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.
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.