They Shall Not Grow Old review – Peter Jackson's electrifying journey into the first world war trenches

Jackson has restored, colourised and added voices to footage of the western front, bringing the soldiers unforgettably back to life

To mark the centenary of the first world war’s end, Peter Jackson has created a visually staggering thought experiment; an immersive deep-dive into what it was like for ordinary British soldiers on the western front. This he has done using state-of-the-art digital technology to restore flickery old black-and-white archive footage of the servicemen’s life in training and in the trenches. He has colourised it, sharpened it, put it in 3D and, as well as using diaries and letters for narrative voiceover, he has used lip-readers to help dub in what the men are actually saying.

The effect is electrifying. The soldiers are returned to an eerie, hyperreal kind of life in front of our eyes, like ghosts or figures summoned up in a seance. The faces are unforgettable.

Watching this, I understood how the world wars of the 20th century are said to have inspired surrealism. Thirty or so years ago, there was a debate in film circles about the sacrilege of colourising classic black-and-white movies. This is different. The colourisation effect is artificial, as is 3D (as is monochrome, too, of course), and the painterly approximation of reality presents a challenge to what you consider “real” on film. After a few minutes, I realised that force of cultural habit was causing me to doubt what I was seeing, because colour means modern. The colourisation, and everything else, is a kind of alienation shock tactic as well as a means of enfolding you in the experience. It is an indirect way of reminding you that this really did happen to people like you and me.

They Shall Not Grow Old is arguably limited in scope: it is just about the western front and there is nothing about the German point of view, or about the war elsewhere: say, the Dardanelles. Yet this is because Jackson was working from specific archives – the BBC and Imperial War Museum – and spreading the net more widely might have meant a loss of focus and intensity. As it is, the focus and intensity are overwhelming.

This is a film to fill you with an intensified version of all the old feelings: mostly rage at the incompetence and cruelty of a governing class that put these soldiers through hell in their mechanisation and normalisation of war. In Russia, the grotesque slaughter was a very important cause of the revolutions of 1917. Not in Britain.

The title is taken from Laurence Binyon’s pious and patriotic poem For the Fallen, although The Old Lie, from Wilfred Owen, might have been better. Certainly a better approximation of the tough, savvy spirit of Owen’s presentation comes over the closing credits, when the song Mademoiselle from Armentières is performed in its brutally cynical entirety.

The details are harrowing, as is the political incorrectness of what the soldiers recall: some express their candid enjoyment of the war, others their utter desensitisation to what they experienced. When the end came, many felt only disappointment and anticlimax: “It was like being made redundant.” And in the war itself, there is nauseous acceptance of horror. You could die simply by stumbling off the duckboards and sinking into the mud. There were the fat rats (“and you knew how they got fat”), the trench foot, the lice. This film also shows you something no Hollywood production ever would: the latrines – a trench over which men would have to squat, sitting precariously on a pole, some inevitably falling in.

It is possible that, if and when the technology used in it becomes commonplace, They Shall Not Grow Old may not be considered to have contributed much to what we already understand about the first world war. Maybe. Trench warfare and its horrors have arguably become a subject for reflex piety, while soldiers’ experiences in the second world war, or other wars, are somehow not considered poignant in the same way. But as an act of popular history, They Shall Not Grow Old is outstanding.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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