Education, Entertainment, History, War

Movie Review: They Shall Not Grow Old

I just ordered the blu-ray edition of what I think may be Peter Jackson’s greatest movie, They Shall Not Grow Old.  I say this as a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies to the extent that I binge-watch the three of them every year between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  I did this for years before I found out that it’s apparently a rather cultish thing to do, and that lots of other people do it too.  Oh well.  (I’m not nearly such a fan of the twelve-or-fifteen movies it took him to tell the story of The Hobbit.  I got about ten minutes into the first one and realized that, unlike LOTR, the acting is hammy and self-conscious, and seemed aimed at very young children.  I think I gave up right after what I suppose was only the first of many fart jokes.)

They Shall Not Grow Old was the last movie Mr. Right and I went to see together, during its first, very limited release in December of 2018.  We had to drive about fifty miles to get to it–totally worth it! It’s Jackson’s compilation of selections from hundreds of hours of Imperial War Museum oral histories recorded, by WWI veterans in the 1980s, which he combines with boots-on-the-ground film footage, which he then colorized.  Additionally, he shifted the frame rates, and interpolated them to synchronize with natural motion, so you don’t get that jerkiness associated with early twentieth-century movie footage.  The result is a seamless, state-of-the art movie documentary. A final incredible touch, since of course the movie footage is all silent, was the employment of lip readers to decipher what was being said in the conversations taking place on film, and the hiring of regionally appropriate actors (using the uniforms the men were wearing as a “best guess” as to where they were from), to give the men their voices back.  We watched the movie in 3D, but that wasn’t offered everywhere.

I wrote a post on Ricochet at the time urging people to go see it if they possibly could.  And here’s why:

Well, I will try not to give away too much.

  1. First, what an experience. It is stunning. There is absolutely no “flash.” No “ax grinding.” No professional narration; all the narration is by WWI veterans (at least 100 of them), and some of it is heartbreaking. Some of the scenes are difficult to watch.
  2. Somehow, the color brought out an aspect of army command I never noticed before. You can always tell the officers. They are the ones smoking pipes while all the men are smoking fags (in the British idiom).
  3. One piece of narration, where a veteran, an officer of some sort, talked about the men being very young, ignorant uneducated boys, and he used the phrase “refuse of our industrial society” (I think that’s an accurate quote) to describe them, really did break my heart. These young men, impoverished, underfed, awful teeth (the teeth on the German soldiers were noticeably whiter and more even), probably largely illiterate, ripped from their homes and their mothers, and their sweethearts, some as young as 12, were undergoing inhuman privation and living conditions, were throwing themselves onto barbed wire so the officers could walk over them (that wasn’t in the film, my Dad told me that), were going “up and over” so they could be turned into cannon fodder, then those who did survive went home and were treated like [expletive], and here’s this guy, probably forty years after the fact when the interviews were taped, calling them the “refuse of our industrial society.”  Hillary’s “deplorables” comment was just awful, but this, a similar attitude, but in such awful, awful circumstances, really punched me in the gut.
  4. If the showing you go to offers the 30-minute talk by Peter Jackson after the movie, don’t miss it. It’s a fascinating look at how they did the cleanup of the film, the colorization, the sounds, the lip-reading, the voices and so on. Absolutely fascinating. The film is dedicated to Jackson’s grandfather, a Sergeant in the British Army during WWI. Jackson is, very clearly, a lovely man, with a deep love of the subject. You just won’t believe how attached he is to this subject until you watch this.
  5. I’m not sure progressive lenses go well with 3D. But it was OK.
  6. The music for the credits is a very spirited rendition of Mademoiselle from Armentieres, (not totally NSFW, just a couple of lewd verses) and Peter Jackson tells a very funny story about how that was recorded.
  7. I will remember these men. I noticed something, even in the trailer that’s part of this post, and much more so in the movie. And Jackson mentioned it in his talk as well. These men were fascinated by the movie camera. It was a new thing for them. You can see it in their faces–the delight at being “in the pictures.” The playfulness, the mugging, playing their music, stopping what they were doing just to stand and look directly at the camera. Sometimes, you can see their terror, too. That’s hard. But the novelty of the camera, and their eagerness to respond to it, gives an immediacy to the footage that just isn’t there in more recent war and military films. I think folks are so used to the cameras, and have been for quite some time, that they just don’t play to them any more. These guys played to them. They wanted to be “in the pictures.” And as a result, I looked them in the eye.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them”–Laurence Binyon

Please go if you have the chance. Peter Jackson is an absolute genius. This is a labor of love. And it shows.

I’m 65. I was born 36 years after World War I ended. Many of the grown-ups in my early life remembered it vividly. My grandparent’s generation, and some from my own family, fought in WWI. Thomas Herbert Mapson, 3rd Worcestershire Regiment was the last member of my family killed in a war, six months before the Armistice, at the Battle of Lys, not far from Ypres. (That’s his gravestone, in the image at the top of this post.  As with so many, his body was never recovered, which is why it says “buried near this spot.”)

Uncle Arthur (Dad’s oldest brother) was born in 1907 (so seven when the war started, eleven when it ended). His memories were of going to New Street Station in Birmingham with his mother, the members of the Womens’s Institute and the tea trolleys, and handing out tea and biscuits to the arriving and departing servicemen. (A popular music hall song of the time was Florrie Forde singing Hold Your Hand Out, Naughty Boy.” When that played on the gramophone, the young Arthur thought it was about him, and sometimes started to cry.)

There’s a quick clip almost at the end of Peter Jackson’s talk, where he shows women handing out tea and cakes to the servicemen returning to Folkestone at the end of the war. I immediately thought of Granny Louise when I saw that.

Arthur died at the age of 102 in 2009, and Betty at the age of 102 in 2015. So when I shuffle off this mortal coil (almost 40 years to go, if I don’t want to let the side down), I’ll have spent a large portion of my adult life in close contact with people who remembered WWI clearly.

Generations that followed mine don’t have that advantage. And I doubt they’re inclined, unless they have a real interest, to suffer through the herky-jerky, scratched, overexposed, underexposed, and silent film for long enough to really understand what was happening, even if you could see it clearly, which sometimes you can’t.

Jackson has given the war, and its soldiers, life for the twenty-first century audience. The superficial can start out by looking at them and mocking their youth, their tattered uniforms, their ignorance, their provincial and simple speech, their awful dentition, and their naivete.

Then, let the movie begin, and look them in the eye, in 3D and in color.

And see if you really still want to do that.

This movie should be required viewing in every world history, European history, and twentieth-century history class in high school and college (at least at places where such classes are still taught). I think it could change some people, for the better. And it would certainly start some discussion.

I think it’s Peter Jackson’s greatest achievement.  God Bless him.

Here’s the trailer, if you’d like a small taste of what to expect (there was so much demand for the movie after the initial, very limited release, that it went into wider distribution for a short time in February of 2019):

I’m hoping that the blu-ray includes the Jackson interview we saw after the movie.  That alone is worth the price.  Please see this movie if you can.

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