a review by the Crow.
They Shall Not Grow Old,
On the in 11th of November, 1918 the Armistice Treaty was signed between the Allies and Germany. And 100 years down the line, the Peter Jackson-helmed documentary They Shall Not Grow Old is released to UK audiences (and on the very date: to BBC screens).
The documentary is a look at those involved on the front-lines of World War I from their own perspective — featuring photography and audio of and from the men themselves, stitched together to form a cohesive narrative that presents a view of The War that few have seen.
It is, of course, the fact that The War has faded in the collective consciousness that drives home the effect of They Shall Not Grow Old. In contemporary times, with time between us and “it”, the harrowing backdrop to the men’s words sounds a little lost. It all comes off as quite matter-of-fact and even a little jovial at the outset, but the documentary is quick to point out that these men involved are largely children — by legal definition, in their own voices.
The pictures on the screen are presented in black-and-white, at varying frame rates and dimensions for the most part of this 25-minute “opening” sequence, intercut at times by colour imagery of posters and other pro-war literature that take up larger portions of the screen.
Then, something amazing happens — something we were promised ever since the picture’s announcement. The pictures on the screen shift into high definition (as we currently call it), full-colour video on a slow-panning shot of soldiers filing towards the front through the trenches in Belgium.
And this is the shining jewel in the cap of this documentary. While the cap as a whole is a very grand cap, the documentary manages to take moments from The Great War and transform them into a cinematic experience that looks and feels as it was shot in the 2000s.
Gone are the issues with shifting frame rates causing jitters in movement and making time appear to flow differently, barring some minor instances that largely won’t catch the audience’s eye. Personally, I have some experience in editing video, and it’s amazing to see the results of the work put into this documentary. The Young laugh, walk, talk, and get down to the business of war once again as if not a day has passed since the horrors of the trenches.
Interstital frames have been employed to great effect, and the results are spectacular. There are slight issues with the movement of the Young, but again: they will go largely unnoticed. Some of the footage seems damaged at the very edges, and the team behind the documentary have done their best to restore the footage, but there is only so much can be done before the art on display (however understated) spirals off into the realm of fiction. Some scenes appear blurred or over-exposed; but in most of these cases: this is just how the footage was taken. There’s no meddling with what the camera captures, here. The dirt and smudging on the lens is part of the history we’ve been invited to watch, after all.
The colours are muted. Mr Jackson and his team keep the film from looking like anything but a document from the early 1900s, in all but a few still images. From a visual perspective, keeping in mind the context — and the intention — of the documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old is an absolute masterpiece on all fronts.
The sound is equally masterful. Forensic lip-readers and voice actors were employed to speak life into the young men we see walking about, and none of it feels out of place. The voices of those who were there hang over us all, though — and it’s they who ground the realities we see on screen with the one most important thing this documentary deals with (and one of the most important things in any conversation, ever): context.
To break away from the technical aspects of the project and return to the trenches:
The lads move up and down the line, going about their business like they’re out for groceries. They wake their brothers up because they’re “in the pictures, mate”. They wrestle with each other and play rugby. They ride the light railway. There are smiles aplenty and looks at life as it was on the front-lines.
And then, the first of the bombs fall.
German Artillery. Good sections of the film are punctuated by the sound and the defeaning results of the shellings. To anyone who knows anything about this period of history (which should be everyone), we knew they were coming. And their effects are nothing short of horrifying, just as one would imagine them. Earth is moved — shattered, and hills of debris are blossomed from flat earth, and yet the voices discussing them are as matter-of-fact as ever. This were nothing incredible. These things were just moments from life as-it-was at the front.
Chemical warfare and its results come, with time, with the documentary turning down a road that looks at the brutal effects of living in the trenches soon after. We skip from soldiers shoving their faces into buckets of human excrement to stills of “trench feet”. And the two are not as married to one another as one might think, reading the above sentence.
When the British Army finally supply “tanks” to the front-line, the Young think that they’re to receive tanks of water. After all, that’s what was more important to them, at the time.
Despite the matter-of-fact tone of the documentary, there is an undercurrent of humour. It’s typified in one scene where a specialist soldier fires a rifle-grenade and manages to knock his own helmet off. The scene cuts to a closer view of him in the instant after, where he turns to the lens with a cheeky — and slightly embarrassed — grin. The next shot shows a similar action, punctuated by one of the Young looking at a fellow soldier with a look that says “that’s not coming back down at us, is it?”
as we that are left grow old.
And then, the sound shifts, and the mood of the documentary lowers a notch. The documentary has already covered the death of horses, and men. But this is where the reality of what the trenches were for is brought to the fore-front: the charge “over the top”. And the rest, as they say… is history. Or it would be.
But here we are. Watching it.
The charge “over the top” is intercut with a host of lines that one could think of as poetic (“I dissolved into unconsciousness…”), a sense of respect and acknowledgement for the enemy, and that cool — almost unnerving — matter-of-fact narration in the background. The noise of the War, described as a mass, is pieced out into the sounds of individual weapons, set against artwork and other illustrations from the time, still images, and the scraps of video that remain.
And yes: all of it is hell. And it was only around ten minutes long, we are told.
The stories about the surrendering Germans are a rare look into something we rarely hear about. Boys, shopkeepers, and barbers sit next to each other in the end, and exchange cigarettes and small-talk. We hear of how well the Young on both sides got along, despite the hell they’d just lived through.
There are few words to describe what They Shall Not Grow Old evokes (at least in me). I can be very much a softie when it comes to movies and television, but I didn’t expect to shed a few tears at it. Anything that does so gains at least some level of respect, in my eyes, and this documentary has a great deal of mine.
All that said: They Shall Not Grow Old is a spectacular documentary, and comes not only a highly recommended watch, but a necessary watch for everyone (ironically: above the age of eighteen), and one I’d argue should be shown in history classes. It is a masterpiece, through-and-through. I’m happy to see the restraint Mr Jackson and his crew have shown in this project — that was commissioned by 14–18 NOW, the BBC, and the Imperial War Museums. It presents as real a picture as it can, far as I can tell.
I would have liked to talk a little more about the wind-down that the documentary ends on; but instead, I’ll leave you with what I think is one of the most poignant moments in television history:
— Crow out.
THE CROW: 9/10
THE AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE: 8.5/10
Dunkirk, by the Crow
Here’s the official poster:
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