I have little to add to the superlatives that have been heaped on Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, suffice to say it is a singular, sobering, must-see experience.
Utilising footage from the Imperial War Museum, Jackson has taken scratched, variable frame rate, monochrome imagery and done something quite miraculous. With the aid of bleeding edge digital technology, he has colourised it, corrected frame rates, and brought the soldiers in the footage to life in a way that makes World War I far more immediate and real than modern audiences have ever seen. In addition, Jackson has taken interviews from a 1960s BBC radio series, with voices of veterans speaking about their experience, placing their words over the footage. Forensic lip-readers have also been employed to add dialogue to some of the silent images, in addition to sound effects that hurl the viewer into the terrifying heart of the western front.
In the past, colourisation has rightly been derided as an act of cultural vandalism, given the crudity of the techniques, and the rendering of beautifully lit monochrome photography into a garish, gaudy mess. Here however, the effect is quite different. The level of technical wizardry involved is considerably greater than previous colourisation attempts. After a short introduction with archive footage presented how we are used to seeing it, the screen expands, black and white becomes colour and the sound begins. The effect preserves the humanity of these men, providing tremendous immediacy. It does not detract but greatly, greatly enhances, honouring the subjects in a remarkable way.
There are no interviews with historians or voiceovers telling the story of the war, just voices from the past from those that actually did the fighting, regaling us with reminiscences that don’t always adhere to the more modern, politically correct view of the conflict. War is hell, and that point is never lost (there are many genuinely horrific images on display here – be warned), but some of these men found a camaraderie in the trenches that they never knew in their hard lives either before or afterwards. This mingling of humour and horror is at it’s most affecting in the way British troops view their German counterparts as essentially just as much victims as they are. Not that there is a shred of self-pity or false sentimentality in any of the survivor stories.
They Shall Not Grow Old doesn’t get into the political origins of the war, critique the strategies involved, or offer a greater sense of historic context, but 100 years on from the Armistice, it provides an extraordinary insight into the Great War that has never been seen before. I highly, highly recommend watching it.
NOTE for UK readers: I’ve just watched this in the cinema, but it is also on BBC2 tonight (Sunday 11th November) at 9:30pm.