Film review: “They Shall Not Grow Old”

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There is so much to commend in Peter Jackson’s new film that I hardly know what to write without making the balance of this post One Humongous Spoiler Alert. That said, in my opinion New Zealand’s maestro of the silver screen has outdone even “The Lord of the Rings” with this project.

As readers ought to know, November 11, 2018 was the centenary of the Armistice that brought the tragic and costly First World War to its end. (At one point World War I was called the “Great War,” not because it was wonderful, but because it dwarfed all previous conflicts.)

As the 100th anniversary of the war’s outbreak rolled around in 2014, Britain’s Imperial War Museum (IWM) contacted Jackson, inviting him to oversee a venture that would be a fitting tribute to the men that fought, were wounded and died in it. The caveat was, only footage from the IWM’s 100+ hours’-worth of film shot during the war could be used in its production. There would be no re-enactments of historical events on screen, nor costumed actors mouthing period dialogue.

The person hours of an international production team, the talent and computer power Peter Jackson wrangled to meet the unique demands of “They Shall Not Grow Old” are testament to his deep desire to give the subject its due. How was this massive undertaking brought to fruition?

The first task was to review hours and hours of film, picking out sequences portraying events that spanned the entirety of the war. Jackson was loathe to attempt to cram four years of history into a film whose duration was a little over two hours. This realization led him to omit the Royal Navy and the Royal Flying Corps: to include these threatened a patchwork quilt, one that would consist of mere snippets, instead of a coherent narrative. Jackson decided that the common British infantryman, the “Tommy,” would stand in for the men that battled for King and Country in the air and on the seas.

Determining which film to use was one thing but dealing with its condition was quite another. Early cameras weren’t motor-driven: the operator advanced the film by turning a crank on the side of the machine. Individual technique affected the speed at which the action was recorded, so only by chance would the work of one cameramen match up with that of another. Also, hundred year-old film, long subjected to variations in temperature and humidity, invariably shrank. Because of this the sprocket holes at the film’s edges mismatched the sprockets of the projector through which it was shown, yielding a distracting, herky-jerky motion on the screen.

Another challenge was posed by the subjects of the project itself. No doubt many British troops of World War One had seen a movie but they were highly unlikely to have been in one themselves. It wasn’t unusual for soldiers being filmed to stand stock still, transfixed by the camera. Peter Jackson imagines there were plenty of times when cameramen yelled at the men before the lens to move around, damn it!

So, once the archival film was stabilized for speed and colorized (described in a program following the movie but something I won’t reveal here – sorry) Jackson noticed that a vital element was missing: the sound of soldiers talking.

Fortuitously the British Broadcasting Corporation (the beloved “Beeb”) possessed 600-plus hours of the memories of World War veterans, recorded in the 1960s. Even though nearly a half century had passed since the events they recalled took place, these elderly men were sharp minded and their memories were clear. The veterans’ words form “They Shall Not Grow Old’s” auditory backbone but there’s more to the tale. I also choose not to divulge that, friends.

Obviously there is a lot that will amaze you when the opportunity to view this fantastic work presents itself. The movie is already out on DVD and Blu-ray but as yet it is not available in the North American format. The only other thing I will say is that, when color first seeped into the sepia-tinged record of the past, many people in the audience of the packed theater where I saw Peter Jackson’s masterpiece gasped in amazement at what he had wrought. See this film.

 

 

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