They Shall Not Grow Old
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Sir Peter Jackson is used to directing big battle scenes but this recent departure (as a producer) into documentary about real war, dwarfs his fictional efforts. Nearly a million people died in World War One, or the Great War as it was sometimes known.
This film will be released in cinemas on the hundredth anniversary of the armistice which took place on the 11th of the eleventh in 1918.
Of course, it is not without irony that just thirty years after this ‘war to end all wars’ another world war was fought. But somehow it is this one that sticks in the popular imagination (and which spawned the greatest war poetry), perhaps because it was such a watershed between the old world and the modern one. Never such innocence again, as the poet said.
Jackson’s film is long and sombre and it is entirely composed of war footage. Most of this is from the front, the hellish mud-bogged, shell-shrieking trenches that have been so endlessly represented (and still are, at almost exactly the same time a British drama called Journey’s End, just released).
Even so, there is footage here that you will probably have never seen. Jackson has produced this film with collaboration from the imperial War Museum, so there is an emphasis on both the accuracy and the respect (it mostly soft pedals on the critique of the generals’ military blunders, or the whole ill-conceived imperialistic/blindly patriotic elements of the enterprise).
What made this war so brutally different was that it was the first mechanised war on that scale. Initially, the horse-mounted regiments sallied forth, but this was not the Crimea, and in the event, the endlessly-sacrificed human flesh was no match for the machine guns and artillery shells.
This is one of the things the film captures so well; the sense of being sitting ducks stuck in an open-topped trench while bombs rained down. Or, if you were sent ‘over the top’, you had only a faint chance of dodging the hail of enemy fire.
The film is technically innovative and brilliantly synched. It uses only quotes from the soldiers who were there (their voices recorded over many decades). In this way it is able to trace the arc from the ‘let’s sign up, ‘it’ll be over by Christmas’ optimism to the unsparing accounts of the realities of the gas, and the guns and the gangrene. In the first half hour we see the rickety young recruits (and so many lied about their age to get in), being drilled and knocked into shape by the feared sergeants. The rest of the film (by now jumping into colour by being skilfully colourised) all takes place in the European battlefields.
Although Canadian, New Zealand and Australian troops are mentioned in dispatches, the bulk of the film’s content relates to the British. As implied above, most of them seem determined to see it as a bit of a lark. There are the endless shots of the still-jolly recruits looking so chipper, gurning to camera with their terrible British teeth. It is seeing those individual faces, and knowing what actually happened that makes it all still unbearably poignant. Lest we forget indeed.