THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD. UK/New Zealand, 2018. Directed by Peter Jackson. 98 minutes. Rated MA (Strong war themes and injury detail.)
This documentary, sponsored by the Imperial War Museum in London, as well as by committees for the celebration of the armistice to and World War I, is a very striking cinema experience.
It was directed by New Zealander, Peter Jackson, Oscar-winner for his third film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, director of horror films in his early career, a transition to drama with Heavenly Creatures, following up Lord of the Rings with the Hobbit films, creating a version of King Kong as well as The Lovely Bones.
Jackson is rightly admired as a technical innovator as well as a creative writer-director.
On the one hand, audiences will be moved at this re-creation of British troops fighting on the continent. On the other hand, the creative technical aspects of the film will elicit great admiration.
For those familiar with World War I history, this is a visual and audio recreation, beginning with the outbreak of the war, moving to the enthusiasm for enlisting, the hopes that the war would be over soon, the young men from all walks of life joining up. It explores the training, over a few weeks, before the soldiers moved across the Channel. The narrative follows the young men as they go into action, move into the trenches, the hardships of life in the trenches, yet the fellowship that was built up. The narrative concentrates on this small group, the preparation for going over the top, the personalised warfare as the men ran through the no man’s land for combat with the German soldiers, rifles, machine guns, bayonets. There was also the discovery that the German troops and their trenches we like the British, very similar – and, ultimately, wishing that the war was over. There are many deaths, atrocious wounds, medics, carrying the wounded, the burial of the corpses on the battlefield.
Audiences may have expected the film to end with the armistice but it continues on with the soldiers returning, difficulties with unemployment, the refusal to employ soldiers, so many in the population not understanding or appreciating what the soldiers had been through.
This narrative is communicated in striking technical ways. Throughout the film, there is continued voice-over by veterans of the war, audio interviews supplied by the Imperial War Museum, edited in such a way that the narrative is continuous and relates to the range of visuals which have been chosen.
The visuals range from initial newsreel footage of the outbreak of the war, patriotism and enlistment, details of the military training, embarkation to go across the Channel. However, there was not a great deal of footage of actual close-up warfare. Instead, this film relies on sketches, two-dimensional cartoons, expertly chosen to illustrate the grimness of warfare, especially in close-up, the camera moving m, providing extreme close-ups to communicate very effectively what the experience of battle was like.
But, there was film of the soldiers themselves, the trenches, carrying and tending to the wounded. Peter Jackson and his team have restored this footage, adapted the pace from the speed with which it went through the projectors then and now. He arranged for lip readers to watch the footage and write down what the soldiers were saying so that these words could be dubbed, audiences feeling that they were listening to the actual men. And then the sequences have been colorised, making a vivid impression of action, sound, colour – realism.
For audiences who want to appreciate something of the atmosphere of World War I, albeit through a small group of British soldiers and a limited focus on their action, this is an important and moving film.
Roadshow Released 11th November
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.