By Dan McGowan
Peter Jackson teams up with Imperial War Museums and 14-18 NOW to restore archive audio and footage, creating an important and immersive work which straddles the line between documentary and fictional realism.
For me, the worry is that a film like They Shall Not Grow Old will descend into nostalgic ‘our
boys’ propaganda, without decrying the horrors of warfare. Released on the centenary of
the First World War – and screened by BBC2 on Armistice Day itself – I must admit that I
approached the film with expectant vigilance. Instead, Peter Jackson’s restoration of archive
footage is a staggering visual experience which lies somewhere between classic
documentary and fictional storytelling.
The film focuses on the grim experience of life in the trenches; that which Orwell called “the
physical memories… the sounds, the smells and the surfaces of things”. The film is
comprised of reconfigured audio and visual clips, with the aid of voice acting and sound
effects, coalescing to create an immersive account of life on the battlefield. They Shall Not
Grow Old – in its impactful restored realism – sends us clattering into the tangibly real and,
frankly, ghastly world of trench warfare.
The film is narrated completely by a variety of eyewitness accounts: some are openly
enthusiastic about going to war, while others express their sheer desensitisation towards
the events. This perspective gives us an interesting angle on the psychological impact of
war, as well as the more visually-emphasised physical conditions. Trauma is a much-studied
aspect of warfare, and these first-person accounts give the audience a profound insight into
this. One moment of note is when it is claimed that, upon victory, “there wasn’t a cheer of
any kind… there was a feeling of relief and gladness – but no celebration.”
“If you’ve ever smelled a dead mouse, it was like that – but one-hundred times worse.”
The multi-source, account-based narrative is a typical documentary form. One of the most
interesting formal aspects is the degree of artifice in the presentation: restored footage,
colourisation and over-dubbing of voice-actors – helped by lip-reading experts – ironically
enhances the “realness”. The cinematic additions do not create a detachment from the
truth, rather, the very fine blur between documentary and artistic liberty enhances
experience – such is the unimaginable nature of these events. This is something we see to
greater artificial extremes in based-on-true-event pieces such as 22 July and Hunger.
From a UK perspective, remembrance has become a thorny issue in recent years. From
poppy symbolism to arguments about the scope of remembered conflicts and individuals, it
has been cannibalised as cynical performance politics, rather than a meaningful analysis of
history’s lessons. They Shall Not Grow Old’s profundity is to be found in its neutrality. By no
means is this the first account which approaches war from the perspective of gritty realism. However, its form bestows upon it a certain palpability which leaves the viewer beguiled and, more importantly, aghast.