Peter Jackson has returned, arrived with a film far different than his epics, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, or even King Kong. They Shall Not Grow Old offers a history that has stuck with every Briton, including Jackson (whose grandfather served in the war). Even today, the legacy of World War I permeates in England. Nary a public building, especially the train stations, isn’t adorned with a memorial to the last war fought with the vestiges of the Empire. They Shall Not Grow Old is a fascinating exposition, told with reverence and stunning colorization, of these men who fought the war they thought would end all wars.
Jackson, with his first documentary, establishes us in the cultural milieu of Imperialist Britain. The film opens in black and white, as soldiers march across in newsreel ratio. The newsreel ratio expands, enveloping the screen; the black and white slowly diffuses to pure white; the service men reflect on the war itself. “I wouldn’t have missed it…It made me a man…No regrets at all,” are the choruses of these vibrant, yet weathered men. Recruitment and propaganda posters streaming across the screen are other artifacts establishing us within the period.
They Shall Not Grow Old meticulously reconstructs these soldiers’ journey through the war; from recruitment; to basic training; to the battlefield. When we enter the European theater, the film explodes in beautiful and captivating colorization. Over 400 rotoscope artists painstakingly traced, drew, and separated each frame manually. The results immerse us into the European Western Front.
In Jackson’s research, and ensuing footage, he discovers pockets of gold, moments of lighthearted frivolity, such as Tommies (British Soldiers) with their exposed rear-ends sitting on a wooden rail over a latrine. Captured in the audio is period diction, such as “plum duff” and “hookworm.” Understated British sensibilities also reverberates, as the veterans recall “annoyances” and “inconveniences” of the war. In many respects, this may serve as slight hints of repression. Continually, the soldiers adorn even the most traumatic events with decorations of wit.
However, the specter of does death rear its head and much of the veterans’ reverie at the outset of the conflict fades. The sound mixing—the cacophony of cannon fire and the whiz of bullets overtakes laughter—shocks us. Jackson—not a pure documentarian—is especially adept at “adding drama” to the non-narrative driven footage. The battlefield becomes a crucible, where when a bang happens, a smash cut finds a dead body. The effect, while not totally authentic—as we’ll never know how that particular soldier died—still retains a tormented example of death’s random touches in war.
Ultimately, the colorization is mostly a win. The detachment—usually accompanying black and white footage—declines as the men burst with life, flooding to us when colors of their eyes shine back and their rosy complexions return (there’s also a reminders of Britain’s spotty record on dental hygiene). Still, the pictures of the dead—from an artistic standpoint—could have been left in black and white. Finding the balance between color and moribund bodies is tricky. Their appearances can be contrived rather than eliciting total empathy.
However, the interviews—more so than the footage—drives the film and serves as the most endearing aspect. Jackson, by combing through hours of oratory history, has woven a complex fabric of soldiers from different classes, regions, and backgrounds. In their voices one can hear the vast network of the war’s participants. It’s a subtle statement reflecting the period.
They Shall Not Grow Old, much like the war, ends in a whimper (but not in a bad way). The once boisterous men who were afraid of the war ending before they arrived, deliver apprehension at the prospect of conflict ever happening again. The shift marks a transformation of the British Imperialist bravado in these men. Jackson’s film—taken at a glance—harks to a frozen era when these men fought what they thought would be the war to end all wars, and what they learned from it.