It’s fair to say that, in the grand scheme of things, we don’t see as many films based around the First World War as we do its successor. Overall, it feels like there hasn’t been a second of World War II left undocumented, while your average Joe will know very little about The Great War, arguably the conflict that instituted most modern war practices. Before this, wars were fought on horseback, with brigades charging each other. The Great War introduced tanks, chemical warfare, and most notably, aerial conflict into the sphere.
It is easy to see why the First World War isn’t often used as a convenient backdrop; unlike the Second World War, it was not an ideological clash that caused it, but rather a complex string of events that included many different treaties and alliances all falling into place after an Archduke was assassinated in Bosnia. I once heard the war compared to the old board game ‘Mouse Trap’ in how this event launches a series of connected elements, and by the end, everyone was fighting each other.
I am not a history scholar, so I’m not sure how watertight that analogy may be, but I have read enough about the First World War to know that it wasn’t a simple battle of Good vs Evil, it wasn’t a battle for the sake of saving the world, in fact, I don’t think it was a battle for anything in particular. Just the result of boiling tensions and jingoistic aggression.
While it could be argued that WWII wasn’t entirely an ideological war either, on the surface there are at least heroes and villains. The Nazis representing all things evil and the Allies being the white-bread heroes, but in WWI, there is no such dynamic. Just several different blocks of soldiers who all just really want to live to see the end of the war. There was undoubtedly nationalistic reasons for some joining the war, but looking back now, it’s hard to see a reason for why it was fought at all.
That isn’t to say the war is untouched by cinema though, indeed I have a few films set during The Great War that I’ll be looking at over the following weeks and months, but I’ve started with this, as it is one that has been on my radar for the past few years since its release, so I thought I’d tick it off the list.
They Shall Not Grow Old is a documentary film, directed by Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings and Hobbit fame) chronicling the experiences of soldiers during The Great War, using war footage from the Imperial War Museum, which has been upscaled and colourised using ground-breaking computer programs.
These colourisations are the main draw of the film, upscaling the grainy one-hundred-year-old footage to make it look like it was filmed mere months before, it’s quite the astounding technical achievement from Jackson and his team and looks visually stunning, and also horrifying while being used to show the consequences of war.
The film also uses achieved voice footage of soldiers who fought in the trenches, giving the film an eerie feeling. Like it’s a time capsule, capturing the events of a century ago and presenting them here as if they were fresh events. The use of actual WWI soldiers also affords it an intimate and personal feeling, even though it utilises many different men’s voices, you get the impression of an almost-universal experience of the horrors they witnessed.
As well as colourising the achieve footage, it adds voice acting to the previously-silent clips. This is something I’m not so sure about ethically; I feel the same way about the modern craze of creating holograms of deceased celebrities. Seeing someone else put words in the mouth of a dead person is highly uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous, if in the wrong hands.
Taking a step back from this, however, there are moments where it’s used to add an extra sprinkling of atmosphere to the footage of men in the trenches. The descriptions of trench life already make it seem like a very macabre communal experience, and the addition of authentic-sounding voices over the silent clips help to bring this across.
I also admire the focus and even-handedness of the film. Although it is only told by former British soldiers, the film doesn’t seem to take a moral stance on the war as a whole. Some of the sound bites from the soldiers are of a more patriotic bent, yes, but they are bound to be; these were Britons at the height of the Empire, the superiority of their nationality had been taught to them from birth, of course, that’s why they joined, it’s what they were conditioned for, the film portrays a kinship between the opposing soldiers at times too, with the Brits talking fondly of their German POWs.
All at once, They Shall Not Grow Old, feels like a historical document, and an intensely personal project made with love and care. I’ll be honest, I’d have thought the film was a bit dry if not for the updating of the footage, as it happens, this was just enough to give the film a jolt of life that it needed to seem more noteworthy than many other documentaries. You can practically see the hours of work put into each frame to upscale it to a pristine shine, impressive, but occasionally haunting visuals make this film truly special; the feeling of comradeship is strengthened by its footage of men working together; with the horrors looking all the more horrific at the same time.
It is unsurprising then that this was a very important project to Jackson, whose grandfather fought in the war himself, and his passion for the product is palpable. Something made with the amount of love, and meticulous craftsmanship very rarely ends up being bad.
When all is said and done, how much you enjoy this film will come down to how much you enjoy documentaries. On its own, it’s an interesting account of life on the Western Front, and the worst thing you could say about it was that it’s a little bit dry and slow. With its technological advances, however, it’s something truly special. A historical account made into a work of beautiful, terrifying art. It becomes more engaging for its use of technology, rather than leaning on it as a crutch, it uses it to enhance its core story.
A wonderful technical achievement used to portray one of the darkest periods in human history. It’s engrossing, thoughtful, and superbly presented. The futility of war has never been so clear.