, review by Brian Viner
There have been many harrowing dramas about the Great War, but Peter Jackson’s extraordinary documentary, which had its world premiere last night as part of the London Film Festival, is as close as we can come now to seeing it as it was lived, as it was endured.
I watched it next to my son, a young adult who has known no existential horror greater than double maths on a Monday morning, and I confess to shedding a tear at the thought of what, a century ago, might have been.
There is one particular moment that is both profoundly moving and utterly electrifying. It is the point at which the grainy black-and-white footage of soldiers preparing for war becomes colourised, and we start to hear – or think we hear – them talk.
If you are lucky enough to see the film in 3D, it is also the point at which that kicks in. It is a gasp-inducing moment.
Jackson, a New Zealander whose British father emigrated there because he so admired what his father had told him about the bravery of Kiwi soldiers in the trenches, is best known for directing the Lord of the Rings movies. Yet here is a film that is the very opposite of fantasy. There has never been a piece of cinema that better conveys the slaughter, the discomfort, but also the camaraderie, the humour and even the boredom of the Western Front.
For all the computerised bells and whistles Jackson deploys, along with the painstaking colourisation of the original film, to make these long-dead men come alive again, They Shall Not Grow Old – its title adapted from Laurence Binyon’s poem For The Fallen – is a marvel of simplicity.
There is no narrator, no solemn-voiced Kenneth Branagh or basso-profundo Ian McKellen. Instead, in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum, Jackson uses film and sound archive to their greatest imaginable effect, marrying incredible moving pictures with more than 150 personal testimonies recorded decades after the carnage, played one after another for 100 enthralling minutes.
Actually, for most of these old soldiers, the carnage is not what they choose to remember. They prefer to recall the laughs, the lice, even the latrines.
This is not really a film about the Somme or Passchendaele. It’s about how troops would urinate on their boots to make the leather more pliable; how Friday was the day for the reviled Army-issue cigarettes; how plum duff was a rare treat; how, to get them advancing quickly and cheerfully, officers would let them kick a football around.
Held spellbound by all this, we notice the small things too. It’s a trite observation but absolutely everyone who sees this film – and absolutely everyone should – will notice the rather terrible standards of early 20th century dentistry. No drama has ever come close to getting that part right.
Occasionally Jackson cheats a little, matching voices to the soldiers that we know can’t have been theirs, because the talkies hadn’t yet been invented. But he does it beautifully; indeed, this is a manifest labour of love, a film dedicated to his soldier grandfather.
The film is chronological, starting with the desperate recruitment drive in 1914 and early 1915, and ending with the Armistice, which was greeted almost with disinterest by soldiers weary to their boots of war. Of those early months of the conflict, one man recalls how he tried to sign up when he was just 15 and told wryly to ‘go outside and have a birthday’.
Another concedes that ‘we really were a motley throng’, and so they were. But what sacrifices they made, that motley throng, and what an absence of self-pity they exhibit in recalling them.
An absence of hatred too, oddly enough. We see pictures of English Tommies fraternising happily with German PoWs. They recognised that here were men just like them, sent to their deaths by generals and politicians.
‘It was that Serbia business, wasn’t it, when that chap was shot,’ says one man early in the film, trying to explain how it all began. It sounds just as absurd now as it did then.
They Shall Not Grow Old is on nationwide release now.