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The Oscars for 2018’s movies have come and gone. It’s far too early to tell whether any of these movies, even Green Book, the Best Picture winner, will actually be watched much after this year. But true transcendence is hard to pull off, so the safe bet is: No.
Yet one movie with a good chance of a lasting legacy didn’t even get any nominations: Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. Jackson is best known for directing live-action adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The final chapter, The Return of the King, won Best Picture for its year of release, and earned Jackson Best Director. This is worth considering not merely for reasons of pedigree. For these two works share more than a quality that has ensured a legacy for Tolkien’s work and Jackson’s adaptations, and will, I hope, ensure one for They Shall Not Grow Old.
Tolkien was famously coy about both the ‘message’ of his magnum opus, and about the influence of the real world on it. He claimed to “…dislike allegory in all its manifestations,” preferring “history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.” And he responded to speculation about influences of the real world on The Lord of the Rings by asserting that “the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are best guesses from evidence that is inadequate or ambiguous.” Tolkien wanted the elaborate mythology he created to stand on its own.
Yet there is at least one aspect of Tolkien’s work whose real-world influence is hard to deny: the connection between his service for England in World War I and the Dead Marshes that appear in The Two Towers. In that work, Frodo, his companion Samwise, and the mischievous creature Smeagol (or Gollum) journey together toward Mordor, the only place where the evil Ring Frodo bears can be destroyed. On the way, they must brave the Dead Marshes, a fetid, swampy region, once the site of a great battle, still strewn with its corpses. As Frodo describes the bodies in the waters of the marshes after falling in:
They lie in the pools, pale faces, deep under the dark water…grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces, proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead…
The trenches in which most of World War I was fought were comparably nasty places, as They Shall Not Grow Old makes clear. Even in the best of wartime, there was hardly any proper sanitation; rats, lice, and disease (such as the lice-born “trench fever” that got Tolkien medical leave from combat) multiplied. And in wet conditions, the trenches became a fearsome muck. Those who merely lost a boot to it were lucky. The muck was thick enough that it would occasionally suck soldiers in to their deaths. Meanwhile, wet or dry, the fields of combat between trenches were littered with the bodies of the slain.
This gruesome reality of war is merely one of the many things They Shall Not Grow Old brings out of the often-impenetrable mists of the past. Working from 600 hours of archived audio from veterans describing the war experience (all of whom are listed in the credits; Tolkien himself does not appear, though I had hoped he would) and 100 hours of archival footage, Jackson and his team stitch together a deliberately generic yet highly revealing portrait of what the war was like for those who endured it.
Jackson and co. achieve this vivid sense of presence by some marvelous technical fixes they worked on archived material, and by some genuinely inspired techniques to apply sound to the otherwise sound-free archived footage they heroically colorized. The combined effect of this technical mastery is astounding; I wondered during the documentary, for example, how material filmed in the 1910s could have had sound native to it, and then marveled that it, in fact, did not, and that all sound was cleverly recreated.
With They Shall Not Grow Old, Jackson has quite literally brought this important era of our recent history out of black-and-white and into the vivid colors of the present. This literal achievement helps enable the documentary’s figurative one of bringing to life an event likely perceived by many of us as merely history, despite its relative nearness to us. Tolkien wrote that “[o]ne has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years.” War of any kind is truly a difficult thing for those blessed with peacetime or exempt from service to understand, much less a war ended now 100 years ago. How many of us, for example, can possibly relate to Tolkien’s own loss from the war, as a result of which, he wrote, “[b]y 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead”?
But with this striking recreation of the experience of World War I, Jackson has not only deepened our historical understanding of this particular war. He has also helped us to bridge the often unfathomable gaps between civilians and soldiers, between peacetime and wartime, and between the present and the past. And, perhaps most important, he has ensured that, though the young soldiers who perished in that war did not grow old, the historical memory of the war in which they fought will live on. Good movies may (or may not) have won at this year’s Oscars. But none can claim these noble accomplishments.