Peter Jackson’s WWI documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, opens with black-and-white footage of young soldiers marching in a line, headed to an unknown destination. Their faces, as they pass before the camera, are alternately proud, hesitant, intelligent, baffled. The footage lightens by degrees until their forms whiten and blur and they seem to slip away.
It’s a combination of the highly individual, the particular–each of these very distinct people–and also a scale of loss that gives the moment a palpable, silencing power. There is nothing jingoistic about it, no nationalism, not even machismo; just the pace of their (digitally altered) steps, seeming (whether this was truly the case or not) jaunty and good-natured as they confront whatever horrors, pain or joy awaits them.
For the next several minutes, as veterans’s voices begin to relay their experiences of the war, the footage remains 2-D even as it is colorized. Sitting dutifully in a Colorado Springs theater in my 3-D glasses (which, like most nearsighted people who’ve forgotten to put in their contact lenses, I had to wear over my regular eyeglasses–DOUBLE GLASSIN’ it like some nerd in a nineties movie), I waited for the 3-D images to start, feeling my usual resistance at what seems a bit like manipulation. There is something about 3-D films that make it hard for me to take them seriously, as if I’m about to go on a Disney ride. But the moment when They Shall Not Grow Old first switches into 3-D is quite sudden, a sleight of hand, placing a small group of young soldiers right in front of you, their faces alert and mobile and apprehensive, mugging a little for the camera. (One of the more charming aspects of the documentary is that being filmed was very new to most of the soldiers, and when confronted by a camera they simply could not play it cool. They keep sneaking glances, nearly blushing, totally at a loss as to what they should be doing. “Move around!” the cameraman would sometimes shout.) The effect creates, as Jennifer Orth-Veillon notes, “a collective experience that more closely resembles theater than film in its closeness to the human experience of war.” There is a timeless quality to it, as if you could be watching a show about Vietnam, or maybe even (if amped up with much higher-tech kit) the recent wars.
They Shall Not Grow Old is a very human film, and to that end it makes some very good choices. The first, and perhaps most important, is that the sole source of narration is the veterans themselves. There is no documentary voice-over, not even a whiff of Benedict Cumberbatch or Morgan Freeman. Given that Jackson could have taken the film in any direction (his assignment was to use selections from the 600 hours of interviews and 100 hours of film footage from the Imperial Museum), this was an inspired and meaningful choice. The soldiers’ recollections, mostly taken from interviews conducted during the 1960s and 1970s, voice the entire film, and to his credit, Jackson thanks the oral historians themselves for their foresight and action in an acknowledgement at the end.
The footage itself is the most-talked-about feat of the work, and it is truly remarkable how alive the soldiers come when granted color, space, and modern-looking motion. The extreme high-definition can have its oddities–the ground seems almost to move or pulsate in the foreground–but one gets used to it. Some editorial tics of Jackson’s also become irksome–his penchant for sprinkling red poppies into the background of nearly every field, for example, as if he had some quota to meet, and which could have been more powerful with a much lighter hand; his possible over-messing with the soldiers’ teeth (surely most of them did not have perfect teeth, but it appears that Jackson and his team used every close-cut shot to render teeth almost theatrically goofy and splayed, to the point where it feels overdone). In a thirty-minute mini-doc at the end, which everyone in our theater stayed for, Jackson, looking startling Hobbit-like, barefoot and chunky-ankled in a way no female director could ever get away with (or at least flaunt), and bursting with understandable pride in his accomplishment, walks the viewer through the painstaking process of restoration and verisimilitude, and it is truly fascinating, or at least it is to a layman like me, who feels accomplished when navigating a WordPress site.
Jackson is well-known as a WWI geek extraordinaire; he owns dozens of period uniforms and even weaponry, showcased in the mini-doc. Knowing this, I was expecting a more in-depth film; I expected to learn some things I did not know. That is not, however, the point of this film, which was surprisingly non-academic. If you’ve read even a few WWI novels or nonfiction accounts you will find nothing that surprises you here. But that doesn’t diminish the power of hearing from, and seeing, the soldiers themselves. For example: There is one section of footage where soldiers, crouching behind a low hill, look utterly terrified. They are waiting to make a charge on the Germans across the way, and their fear is plain on their young, twitching faces. In the extra at the end, Jackson visits this spot now, and mentions that most of the soldiers in that shot were likely in the last thirty minutes of their lives, and it was so sad–that kind of galling, horrifying sadness– I didn’t even know what to do with myself. The endnote of the film is a simple, almost startlingly understated message from the veterans themselves–in their gravelly, elderly voices, which at least give us the solace of knowing that they survived the Front–about avoiding war. Roughly every other line is told by a different voice.
There may be right on both sides, but I think war is horrible. Everything should be done to avoid war. I still can't see the justification for it. It was all really rather horrible. I think history will decide, in the end, that it was not worthwhile.
