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Non-Review Review: They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old is a marvelous technical accomplishment, and an adequate if flawed documentary.

A lot of the debate and discussion around They Shall Not Grow Old focuses on the manner in which director Peter Jackson has “updated” or “remastered” existing archival footage of the First World War to bring the documentary to life. They Shall Not Grow Old features real footage of the conflict shot at the same time, albeit digitally manipulated do that it could be rendered in high definition, in colour and widescreen. There are certain segments of film fandom that view this as an act of cinematic vandalism, of destruction of the historical record in a desperate populist bid.

However, this overlooks the substance of They Shall Not Grow Old as an actual documentary, reducing Jackson’s attempt to craft a visceral and tangible record of the First World War to a piece of trivia or a cinematic novelty. This is both a disservice to the documentary itself and also something of a boon. The narrative that Jackson is attempting to reconstruct with the materials available to him is interesting, perhaps much more interesting than debates about one particular facet of the movie’s production.

They Shall Not Grow Old is an ambitious effort, but it is also a deeply flawed one. Its flaws are in many cases interwoven with its virtues, with everything that makes it so unique also serving to impose rigid formal boundaries upon the work that Jackson cannot escape simply by reframing his footage.

The narrative of the First World War is at once intensely complicated and exceeding simple. The causes of the war are convoluted, a sequence of alliances and agreements snaking across the European continent through nineteenth and early twentieth century history like a trail of dominoes, leading to a situation where the assassination of some minor royalty plunges an entire continent into four years of blood shed. Perhaps owing to those complicated surrounding factors, the cultural narrative of the First World War is surprisingly simple: young men dying in the mud in service of nothing but the pride of their social betters.

The Second World War, ironically, is a much more loaded affair; in part because it is a lot closer to the present, in part because of the narrative of “the greatest generation”, in part because of the atomic bomb, in part because of the Holocaust, in part because of its position as the starting point of what has been described as “the American Century.” It is very difficult to reconcile all of those factors with the simplistic “good versus evil” mythology that has built up around the conflict, the story of liberty wrestling against fascism for the fate of the free world.

The First World War has long stood as an illustration of the folly of nationalism, of the devastating cost of nationalist pride, a price measured in human lives. That is why the poppy exists as a symbol of pacifism, as if to insist “never again.” This sense of pointlessness and futility infuses much of the best work about the First World War, the cultural memory of the conflict perhaps best evoked in the closing moments of Goodbyeee, the season and series finale of Blackadder Goes Forth.

This message is particularly important in the modern political moment, when nationalism is resurgent. After all, the past few years have been very turbulent for the United Kingdom. The country has withdrawn from the European Union, one of the bodies that has helped to promote peace and unite across the previously-volatile continent. Prominent figures have even threatened military action against current allies over something as seemingly irrelevant as the Rock of Gibraltar.

In this sense, the centenary of the First World War might be fortuitous in this regard, an opportunity for Britain to remind itself of the horrors of a divided continent and rampant British nationalism. As such, the timing on They Shall Not Grow Old could not be better, at least in theory. There can be no better time to remind audiences of the high costs of war, and of exactly who pays the price for dangerous political jousting by the upper classes. The First World War was a catastrophe, it should not be forgotten.

Unfortunately, Peter Jackson finds himself hamstrung by the format of They Shall Not Grow Old. A lot of this is simply down to the logistics of the film, the materials that the director had to hand when making this documentary. After all, the footage that went into They Shall Not Grow Old was not exactly candid amateur photography shot by troops. That would have been impossible at the time. Instead, the archive material from which Jackson is drawing would have been largely curated by the establishment. Footage shot for newsreels and propaganda broadcasts.

As a result, They Shall Not Grow Old inadvertently propagandises the conflict, showing in in the way that the British government would have rather that it be seen one hundred years ago. There are lots of romantic images of soldiers in formation, marching in rhythm, relaxing together. The army looks like a very comfortable and very enjoyable experience. Even life in the trenches does not seem especially chaotic. Inconvenient maybe, but these troops are all smiling for the camera, playfully performing.

Despite Jackson’s desire to bring the conflict to life in a meaningful way, there is very little footage of the actual horror of war from which he might draw. There is footage of tanks moving through the wasteland, but there are very few moving pictures of the reality of combat. This makes sense, considering the source of the material. Why would those charged with packaging the war for contemporary public consumption want shots of soldiers with their insides hanging out, calling desperately for their mothers, sinking deep into the anonymous mass grave of these mud-filled battlefields or ground under tank tracks?

Jackson tries to work around this absence in a number of ways. Most obviously, he uses still images of these horrors where he can. Indeed, a still image of a soldier suffering from “trench foot” is among the most visceral images in the film – a human leg being eaten by ghastly blacks and reds, muscle and torn and exposed. However, there are only so many of these images. The still image of a soldier slumped over, even with blood visible on his uniform, will never be as effective or horrific as actually watching it happen.

