They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

Written for RAF News November 2018

Asked to produce some content for the centennial of the end of the First World War, Peter Jackson has focussed the world building wizardry of Lord of the Rings on something much closer to home: a documentary about British soldiers on the Western Front. Granted, the way in which he does this is grand cinematic spectacle but it is truly breathtaking to behold.

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Jackson’s grandfather fought in the Great War and so in his memory, Jackson and his team have tried to position the viewer with the soldiers and bring their experience to life. They do this by using audio of interviews with veterans played over archive footage, which might sound like regular fare, but the difference here is that the video has been speed adjusted, blown up, colorised and, depending on where you see the film, even put into three dimensions.

The opening of the film begins with a familiar small square box in the middle of the screen playing jittery, black and white footage of soldiers marching, whilst all you hear is the clatter and whir of a projector. Gradually though, this little window grows and pushes out to the edges of the screen until it envelopes you. The images are sharper now, more defined, and like some great illusion you begin to hear what the soldiers are saying.

Working with forensic lip-readers, audio has been recorded and matched to the images so that you can listen to them banter, with such painstaking precision that even the dialects are accurate.

Working with BBC and Imperial War Museum, this is an ambitious project that could only be written off as a gimmick by those who have yet to see it. As one soldier recounts of his experience on the frontline, “It was a world of noise” and this is certainly what is captured by underlaying sounds of mortar fire and mine explosions, to the smaller more intimate noises of say a tiny fire in the trenches for brewing a desperate cuppa.

The veterans speak with a warm pride of their experience, of course this turns to tragedy when faced with the horrors of war, but for the most part they show no despair and no regret. They talk of the camaraderie and euphoria, the excitement of battle that lead many underage to sneak in and sign up – if you were 16, it was suggested that you pop outside and have yourself a few birthdays. There is a great humour that runs through their commentary, calling on casual and humorous euphemisms. Their jovial tone is somewhat romantic, and the film seems to share in this.

Returning from war, each interviewee remarks how no-one at home would talk about it, they didn’t know how, nor could they comprehend what was actually happening. Now, thanks to this documentary, the gap is closed a little more and we can glimpse what it was like for these men.

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