“They Shall Not Grow Old” brings archive footage to stirring life

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“FOR THE FALLEN”, written by Laurence Binyon in honour of the British Expeditionary Force and published in September 1914, contains one of the best-known stanzas in poetry:

“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.”

These lines are inscribed on memorials and gravestones throughout the Commonwealth, and read aloud in schools and churches every November. They promise to honour and remember those who died, and recognise that full lives enjoyed in peacetime are owed to former lives cut short in war. Yet those slain in the first world war have, in their own way, grown old. Their memory is enshrined in relics—in the sepia-toned photographs of young men in uniform staring unsmiling at the camera, and in the personal effects that line museums’ cabinets. No matter how earnest the act of remembrance, time and technology create distance.

“They Shall Not Grow Old”, a 90-minute film commissioned by 14-18 NOW, a commemorative arts programme, and broadcast in Britain on the centenary of the armistice, seeks to bridge this divide. Directed by Peter Jackson—the film-maker responsible for “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies—it is a combination of oral testimony and video footage from the Imperial War Museum archive. Over grainy black-and-white images of troops marching and practising drills, voices explain what motivated them to sign up (prestige and a vague desire for adventure, mostly) and what their entry into army life was like. Many admit that they were just 15- or 16-years-old and encouraged to lie about their age. This commentary is diverting, but hardly offers a new experience for British viewers, most of whom sat through history lessons where such documentaries flickered from projectors.

But around 30 minutes in, “They Shall Not Grow Old” comes alive. The aspect ratio expands from a square to full screen and colour seeps in. Background noise does too, with the sound of boots on duckboards and snippets of soldiers’ conversations suddenly audible. The effect is astonishing: at once the film’s subjects become more lifelike and human. It makes the realities of trench warfare—the lice, the rats, the mud, the stench, the fear—immediate. “I think once you really see their faces, see the cheeky chappy playing a bottle as if it’s a ukulele, identify the sturdy one or the stern one, you catch their personalities so much better,” Jenny Waldman, director of 14-18 NOW, says. “When the film coverage is colourised and cleaned up you can see their eyes, their bad teeth.”

The attention to detail was painstaking, and almost five years in the making. Mr Jackson trawled through hundreds of hours of video and audio footage, most of it collected by the BBC for their documentary “The Great War” (1964). Once these were stitched together into a storyline, each frame was colourised and digitally restored. Computer programs helped to move the video from the ten to 18 frames per second (fps) at which it was shot to the modern rate of 24 fps, doing away with the “Charlie Chaplin effect” (the jerky, disjointed movement that characterises old film). Forensic lip-readers were hired to work out what soldiers might be saying, and their words were voiced by actors.

Mr Jackson was a stickler for accuracy—going so far as to order mud from France to make sure the hue his technicians were using was correct—and the film organises the material in a clear and coherent way. Military geeks and conservationists may still be disappointed, as “They Shall Not Grow Old” is uninterested in documenting the exact what, where and why of the war. It ignores strategy and weaponry. It offers only a limited snapshot of life in wartime; the footage is mostly of British soldiers on the Western Front, because that is what was available. 

The film triumphs in its vivid, emotional portrait of ordinary men. It shows that the return to civilian life was not marked by celebration and church bells pealing; instead, exhausted and harrowed by their experiences, veterans found themselves unable to readjust to peacetime and lay the ghosts of the war to rest. Those who had stayed at home were unable to empathise with soldiers’ memories of the front line even though they could watch the footage for themselves. Thanks to the care and detail with which it furnishes life in combat, “They Shall Not Grow Old” helps audiences not only to remember the dead, but to understand them, too.

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