February 5, 2023

Gabbing Geek

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Geek Review: They Shall Not Grow Old

Peter Jackson's documentary using recycled vintage film footage looks into life in the trenches.

World War I ended a century ago this year, and director Peter Jackson made a documentary to commemorate it.

But the footage of the movie is almost entirely taken from old film footage of actual soldiers, and to make things even more interesting, the footage was digitally remastered to make it look like it could have been shot this afternoon.  And that is what They Shall Not Grow Old essentially is.

But here’s what They Shall Not Grow Old is not:  it is not the story of the war itself, its causes, the political forces involved, or even much of a look into the major figures involved in any way.  Instead, the documentary is look into the experience of the typical British soldier in the trenches, starting with the recruitment drive when the war first starts up to experiences soldiers had when they finally returned home to a nation that didn’t want to talk about what these men went through.  All of the footage in the movie is either the remastered file footage or a few wartime propaganda posters needed to fill in blanks where there isn’t any footage, often for reasons that would be obvious in retrospect.

By the by, this footage doesn’t pull punches.  It shows corpses of men and horses, the effects of gangrene, and a lot of wounded men getting early 20th century medical care.  And that stuff is often shown in full color.  That said, the color is saved for the scenes on the front lines.  All the stuff at home is still in black and white.

As it is, what passes for a narrative in a movie like this is narrated by a number of actual veterans from archival interviews conducted in the 1960s and 70s.  I managed to see a 3D version, but I don’t think it made the movie any better.

I also had a short making of documentary with my screening, where Jackson stops to talk about the experience of making the movie, the decision to simply make it about the movie about the men in the trenches, and the efforts to make the movie as authentic as possible.  It turns out Jackson has a good deal of authentic World War I stuff at his disposal, including uniforms, propaganda magazines, and even an artillery piece or two.  I’m not sure if Jackson actually owns these things, but he had them and he used them.

This was a good documentary.  It looks at the wartime experience in ways that most documentaries about war don’t.  And the remastered footage may make it even better as it shows how much these soldiers basically were a bunch of kids sent to “do a job” and at least one of the narrators puts it, and they all look so much like people we could still meet today.   Check this one out if you can.  9.5 out of 10 boisterous dirty songs to sing over the end credits.

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