‘They Shall Not Grow Old,’ a WWI Memorial Film

The new documentary They Shall Not Grow Old played in theaters this week, in limited release in the US, for the centennial of the end of World War I. It will presumably be available soon on DVD and a streaming service.

The documentary, directed by Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit), is 99 minutes of archival footage from the Imperial War Museums, paired with veterans’ oral histories provided by the IWM and the BBC. After the credits, Jackson explains for another 30 minutes his four-year process of restoration and editing.

When the IWM asked him to do something with their footage for the centennial, he asked to see all 100 hours of it. (I was surprised there was not more.) Much of it was scratched, spliced, washed-out or darkened with age, and otherwise degraded. Sprocket holes had shrunk with the rest of the film, so when you try to show it on projectors, “it jumps and shudders,” Jackson says, “and they jooped it and jooped it and jooped it”—copied it in second, third, and fourth generations—so the original crispness was lost. All this, combined with the sped-up quality of old movies shot at a different speed, and soundless, pre-color film, make those people and the War to End All Wars seem very distant from us. Jackson’s main goal was to make it personal again, since any of us might have had relatives who served in that war, he says, as his grandfather did.

The film is worth seeing. The slowed-down and restored footage is especially vivid in 3D, which gives it depth of field and makes it feel more contemporary.

Having said that, the film has limitations that matter. No one is identified by name, unit, geographic location, action, or even which year of the war they speak about or appear in. Footage is a jumble of all these, and the veterans speaking in voiceover are not speaking about the footage shown. Jackson says this gives it all a “generic” quality, by which I think he means universal. But it is generic, or worse, when he treats experience as interchangeable and with no context. Jackson even edits to imply some of the men shown looking into the camera, grinning, eating, playing around, are the corpses we see next. They are not, though many likely died. He makes it a point in his talk at the end to say that his is not an “academic” film, that he is not an academic, and his audience are not academics. Fair enough, but there are reasons historians, documentarians, writers, poets, and others impose form on themselves.

The film has no real battle scenes, though men are shown climbing out of trenches or in one case running briefly across a field that is being shelled. A few mutilated corpses are shown. Of course, combat photographers and the media could not easily carry a camera the size of luggage into machine-gun fire and gas attacks, all the while turning the crank at 16 frames per second. But Jackson’s choice to show propaganda illustrations of battles (because he already had those vintage magazines in his personal collection) forces the viewer to think of the war as more distant than Jackson intended. The illustrations call to mind Balaclava, not Belleau Wood, and surely the IWM has still photos to share.

The UK veterans speaking in voiceover are often hard for this broad, flapping American ear to understand, due both to their accents (think Scouse at its thickest) and speed, and the unseen speakers change without notice, sometimes after a single sentence. There are no subtitles.

In other ways, sound has been manipulated. The men seen talking in the footage have been provided with voice actors’ words, after “forensic lipreaders” tried to see what they were saying. Foley artists squished in the mud and recorded modern artillery pieces to provide ambient noise for the film.

The colorizing is still a little off too, the people sometimes rouged like painted dolls, for example. Jackson speaks interestingly about the complexity of the color of grass, and making a trip to sites shown in the film to take photos, just to get the grass right. His personal collection of WWI uniforms helped guide colorizing artists on medals, buttons, and uniforms. (I thought computers could interpret black-and-white values for color hues by now.) The Tank Museum in Dorset (“the world’s best collection of tanks”) complained that Jackson’s tanks were colored green in the film, when they were actually brown, and he should have asked them first.

Above all, the film is sometimes visually unsettling, when the stated goal is to make familiar. The landscape swims, like the start of an acid trip, and soldiers’ eyes often do something weird that recalls demons or something else not quite human. Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian says, “The effect is electrifying. The soldiers are returned to an eerie, hyperreal kind of life in front of our eyes, like ghosts or figures summoned up in a seance. The faces are unforgettable.”

In addition to watching and choosing among the 100 hours of footage, Jackson listened to 600 hours of oral histories. Some, he said, were 10 or 12 hours per interviewee. “One guy’s story could be a film in itself,” he admits. Indeed, in trying to find a focus for the documentary, if it can fairly be called that, Jackson left out the stories of women, colonial troops, other countries’ forces, the use of other important technologies (airplanes and submarines, eg), and the experiences of those on the home front, even though they were not only integral to the war effort but led to other historic events, such as suffrage.

Though this film is exclusively about the British fighting on the Western Front, the showing I went to had a long plea at its start for a United States WWI memorial. It is a good idea. Jackson’s great gift (he took no fee) to all of us was to restore all 100 hours of footage, even when he never intended to use it. That preservation is a true monument, and I would gladly watch all 100 hours before I would watch his film again. We in the US should commit to a similar effort for all our aging media, as a memorial with real worth.