They Shall Not Grow Old

Year: 2018
Production Co: House Productions
Director: Peter Jackson
Producer: Peter Jackson/Clare Olssen

It's as worthy a subject for a documentary as there's ever been, a living, breathing war memorial and a technical achievement that showcases what digital filmmaking can do much better than the latest superhero smash-em-up with CGI cities blown away by intergalactic monsters.

Peter Jackson and his creative team have taken what must be incredibly delicate footage taken of troops arriving and deploying at the various fronts during World War I Europe (did they even have such a thing as 16mm back then?) and given it colour and life – quite literally.

They've taken old newsreel-style film from London's Imperial War Museum that's never been shown publicly before, expanded it somehow to fit a proper cinema screen, slowed it to the correct pace (thanks to the curious quality very old film has of playing through modern projectors too fast – I don't know all the technicalities), coloured it and had lip readers try to ascertain what the officers and soldiers are saying to give it a soundtrack.

There's not much imagery of actual battle. Maybe the advances of camera technology in WWII were decades off, or maybe there was less of a cultural drive to capture history to act as heritage in future eras like there is now.

But we follow any number of anonymous soldiers as they leave their familial homes throughout the UK, sign up at recruitment stations, tool up with the merest weapons and provisions and are sent by the shipload to the battlefields of Europe.

There's a strong sense we'd see again in every war right up until Vietnam – that the war was sold as a rollicking, rousing adventure brave boys everywhere would get a real kick out of, only revealed when they arrived in mud and viscera-strewn trenches that it was a bloodbath they'd just as likely wouldn't come back from.

The pictures are accompanied by voiceover from what must be the last surviving men who were there to see it all happen and bring the story even more to life.

Culturally it's one of those artistic artefacts who's importance you can't put a price tag on. Where the Second World War was a lot more photographed and filmed, all that remains about the Great War is the memories of a handful of people who'll soon be gone themselves and what was probably a boxful of rusty tins full of crumbling old film reels.

For entertainment value – though it feels supremely disrespectful to say it – the shots of columns of passing soldiers looking at the strange contraption pointed at them (and thus looking at us), carousing for the camera or ensconced in their duties is technically brilliant but gets a bit visually tedious, especially because the lack of combat footage leaves a large gap in the historic record.

You'll actually get more value out of the descriptions of wartime life given by the soldiers who narrate the film. If you've ever imagined how bad it must have been living in mud-filled trenches in miserable weather while German machine gunners waited to cut you in half if you stuck your head up too high, it's much worse.

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