Jackson then falls back on more obvious computer manipulation to depict the chaos of battle. A still picture of a battlefield is displayed before the familiar sound of a shell flying through the air, followed by an animated explosion. While it is clear that Jackson and their team have worked very hard on the film, there is a strong sense of an absence at the heart of They Shall Not Grow Old, a lacuna where the heart of the movie should be. For all that the film tries to bring the First World War to live, the horrors remain firmly off-screen.

They Shall Not Grow Old tries to mitigate this issue with its narration, actors reading transcripts from veterans of the conflict to offer something approaching realism. The images that these old soldiers paint with their words are more haunting and affecting than anything depicted on screen. “He was calling out for ‘nanny’,” one soldier recalls of a wounded colleague. “So I shot him. I had to shoot him.” The descriptions are graphic. However, they only illustrate what is missing from the images on screen, as demonstrated by how little attention these accounts are generating in coverage of the film.

Similarly, the footage is exclusively British in nature, which means that there is little meaningful exploration of the First World War as a human horror rather than simply a national crisis. The Germans exist largely at the edge of They Shall Not Grow Old, never humanised in the way that the British soldiers are. Jackson pulls from a lot of the statements of British veterans, which alternately humanise and demonise the enemy. “Some of those Bavarians were damn good people,” the audience is told, a sentiment somewhat offset by the observation that “the Prussians were right bastards.” 

Again, it’s hard to fault Jackson too much for these issues. Jackson is only working with the material that he has to hand. He cannot travel back in time and embed film crews with combat units, nor can he try to ensure that balanced testimony is gathered from the soldiers on the other side of the line to ensure a more holistic approach. However, there are some smaller errors that exist entirely within Jackson’s purview, some issues in how he chooses to (literally) frame his exploration of the conflict.

As frustrating as Jackson’s approach might be to cinematic purests, it is hard to complain too much about his work. After all, the original material still exists. They Shall Not Grow Old is perhaps best considered as a new and derivative work. To a large degree, this is about getting more people to watch this footage. After all, the movie’s theatrical release was paired with a free-to-air broadcast on BBC Two, ensuring that access to the material was not limited or restricted in any meaningful way.

More than that, actually getting people to watch this material means more than simply making it available. The footage means very little if people are not engaging with it or talking about it. Whatever issues exist with the film, Jackson has accomplished at least this much. Social media suggests a strong engagement with documentary, which would have been highly unlikely had it not been restored and reimagined in the way that Jackson had done. There is nothing to stop another documentary using the unrestored footage; indeed, Jackson has freely made his material available to other filmmakers.

While the original material still exists and remains accessible, but would never reach an audience as broad as They Shall Not Grow Old has. Perhaps this is a damning criticism of contemporary culture and audiences, or perhaps that is simply the way that things are. Either way, it is difficult to argue that this, conceptually, is a bad thing. As with Netflix stepping in to make The Other Side of the Wind available to audiences, this might not be how certain people want this footage seen, but it at least ensures the footage is widely seen.

Even beyond that, remastering this footage has inherent value. People who are not academics or cinephiles, who are not even adults, have had a number of meaningful barriers stripped away from their emotional engagement with the material. They Shall Not Grow Old goes a long way towards making the people captured on film more “real” and “substantial” to the audience, and that has an important moral value. Again, it may be reasonable to argue that children and cinema-goers shouldn’t have a stronger emotional reaction to images that are in colour or in higher definition, but that seems beside the point. They do.

The issue is how Jackson applies this trick in They Shall Not Grow Old. The film’s infamous “remastering” of footage into widescreen and into colour (with added sound) only happens in the extended middle section. The result is a film where only the sequences set in the war feel like they weren’t pulled from an archive reel, the visceral experience strong enough to break not only the aspect ratio but the norms for documentary footage like this. The unconscious effect of this narrative choice means that the sequences before and after the conflict seem less “real” than those depicting the soldiers in action; less “vibrant”, less “alive.”

This is somewhat disappointing, given that some of the most interesting material is to be found either side of the material that is being sold as the main attraction. The final few minutes of the documentary are given over to the experience of those soldiers who returned home from combat and had difficulty integrating into a civilian population that simply wanted to avoid any meaningful conversation about the horrific events of the war. “It is a most difficult thing to realise that you’re not wanted,” observes one veteran of his return.

There is undoubtedly a lot to recommend They Shall Not Grow Old. It is a project that undoubtedly has its heart in the right place, and which does a lot to make history seem alive to a generation increasingly removed from the conflict itself. At the same time, They Shall Not Grow Old suffers from some of the limitations in the material that Jackosn used to tell this story, limitations the extend beyond colour or aspect ratio.

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