They Shall Not Grow Old

The Guardian - G2 - - Reviews Film - PB PB



Peter Jack­son


99 mins


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.

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