Peter Jackson’s time machine back to the trenches: They Shall Not Grow Old

Peter Jackson trades the battlefields of Middle-earth for the Western Front in his latest venture, a documentary that uses state-of-the-art digital techniques to recreate life in the trenches of the First World War. Tom Draper, part of our LFF Critics Mentorship Programme, is impressed.

Tom Draper
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They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

For the centenary of the end of the First World War, Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, has recreated the experiences of British soldiers living, fighting and dying on the battlefields. In his remarkable new documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, combat on the Western Front is represented more vividly than ever before.

Flickering black-and-white silent footage has been enhanced, sharpened and colourised, and professional lip readers have supplied accurate dialogue to match the movements on the screen. Through these expensive and time-consuming processes, the years 1914-18 burst back into life. It’s like stepping into a time machine and travelling 100 years into the past.

The film was originally supposed to be a 30-minute documentary, but the New Zealand director saw potential in more than 600 hours of audio material, reams and reams of silent archive film footage, and the stories of the 120 different soldiers who are heard recounting their experiences on the soundtrack.

Funding constraints resulted in bookending sequences involving the recruitment drive and the war’s aftermath remaining in black and white, but these restrictions actually work to the film’s advantage. Here, Jackson teases us into thinking that we’re going to see a conventional history of the war. But when the images of soldiers marching, and waiting around the barracks, finally mutate into scenes of colour-enhanced vibrancy, the “handsome, ruddy, upstanding young men, afraid of nobody” come alive and the camaraderie, endurance and horrors of the Great War can be seen and heard with fresh eyes and ears.

Watch the They Shall Not Grow Old trailer

This is a film about soldiers who “didn’t complain” and “didn’t really understand at all”. It’s about what it once meant to be a man, about the virtues of honour, bravery and doing your bit that were prized by that pre-war generation. We learn that the soldiers weren’t motivated to fight by the machinations of high politics or any animosity for the German government or people. They were British, after all, and so they went to war. If their friends had already signed up, then all the more reason to get up and go.

Jackson is less concerned with the facts, figures and analysis beloved of history textbooks. We are given as little information about the events unfolding miles away in Whitehall or the Reichstag – and the manoeuvres simulated by elite minds on grand chess boards – as the servicemen themselves. We see instead what it means to be a soldier: miles from home, subsisting on tinned food, being gnawed at by rats, desperately trying to survive.

Through its archive testimonials, They Shall Not Grow Old foregrounds the inner thoughts, feelings and worries of ordinary people sent to the killing fields of France and Belgium, for reasons which are not clear. That these valiant young servicemen somehow managed to find time to joke, swap stories and play games while facing the perils of trench foot, hardship, hunger and death is all the more admirable.

As we move further and further away from the end of the Great War, the daily efforts of these gallant soldiers risk seeming ever more remote for new generations. With its cutting-edge digital wizardry, Jackson’s film has given them a vital, visceral new testament.

 

About the London Film Festival Critics’ Mentorship Programme

Six up-and-coming writers from diverse backgrounds were selected out of hundreds who applied for the week-long London Film Festival mentorship scheme. Most of the critics had already blogged and were obsessive cinephiles, but had not been properly paid as journalists. Hoping to kickstart more mainstream careers and contacts, the students were each mentored by a media partner, including Time Out, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, ScreenDaily and The Evening Standard.

The critics attended the early morning press screenings every day, including Wild Rose, Suspiria, The Favourite and If Beale Street Could Talk, and met afterwards with chief mentor Kate Muir to workshop reviews in various styles – for a broadsheet newspaper, a tabloid, Sight & Sound magazine, and some even did a ‘first night’ review, with copy filed within 30 minutes of the screening.

They also wrote comment pieces for their media partners, worked on video and written reviews for the BFI website, and attended the festival’s filmmakers afternoon teas, as well as panels on the lack of diverse critics and breaking the class ceiling in UK film. After work, they networked at a few filmmakers’ parties.

The Guardian’s critic Peter Bradshaw came in for coffee to reveal the professional secrets on covering festivals like Cannes, and Leigh Singer discussed online video reviewing and his work programming the comedy strand at the festival. Three of the critics also appeared on Jason Solomons’ BBC London Film Podcast.

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