Americans understandably think of World War I as a far less severe conflict than World War II. But for most European nations, the slaughter was on a larger scale in The Great War, making the 2018 Armistice centennial a major cultural and historical event. The British Imperial War Museum’s contribution to the commemoration was to open their film archive to Peter Jackson, who in addition to being a famous filmmaker is also a Great War buff. The astounding result is They Shall Not Grow Old.
Jackson and his team began with unpromising visual material: scratchy, battered, over and underexposed, silent, film footage taken during the war with hand crank cameras. The audio material — interviews with many veterans long after the war ended — was in better physical shape but had no essential connection to the images. With remarkable technical skill and artistic vision, Jackson spun dross into gold.
Computer scanning was used to counterbalance for light exposure problems, add vivid color, and impute missing frames (the latter of which eliminates the herky-jerky motion produced by the slow pace of filming in this period). Professional lip readers were employed to determine what the soldiers in the film were saying and actors were hired to voice the lines. And an array of preserved WWI tanks, rifles, artillery, and other equipment were recorded and the resulting sound track synced up seamlessly to the original footage. The stories of soldiers were then skillfully assembled to narrate the film entirely in the words of “ordinary” people.
The resulting film is a technical marvel and an emotional wallop at the same time. Watching so many young men marching cheerfully from the recruiting station to the front line, and seeing them later dying in the muck and staring shell shocked into the camera is a devastating experience for the audience. And the stories told by the veterans, which range from the lighthearted (e.g., fishing soldiers out of the latrine when the bench broke) to the gut wrenching (e.g., seeing horrific injuries…and smelling them too), are utterly compelling. The banal aspects of military life are interspersed between the terrifying moments, including the shattering climax when the troops go over the top into the teeth of machine gun fire.
Many film makers would have had the impulse to have some authority figure add narration regarding “What it all means morally” either to (a la Stanley Kramer) “make sure the audience drew the correct conclusions” or to signal their own virtue. Peter Jackson is wiser than that: he lets the soldiers speak for themselves and the audience to draw their own lessons. The overpowering result is a unique cinematic achievement. Indeed, it even made me forgive Jackson for The Hobbit.