistice, he knew not what a personal odyssey it would become. Dedicated to his grandfather, Sgt. William Jackson, who fought for the British in the war, Peter Jackson hit on the idea of restoring the 100 hours of footage sent to him and, relying on the advances of modern digital expertise, to colourize the material as well, adding sound effects and dialogue with the help of sound editors and lip readers. The result is a vivid portrait of life in the trenches as recounted by survivors of the conflict, whittled down from 600 hours of interviews. It is a technological miracle that brings an entirely new perspective to the period, introducing a fresh humanity and even a sense of humour. One voice tells us that, “when the war was not very active, it was really rather fun. It was not very dangerous. A sort of out-of-door camping holiday with the boys, with a slight spice of danger to make it interesting.” Even so, there are many images here that will be hard to erase from the memory and verbal details to arrest the attention: about the art of sleeping while standing up, urinating in one’s shoes to keep the soles soft overnight, the taste of petrol in the water gulped from recycled canteens and the outdoor toilet bars for communal defecation. Other shots of punctured faces and eviscerated horses are hard to stomach.

 

The odd thing about They Shall Not Grow Old is that due to our familiarity with war films, the colourful, pristine images at first feel like just another dramatization. Look closer, and the soldiers merrily puffing on their cigarettes and pipes on an exercise march, the blackened, ungainly teeth and the uncertain smiles unused to the intrusion of a movie camera, remind us that this is – or was – only too real. The footage is remarkable; its transformation into 21st century cinema completely overwhelming.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Dir Peter Jackson, Pro Clare Olssen and Peter Jackson, Ed Jabez Olssen, Music Plan 9.

 

House Productions/Trustees of the Imperial War Museum/WingNut Films-Trafalgar Releasing.

98 mins. UK/New Zealand. 2018. Rel: 9 November 2018. Cert. 15.