Peter Jackson, the director of the World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, warned the picture is “a film made by a non-historian for a non-historian” in a pre-screening address at the AMC Boston Common on Jan. 28. The director delivers on that expectation by creating a documentary based not on the facts of battles and statistics, but on the emotional realities of the men in combat.
Jackson worked with the Imperial War Museum’s archives, along with BBC audio on a tribute to the British soldiers who fought in war. This combination allows for the story to be told exclusively by those who were there, creating a much more emotional depiction of the destructive war. The most stunning aspect of the film undoubtedly is Jackson’s decision to colorize the footage, eliminating barriers between the viewer and those in combat. The audience assumes the true field of vision of a soldier on the ground.
Second most important to the colorization of the footage is the incorporation of soldiers’ audio. There are no names to accompany the voices, but that doesn’t detract from how personal it feels to hear about World War I from someone who was there in real time. Both the audio and visual aspects work perfectly together to create intimacy and impact.
Although there are hardly names, dates, or locations mentioned in the film, the way Jackson pieces together the archived material portrays a shared emotional journey of all soldiers with a clear decline in morale as the events of the war unfold. The film begins in black and white with the intercutting of multiple men speaking of enlisting because of duty or expectation. Almost every voice admits to either lying about their age in order to enlist or being instructed to do so by recruitment officers—some even as young as 15 years old decided to join. This practice is spoken of lightheartedly, almost as if it were a game. They were excited to serve their country and, more importantly, become men. The enlistment background is the only part of the film that is not colorized, but as soon as we follow the soldiers into combat, the color is fully enacted.
The decision to only restore footage showing the men when they are either in training or in combat shows how important it was for this to be a chance to focus on the actual experiences of soldiers during the war. Others were able to experience the before and after, but not what occurred during. Jackson’s masterful documentary presents a deeply nuanced view of the squalid conditions of combat, the camaraderie between servicemen, and the sympathy toward the Germans that were captured.
What is most striking is the likeness of the soldiers’ commentary to the increasingly upsetting visuals. The living conditions were clearly rancid with only a pair of clothes and a chance to wash every few weeks, but the soldiers speak of it so casually, at some points laughing at how they would try and get rid of bedbugs by running a lighter over the seams of their shirts. As a camera pans to corpses of servicemen who lost their lives in combat, injured horses who brought carriages filled with rifles, and the barracks that were slept in on a daily basis, there is only one distinct point in which a voice cracks.
Although there are genuine moments of levity and warmth, they do little to undercut the devastation faced by the soldiers. As the war nears its end, the soldiers recall feeling as if they would give anything for it to be over. The discussion of young men in new uniforms ready to change themselves evolved into genuine anguish, wondering if what they had gone through was worth it and how to cope with it either way.
Jackson’s first documentary eschews the typical structure of a war documentary to create a personal experience with the British soldiers who fought in World War I in a way that does not allow the viewer to forget these were real people: We see them, we hear them, and we live war with them.
Featured Image by WingNut Films