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They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson) - Review

They Shall Not Grow Old

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

PETER Jackson’s labour of love, They Shall Not Grow Old, is a remarkable piece of film restoration that ought to become required viewing for people of every age.

Commissioned for the Armistice centenary by the Imperial War Museum and 14-18 NOW in association with the BBC, the project found Jackson – the architect of such event movies as The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong – using 21st Century technology to revive [for want of a better word] the Imperial War Museum’s archive footage of the First World War.

By adding colour and cleaning up the images [not to mention working on the frame speed and improvising with the sound effects], he has brought the footage to richly detailed life… and, with it, exposes the full extent of the horror of war.

But it’s also a tribute too… a celebration of the British and Commonwealth soldiers who took part in the campaign, as retold through their memories. For it is the veterans [or survivors] who provide the narration, recalling stories of the unlikely bonds that formed between these brothers in arms, who survived more by luck than judgement.

The film opens in black and white as young men, aged between 16 and 19, signed up to take part in The Great War, ‘inspired’ by the vividly drawn recruitment posters and the sense that they really had to ‘do their bit’. For them, this felt like an adventure… a boys’ own journey into foreign lands, where one English fighter was worth 10 German opponents.

A short, back and sides haircut later, they were kitted out in ill-fitting uniforms, given a rifle and put through a vigorous training regime involving shooting and marching. And yet still, the sense of revelry remained.

It was only once they got off the boat in France and entered Belgian soil that the reality of their predicament started to dawn on them. Cheeky voiceovers gradually became more haunted. The stiff upper lip resolve of the early narration giving way, ever so slightly, to sorrow and horror.

It’s at this point that the black and white turns to colour, and the battlefields of World War I were shockingly exposed. Mud, blood, excrement and stench. These are the images that take hold… and refuse to budge.

Men lining up on a plank of wood, bums exposed, using a dugout as a toilet; bomb-ridden craters filled with the bodies of fallen comrades; landmines exploding in mini mushroom clouds of earth; water-logged trenches, lice infestation… this was a living hell that lasted for four years.

And yet, as disturbing and unsettling as some of this footage undoubtedly remained, there was an unlikely sense of pride too. As the men continued to tell their tales, there were moments of black comedy – whether it was at the expense of those unfortunate enough to collapse into the excrement, visiting some of France’s prostitutes for the first time, or the intricacies of making a cup of tea without exposing your position to the enemy.

There was an unlikely sense of respect, too… for the enemy who, once captured, became voluntary stretcher bearers. Several veterans spoke of their admiration for their German counterparts… as well as the sorrow they felt for some of them, especially if they ended up being killed by their own hand.

And there was a grim realism… a sense of inevitability surrounding their own mortality. Incredibly, very few said they feared death. If a bullet or a bomb came, better it kill them outright than leave them wounded and maimed. There were several stories of bodies being blown apart, often involving friends, while there was a feeling of resignation – that death was only a moment away.

For Jackson, the film marks an unequivocal success…. the painstaking restoration process more than worth it. They Shall Not Grow Old serves as a timeless piece of cinema [or TV] that guarantees the memory of these men – and their sacrifices – will be eternal.

Its dual success is to serve as a lasting tribute to the courage and bravery of those young men, as well as a cautionary tale about the horror and wastefulness of war, however necessary the campaigns of WWI and WWII became.

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