Those of us living in the developed world are so lucky.
Lucky by virtue of when we were born, of course, in that we don’t have to endure warfare in our daily lives, but also fortunate that in our past, there was a generation of souls brave enough to travel across the seas to face evil so our countries could be free.
Peter Jackson‘s They Shall Not Grow Old is a visceral, harrowing First World War documentary, featuring only footage from the vaults of London’s Imperial War Museum, with voiceovers from real veterans whose boots trod that muddy trenched ground. If there’s any point the film drives home, it’s this: things used to be very, very different.
What do you mean by that?
Watching young boys — we’re talking as young as 14 years old — volunteer without hesitation to engage in warfare, often with zero experience in battle, is something else, especially when you consider the rather entitled society we live in now. One vet says, “it was just what you did” back then, that it was exciting and expected of male youth; that is a vast departure from today, more than 100 years later.
Jackson succeeds in bringing the viewer directly onto the battlefield, enough to the point that shells dropping all around become background noise. There’s even suspense as you never know when the next one is going to drop, or when a young man onscreen will get picked off by an invisible sniper. That’s another thing: it seems like all enemy fire materializes out of nowhere, dropping from the sky with little to no warning.
What other things do you see in the footage?
So many fascinating things, but I won’t spoil it. Much of the footage used in the movie has never been seen before, and has been sitting in the museum vaults for years. Jackson, who wasn’t paid a single red cent to make the film, claimed he spent a full year just reviewing the material.
While some footage is tough to watch — mostly the gangrenous limbs, the wounds, the decomposing bodies in barbed wire or half-buried under mud in grotesque positions — it’s the soldiers’ downtime that is the most impactful. The men gather in the trenches to keep warm, eat jam preserves and sleep in literal pits of mud night after night, day after day. Perhaps most jarring is when you can hear the voices of the men in the shots (again, remastered by Jackson and his team), saying gleefully, “Here we go boys! We’re in the pictures!”
Any other notables?
One part that physically made me jump is when Jackson deftly switches from black-and-white into colour as we join the men in the trenches for the first time. It’s so sudden and startling, especially because most footage from the First World War is black-and-white only. We now see the soldiers in full colour, which somehow brings them to life even more. The movie is also presented in 3D, a move that adds even more depth.
So what’s the bottom line?
Probably more resonant for older folks, They Shall Not Grow Old has something for everyone who wants to learn more about the Great War. Students especially could use some time with historical footage that doesn’t seem stuffy or dull. Jackson has so expertly breathed new life into the footage, there’s no time to grow bored.
It’s a sobering look at our past, which can hopefully prevent this type of inhumane horror from happening again in the future.
‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ is now playing in theatres across Canada.Follow @CJancelewicz
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