In the 1950 and 60s the Imperial War Museum and the BBC recorded oral histories of ordinary Tommies and their experiences in the Great War from 1914-18. From enlistment to training, to the horrors of the mud, the blood, the gas, the stench and the filth of the trenches, and the somewhat hollow homecoming, their stories are both riveting and revolting.
To bring these these stories to life, New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson combines their voices with film from the IWM vaults, much of it never seen before. His techniques are both a marvel and at times questionable. When much of the footage was originally shot the frame rate of hand-cranked film was somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 16 frames per second instead of the now standard 24 FPS. To compensate, computer software was utilized to create interpolated frames. It smooths out the action and removes the herky-jerky style we have come to expect of motion pictures from the silent era but it means that for every minute of real film on screen there are about 20 seconds of computer created imagery. To top that off all of the film shot in France has been colorized and for theater audiences, some of it stereoscoped into 3D. I viewed the film as it was presented on the BBC on Armistice Day and the re-translation back to 2D is unsettling at times.
Because the film is silent, Jackson’s team of foley artists and ADR technicians brought in lip readers and actors with the appropriate regional accents to give voice to individuals seen talking on film. The colorization is often a best-guess proposition. Some colors are too stark, others are too muted. But its primary purpose seems to be to replace the darker and undefined representation of blood in black and white with a more shocking-to-the-senses red, and in that it is successful.
Criticism from some modern historians has been predictable to the point where it’s laughable. Yes, it’s awfully white, awfully British and awfully male. But it is not meant to be a comprehensive history of a four-year war. It is a snapshot of the war as seen through the eyes of ordinary soldiers, most of whom went in way too young and way too naïve. The great triumph of the film is that the voices are never married with pictures of the speakers. In this way they become, in a sense, a single entity. And because they were all well into their sixties and seventies when they were interviewed, their disembodied voices does not allow us to see them as old survivors, but forever young and still in the fray.
The title is a reworking of a line from the Laurence Binyon poem, For the Fallen, which is used in Remembrance ceremonies throughout the remnants of the Empire:
- They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
- They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
- They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
Appropriately enough, the final frame of the film, the copyright for the Imperial War Museum, reminds you that the film is protected, not by British law, but by the laws of the United States. Sic transit Imperium.
They Shall Not Grow Old will be released in the United States for showings on December 17th and 27th through Fathom Events and Warner Brothers Pictures. For residents of the United Kingdom it is available on the BBC iPlayer until Sunday, November 18th.