There were a few moments during the film in which I wondered if Peter Jackson hadn’t perhaps been giving slightly too much power in shaping the way his audiences will see WWI, much in the same way he’s done with the works of Tolkien. The similarities between the two, in Jackson’s hand, are almost alarmingly similar, but I’ll leave that to my friend Rob Bokkon to comment on in the upcoming issue of Wrath-Bearing Tree (Rachel Kambury, another expert on Tolkien and the Great War both, will also discuss the film. I haven’t seen what either of them are writing yet, so I’m quite eager for January 7th to roll around, though I do know that Rob will be discussing some of the work of Otto Dix in relation to Jackson’s vision, and, having done a really enjoyable independent study with Professor Charles Altieri at UC-Berkeley on the wartime art of Dix, Marc, and Macke, I am looking forward to this in particular).
Some of Jackson’s incredible level of influence comes from necessary choices he and his team had to make to pare down the sheer volume of material. With hundreds of hours of content to account for, he/they decided to narrow the film’s gaze onto the experience of the average British soldier on the Western front. Jackson apologizes for this briefly in the “extra” at the end, explaining that he simply had no space to allow for the experiences of, say, the flying forces, the Navy, women (many of whom served as nurses; Jennifer Orth-Veillon of the WWI Centennial Blog highly recommends Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone, which she says may be her favorite work to come out of the war), or the thousands upon thousands of colonial troops who constituted what was truly a world war. This all makes sense, editorially speaking, and it honestly did not occur to me during the viewing of the film to feel at all slighted as a woman, because the film is about those who fought the war, and from the research I have done, though it has hardly been exhaustive, I have never come across any evidence of women fighting, either disguised as men or otherwise, though millions of womens’ lives were surely shaped, changed, or ended early by the conflict. So, for me at least, omitting women (although they are occasionally referenced as worried, chiding mothers to be disobeyed, or glib, fun-loving prostitutes; fun-loving as in it’s somehow assumed that they love being prostitutes) was not a major or unforgivable problem.
However, the sheer whiteness of the film did make me uncomfortable, and still does, and in fact is something I cannot quite get past. It seems that Jackson would have to have employed some kind of willful ignorance in order not to spend at least 3 or 5 minutes on the “well over four million non-white men mobilised into the European and American armies” — cited by the British Library homepage itself, which also calls this number “a conservative estimate.” These were not just colonial troops, though their contributions were legion; documentaries have been made, and books written (such as Stephen Bourne’s riveting, thoroughly researched labor of love, Black Poppies) about black Britishers who served either openly or by “passing” in the Army, many of them dying in combat. Their stories are so truly fascinating, and in many cases well-documented (many via oral histories just like the ones Jackson used), that the film would have lost nothing in at least mentioning them. There is one split-second of footage near the beginning of the film which shows black faces, I think from a colonial army, but it’s so very fast that you would miss it if you blinked, and it’s never discussed, and the voices in the film seem uniformly white. To suggest that the only people of color supporting Britain were colonial forces is also an error, for many black British citizens did as well, which might have been more in keeping with Jackson’s self-made parameters, and their accounts are easily accessible online and elsewhere.
This may be a very unfortunate blind spot for Jackson. Re-watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy post-Christmastime with my children, as we always do to fill the holiday void over these longest nights of the year (and which we all very much enjoy), I was struck yet again not only by the extreme whiteness of his cast but the insistence of the benevolent characters’ nearly across-the-board, vibrantly-blue eyes, and the fact that the villains of the film are almost all dark-eyed. Orlando Bloom, naturally brown-eyed but a “good” character, wears blue contacts. Christopher Lee, playing vessel-of-all-evil Saruman, has nearly black eyes. At one point in The Two Towers, Sam and Frodo hide on a hillside near Mordor, and a soldier of the Haradrim–a recently-arrived, Sauron-allied southern army, the ones who ride the Oliphants–stands threateningly near them. The camera zooms in on his ominous, exotic, chocolate-colored eyes. And etcetera, and etcetera. I’m not trying to demonize Jackson here; I do not necessarily think he is some closet bigot; but once you start noticing these patterns in his work it’s nearly impossible to stop. If anything, he may simply fall prey to dated tropes of good and evil without realizing their implications. (Interestingly, The very conservative National Review calls They Shall Not Grow Old “The Movie of the Year,” with Rich Lowry claiming that “Jackson deserves more than an Oscar, he deserves a medal.”) In any case, coupled with the end product he’s made with They Shall Not Grow Old, it seems just a little too easy for Peter Jackson, in the late year 2018, to disregard those who don’t fit his ossified representations. At the very least, he should begin to understand the importance that representation has for various communities and make some effort to support it, either in his fiction or-non. Presenting the First World War to a layman public, many of whom may not watch a documentary on that conflict again, is a great responsibility, and one I’d develop an ulcer trying to undertake myself — but a huge part of that responsibility is in representing the participants, not just for the sake of their own memory, but for the sake of our modern ideas of service and service members today.
