They Shall Not Grow Old
15 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-ofthe-art digital technology to restore flickery old black-and-white archive footage of the servicemen’s lives in training and in the trenches. He has colourised it, sharpened it, made it 3D and, as well as using diaries and letters for narrative voiceover, he has used lipreaders to 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. The colourisation, and everything else, is a kind of alienation shock tactic as well as a means of enfolding you in the experience. It is an indirect way of reminding you that this really did happen to people like you and me.
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 who put these soldiers through hell in their mechanisation and normalisation of war. In Russia, the grotesque slaughter was an important cause of the revolutions of 1917. Not in Britain.
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. artless, madcap way. That charm is especially on display in the almost surreal crime caper Should Men Walk Home?, the title suggesting that it is safer than driving, in which situation Mabel’s co-star here was induced to stop for her as a hitchhiker and get involved in her shenanigans. She and her conspirator steal a brooch from a safe during a swanky party, lose track of it in the melee, and the object is finally taken by a tiny toddler in a nappy who had been asleep upstairs. The films are great historical documents of early cinema.