The faces you see in the above still belong to just a few of the many British soldiers who come alive in Peter Jackson’s unique documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old.” Produced in conjunction with the 14-18 Project and the Imperial War Museums, which supplied the 100 hours of vintage film that Jackson has cleaned, tweaked, 3D’d and for 40 glorious minutes, colorized, the resulting experience is extraordinary. That the subject is near and dear to his heart is consistently evident—his grandfather, whose photo we seen in the end credits, was a veteran of the war who eventually succumbed at the age of 50 to the effects of the wounds he had suffered in combat.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” shows us what it was like to be a soldier in the Great War, from training camp through combat to either death or recovery. Jackson lets the troops speak for themselves—there is neither narration nor talking heads, but instead an overlay of voices of a multitude of veterans whose experiences were captured on video in the 1960’s and ’70’s. Their stories give testimony to the attitudes of the times, including the initial popularity of the war which led so many teen-aged boys to lie about their ages in order to enlist. And astonishingly, there was pressure to do so. One of the veterans recalls being confronted on the street by a woman who demanded to know his age. Though he insisted he was only 17 (minimum enlistment age was 19), the woman, a total stranger, thought he was lying and threw a white feather in his face to signify his supposed cowardice.
While the film’s restored black and white footage is marvelous, the shift to color when the troops arrive in France is incredible. The vividness of the image makes you want to jump into the frame, to meet these men, to talk with them, to hear their thoughts. At times, though, there’s a bit of a creep factor—the facial expressions and gestures of the soldiers, brimming with life, are so like ours, but then you remember they’re long dead. Nevertheless, their images will stay with you for days.
As screened in theaters, “They Shall Not Grow Old” is followed by a 30-minute documentary narrated by Peter Jackson in which he shows how the vintage film was prepared, tweaked and assembled into final form. This is almost as fascinating as the feature film itself, and provides wonderful insight, not only into the creative process but into the “why” of the movie. It includes scenes of Jackson’s visit to France, where we see the actual location, virtually unchanged after 100 years, where we earlier viewed soldiers assembling immediately prior to charging the German trenches. It’s a searing moment when Jackson, rerunning this segment that so captures the full range of the soldiers’ expressions, from fear to anticipation to sarcasm, remarks that the majority of men pictured would be dead within the next 30 minutes.
Fortunately there are lighter moments in the documentary: Foley artists tramping in mud to capture that sound, forensic lip readers checking what the troops were saying so that their accents could be properly dubbed, and colorization experts viewing vintage uniforms to ensure the accuracy of the final footage. Best of all is the sight of the eight British representatives that Jackson, who wanted authentic accents instead of his native New Zealand twang, recruited to record a song to accompany the end credits of “They Shall Not Grow Old.” There they are, amateurs all, in the recording studio in their shirtsleeves belting out chorus after chorus of “Mademoiselle From Armentières,” parlay-vooing to the hilt.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” will next be shown in theaters in the United States on December 27th. Don’t miss it, and by all means, stay for the documentary that follows—it’s quite an addition to the main event.
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The music heard in “They Shall Not Grow Old” prompted me to re-watch “Oh! What a Lovely War,” Richard Attenborough’s first film as a director (In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit this one has a special place in my heart—I first saw it as a college freshman and it made me change my major from psychology to history). While both movies focus on World War I, “Lovely War” doesn’t show the blood and gore of the documentary. Instead, when a character is about to die, he either plucks a poppy or is handed one. To further the fantasy element, the war is at times viewed in microcosm, as taking place on Brighton’s West Pier (The film was shot in 1968, long before that pier deteriorated, burned and ultimately vanished). These scenes are juxtaposed with the muck of the trenches and the bone-chilling cold of No-Man’s Land.
But “Oh! What a Lovely War” is essentially a musical, featuring the evocative songs of the First World War, both from the home front and of course more profanely, from the soldiers themselves (Wait until you hear “When This Lousy War is Over,” sung to the tune of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”). Holding all this together is the saga of the Smith family, whose five young men all don khaki; their sister will serve as a field nurse. They’re roused from their seaside holiday in Brighton by a marching military band which leads them onto the pier and the commencement of the war.
“Oh! What a Lovely War” features a good portion of the English acting hierarchy of the time: three Redgraves (Michael, Vanessa and Corin), Sirs John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier (a particularly harrumphing general) and some actors who would later become much more prominent, such as Ian Holm. But what stands out are the musical numbers: Jean-Pierre Cassel doing a soft-shoe to “Belgium Put the Kaibosh on the Kaiser”while French cavalrymen ride a shiny-white carousel; Corin Redgrave, the very essence of a young British lieutenant, singing “Goodbye” as he circles the pier on a kiddie train; John Mills as Sir Douglas Haig, gracefully dipping his partner in the “Oh, It’s a Lovely War” production number; and most memorably, a young Maggie Smith as a theatrical star compelling enlistments with her unique rendition of “I’ll Make a Man of You.” Her sequence is startling—we see her virtually seduce young Harry Smith into joining her on stage, but as he reaches his destination he sees her up close, her make-up frighteningly garish. No longer an enticing woman, she looks like the oldest whore in the world. War ain’t so grand after all.
The DVD of “Oh! What a Lovely War” appears to be out of print but the film can be rented on Amazon. It’s well worth your time.