It seems that Jackson’s approach to the narration of the film was to lay out several categories of an average soldier’s experience and find five or six excerpts to back each experience. For example, the first category could be described as “enthusiasm for enlistment/doing my part/nostalgia for service life” and consists of perhaps nearly a dozen individual soldiers recounting their initial reasons for joining up, nearly indistinguishable from one another:
I can only say one thing, I wouldn't have missed it. It was terrible at times, but I wouldn't have missed it. Oh, yes, if I could have my time again, I'd go through it all over again because I enjoyed the service life. I could only say that I have never been so excited in my life, this was like a boy going to the play the first time. I never realised there was anything unusual about it. There was a job to be done and you just go on and did it.
It seems very important to Jackson to create the idea of a British recruit who’s pragmatic, cheerful, patriotic, and slightly naive, but shouldering up under his burden nevertheless because there was simply a job to be done. It’s quite possible that the majority of young recruits were exactly this way, or that the ones who lived into their eighties and nineties to recall their experiences for an oral historian remembered things this way. But the effect of “backing” each of his categories or chapters (some others might be “The Newness of Bootcamp,” “The Discomforts of the Battlefield,” etc.) with half a dozen to a dozen synonymous voices creates a slightly odd uniformity to the thing, a sense of top-down research, as if these men’s voices are proving or vindicating what Jackson already believes or knows.
The blue-collar, game, good-sport soldier Jackson promotes in his film may well have been the majority, for all I know–or, again, this may be how they saw themselves in their twilight years as they recounted their experiences. It’s a starkly different picture than that painted in most of the WWI literature of the time, which was written for the most part by still-young or midlife men. These authors often strive to differentiate themselves by education, family line, courses of study, interests, athletic achievements, hobbies. In Good-bye to All That, Robert Graves begins (as was more a fashion of his era than ours) with an exhaustive survey of his family line dating back to his maternal great-grandparents, noting that his maternal grandfather was a physician, his paternal, a “remarkable mathematician…[and] leading authority on the Irish Brehon Laws”; that his family has a “persistent literary tradition” full of archaeologists, classicists, mathematicians, poets, a Professor of Greek, the discoverer of the eponymous “Grave’s Disease,” and on and on. Siegfried Sassoon, similarly, gives long accounts of his studies and his reads, both on the battlefield and off. Of course, this is to be expected–these are writers!, not the average soldier Jackson’s interested in. Still, I would have enjoyed some slight differentiation by anything other than facial feature–which the footage does handily on its own.
There is one account from They Shall Not Grow Old which does stand out — a veteran who recalls his particular interest in nature and botany:
To someone like myself, who was interested in nature, after the horrors that man had made of the battlefront, I was immensely delighted to find shell holes in which I picked lilies of the valley and larkspur, and I pursued Camberwell Beauties and swallowtail butterflies along the banks of the Aisne river.
Here, my ears perked up: I was interested in this man! But these were the only lines he was given.
While I understand that Jackson’s aim was to give a broad overview of the British soldier’s experience, I generally shy from soldierly portrayals that erase nuances of education, intelligence, interpersonal gifts–because I think these are too seldom, in popular culture anyway, attached to the notion of service members. Jackson’s template is certainly not a nation of iron-pumping, supplement-swilling Chris Kyles heading out to blow away 1600 Saxons, but it’s certainly not a nation of Private John Bartles or Phil Klays either. Neither would be accurate, but a smattering of each might be more so.
In any case, as a filmmaker with a highly honed skill set in such things, it’s perhaps understandable that Jackson devotes the vast middle part of the film to recreating the WWI battlefield experience, through sound effects, images, and description. He wants you to hear the five-nines and the Big Berthas, to see the fallen horses and the cratered landscape. If he could make you smell it, he would (but yikes, no thanks). That’s what he does well, and there’s no denouncing his skill in it.
When They Shall Not Grow Old comes to Netflix or some other watchable locale, I do hope that many people I know will watch it and weigh in, and prove that I’m just a crotchety, ruined English major. Despite my reservations, which I’ve maybe spent too much time on here, I still think the film worth watching simply for those glimpses of so many faces that have been lost to history–either in the war or the hundred years after. Not a single of those men remains living, but their individual vibrancy and life shines through the expressions on their young, quizzical, possibly very-good-sport faces, and the fact that they live on now in film is the only thing that can bring a slightly happier or at least comforting notion to the idea of never growing old.
It’s early yet — look for two reviews of the film, as I mentioned, in our January 7th Wrath-Bearing Tree!— but here are a few discussions of They Shall Not Grow Old from a friend and from strangers:
Jennifer Orth-Veillon, World War I Centennial Blog: “My proximity was not only to the soldiers on the Western Front but to another population of soldiers– still-living soldiers and veterans…sitting so close to me I could hear the rustle of their popcorn bags.” I really like hearing her account of growing up a civilian in a military town and going home to watch this film.
In The Guardian: “An Utterly Breathtaking Journey into the Trenches”
Rich Lowry for The National Review: “‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ is the Movie of the Year”
All excerpts from the script were found here.