Peter Jackson has been busy of late. The New Zealand director’s steampunk-inflected adaptation of the fantasy novel Mortal Engines will land this Christmas, while cinemagoers lucky enough to live close to a screening have recently been treated to his moving, fascinating documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, for which he has assembled and retouched archive footage of British soldiers that was recorded during the First World War.
The film was jointly commissioned by 14-18 NOW, an organisation set up to commemorate the centenary of Armistice Day, and the Imperial War Museum, the holders of the visual footage (audio recordings, made by the BBC after the war, also feature). As well as restorative work such as sharpening the images and conversion of the archive material to 3D, the director and his team have also colourised much of it, the switch from black and white to colour that occurs around ten minutes in being one of a few coups de cinema here; otherwise, little attention is drawn to the technical achievements that have taken place, which allows the viewer to focus more on the subject matter instead of the obvious prowess of Jackson’s team.
I’m not much of a fan of artificial colouring (though a black and white rendering of the world in the first place is no less artificial as a process) and I’m ambivalent about 3D more generally, but here it undoubtedly brings the men to life. We see them eagerly signing up to go to war, taking part in training exercises and then confronting the horrors of trench life at the Battle of the Somme. It is – was – a harrowing journey.
The conspicuous cameras that trundle before the men are often trained on large groups or smaller clusters, as opposed to individuals, and the camera operators were particularly drawn to the now-sharply-rendered faces of the soldiers, lingering in front of them. Typically, the men stare back at the lens, the result of their own fascination with a nascent technology; presumably most of the people we see here were being filmed for the first time in their lives. To bring the footage to life even more, Jackson’s expert lip-readers have figured out what the soldiers were saying, and actors have been employed to add their voices to the soundtrack; apparently much care has been taken on getting the right accents to tally with the regiments that are shown on screen. This is augmented by the aforementioned testimonies by soldiers that were recorded later, when the men had some literal and figurative distance from the events.
Such striving for authenticity – along with the technical prowess – makes this a fine attempt at enhancing a historic record, though of course the colouring will turn off some people, the 3D will turn off even more and its worth pointing out that the recollections of the soldiers cannot ultimately be relied upon (stress and time may mean that their testimonies are not 100% accurate).
That said, there is valuable insight here into the lives of British combatants (we only see dead or captured bodies of German counterparts, and never hear from survivors). The footage of life in the trenches is startling: the camera captures the nameless dead strewn around on the ground in No Man’s Land, shells constantly exploding nearby, rats everywhere and terrible unsanitary conditions (though there is something amusing about the line of men using the long-drops together, the ideas of privacy and comfort having long disappeared); but the awfulness of war contrasts considerably at times with the often upbeat mood of the men, who were eager to fight for their country. The film ends, oddly and ironically enough, by addressing their dismay at the end of the war. Many were unemployed and lost the sense of purpose they had while serving in the military; some men speak of the general lack of understanding when they returned home, with the general public unable to understand what they had been through. It may be 100 years too late, but this gripping, vital work does at least begin to address that issue. (5/5)
Cinemas in the UK have been – and still are – showing They Shall Not Grow Old with a recorded Q&A between critic and broadcaster Mark Kermode and Jackson, but the BBC is screening a 2D version on Sunday evening for those in the UK. (BBC2, Sunday 11 November, 9.30pm).