Remembering the Great War

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As the world prepared to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War I on November 11, 1918, director Peter Jackson accepted a daunting commission: to create a documentary that would honor the soldiers who fought in the trenches, using the original footage that was filmed 100 years ago.

This would not be a documentary about generals, military strategy, assassinations of obscure archdukes, or theaters of war. Jackson would not interview modern historians about the significance of the war or provide any scripted narration. Instead, Jackson would bring these long-dead soldiers to life by allowing them to tell their own story.

The result is a magnificent piece of work, both in the story it tells and in the technology Jackson used to tell it. This is a film made entirely in the editing room.

This would not be a documentary about generals, military strategy, assassinations of obscure archdukes, or theaters of war.

To create the storyline, Jackson and his team reviewed over 600 hours of interviews with survivors, conducted during various commemorations of the War to End All Wars. Jackson then began selecting portions of the interviews, taking a snippet here and a snippet there, until he was able to cobble together a narrative line that begins with young 16- and 17-year-old boys sneaking off to lie about their ages in order to join the army; follows them into the trenches, villages, and battlefields; and ends with the survivors returning home, many of them injured, many of them “loony” (an earlier term for PTSD), and many of them (according to one of the narrators) facing employment signs that said “Army veterans need not apply.” Their remembrances, told with voices that are cracked with age, are moving and authentic. No historian’s expertise could tell their story better.

Once the storyline had been established, Jackson reviewed 100 hours of footage from the war, selecting the best scenes to match the narration. Much of the footage was third- or fourth-generation, meaning it was a copy of a copy of a copy, each generation becoming less and less crisp. Much of it was either too dark or too light to be viewed clearly. And all of the movements were jerky and unnatural as the filmmakers had to crank the film through the camera by hand, trying to keep it steady at approximately twelve frames per second, which is only half the number of frames per second that we are accustomed to seeing in today’s movies.

And here is where the magic begins. Jackson used computer technology to add frames to the footage, smoothing out the action and making it feel as normal as any film you would see today. Then he colorized the film, using actual uniforms, tanks, and other artifacts from his own considerable collection of WWI memorabilia to help the artists get the colors just right. Next he enlisted professional lipreaders to figure out what the men were saying in the footage, and hired voice actors from the actual regions of each regiment, so the accents would be authentic. He added sound effects made by recording actual tank movements, mortar explosions, bayonet affixions, and other background noises. Finally, he created a natural musical score largely based on whistling and other natural music of the battlefield. The result brings these antique films to life. We simply forget that cameras couldn’t do this 100 years ago.

Jackson brings these long-dead soldiers to life by allowing them to tell their own story.

I’m not usually a fan of colorization; while it does make a film feel more natural for modern viewers, it neutralizes the skillful play of shadow and contrast designed deliberately and carefully by directors of the ’30s and ’40s. They knew what they were doing, and they did it well. However, in this film the colorization is a masterful addition. It brings out details in the film that in black and white were hidden or completely lost. Most notable is the blood; we simply don’t see blood as anything but dirt in black and white.

We also see how terribly young these soldiers were, marching off to war and grinning for the cameras. Although we never know their names, Jackson edits the footage so that several of the men come into view several times, and we begin to identify with them. We see not only the war, but how they lived, what they ate, how they slept, and even how they played. And in many cases, we are seeing them just before they died. It is a sobering, respectful, and impressive film.

They Shall Not Grow Old is neither pro-war nor anti-war; it simply asks us to consider the cost of war — not in the billions of dollars that are spent, but in the millions of lives that are lost. The title of the film is based on a selection from Laurence Binyon’s Ode of Remembrance called “For the Fallen,” which has been used as a tribute to all who die in war:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

Lee Teter’s painting “Vietnam Reflections” pays a similar tribute to the fallen, but from a different perspective, that of the grieving survivor. It depicts a man, clearly a veteran though he wears no uniform, mourning at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, where the names of all the fallen are etched on a long, low wall deliberately situated below ground level. His head is bowed in quiet anguish, his arm outstretched and his hand leaning heavily against the wall, willing it to reach inside and touch his comrades on the other side. Unseen by him, because his eyes are closed, several soldiers seem to be standing inside the wall, their reflections ghostly as they reach out, hand to hand, to console the man who, having survived the war, continues to carry its burdens. His guilt is understood by the clothing Teter chose to give him. He is dressed in a business suit; the soldiers wear army fatigues. A briefcase rests on the ground beside the veteran; the soldiers carry field kits. The businessman’s hair is flowing and tinged with gray; theirs is dark and crew cut. The fallen soldiers shall not grow old, start businesses, or have children.

 Most notable is the blood; we simply don’t see blood as anything but dirt in black and white.

And therein lies the survivor’s grief. “We that are left grow old,” as Binyon says in his poem, but survival is neither a reward nor a relief. It is a burden. Age does weary them, and the years do condemn.

No one knows the true story of war except those who experience it, and even then, it is a private, individual grief that none of them can truly share or understand. Consequently, using the voices of the actual soldiers to tell their story was a brilliant narrative strategy for They Shall Not Grow Old. They speak next to one another, but not in conversation with one another. The viewer remains enveloped in the currency of the story and simply observes their experience without explanation, editorializing, or the distraction of a modern historian’s modern interpretation.

The film is moving and impressive, but you’ll have to find it on Netflix or another platform because its theatrical release was limited to just December 17 and December 27. And that’s a shame, because the moment when Jackson switches from the jerky, original, black and white footage to his colorized and edited version is breathtaking. I’m so glad I got to see it on a full-sized screen. If you do see it, make sure you watch the director’s cut with Peter Jackson’s interview explaining how he did it. It’s like listening to a magician’s reveal.


Editor's Note: Review of "They Shall Not Grow Old," directed by Peter Jackson. WingNut Films, 2018, 99 minutes.



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