11 November 2018 will mark an entire century since the armistice that ended the First World War. A miserable, meaningless, and senseless waste of human life even by the standards of wars in general. Over a million British and colonial soldiers alone were killed in the conflict, their bodies largely left to rot in unmarked hastily-dug mass graves, whilst those who survived did so through some of the most appalling conditions, fighting tactics, and squalor ever seen on a battlefield, all because of a bunch of treaty-based obligations that didn’t concern the often-underaged boys being sent to die rather than for any noble or truly-defensive reasons.
Likely because of those facts, World War I has largely been overshadowed in both narrative features and documentaries by its bigger, badder, broader sequel, WWII, although the centenary has meant that we’ve been inundated with a few timely attempts to pay tribute to those who gave themselves to the conflict. Some were pretty good (Saul Dibb’s latest adaptation of Journey’s End) and others were absolute dogshit (Sgt. Stubby which tried to pay tribute to the conflict by presenting it in the form of an insipid no-budget animated kids’ movie from the perspective of a dog where nobody ever kills anybody ever).
The latest and arguably most high-profile of the lot is Peter Jackson’s unique documentary from the British side of the war, They Shall Not Grow Old. Jackson’s a filmmaker who has always had a fascination/obsession (delete depending on preference) with the latest filmmaking technologies, pushing the abilities of the medium to their breaking point in the hopes that they’ll add something special to his story. Whether it be his commitment to inventive practical effects in cult films like BrainDead and Meet the Feebles, legitimising state-of-the-art motion-capture performances with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the 48fps experiment of the Hobbit trilogy, he’s always trying to find something new and giving it the biggest stage he possibly can for a test run. Sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it really doesn’t, but I will always commend him for trying. With They Shall Not Grow Old, Jackson’s hook comes from his decision to meticulously colour all of the footage in the movie from its grainy 1910s black-and-white origins, adding sound effects and dialogue that a crack team of ADR researchers and supplemental material have interpreted from the footage, and converting it all into 3D in an attempt to break down the barriers between the War itself and modern viewers for whom it may seem an utterly inconceivable a world event. Not so much bringing The Great War to life as attempting to bring it out of the distant past so we may better understand the horror of it all.
It’s an admirable idea and one that does work more than I figured it would. The film begins and ends at home, Great Britain at the outset and aftermath of war, and these stretches are presented in silent black-and-white almost-kinetoscope vision. Tiny square, jagged, unstable footage where the only sounds other than the barrage of audio histories from those who directly fought in the war being the whirring of a reel-to-reel projector. But when we get to the Front, the image gradually expands to modern widescreen, colour starts to fade in on the soldiers and the already-smouldering ruins of the Belgian countryside, multiple planes of depth begin to separate the different distances, and the effect is genuinely jaw-dropping. Almost like a perversion of the transition to Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz. But the effect is not limited just to that initial burst. The additional detail and colourisation really does fully hammer home the absolute filth and grime and untenable conditions of life in the trenches. The rats, the mud, the latrines, the lice, all with none of the comparative sanitation that is displayed by fictional attempts to dramatise the war. And the bodies. So many bodies, so much blood, so many faces ripped apart by stray gunfire, enhanced with sickening detail thanks to the colour.
The problem, though, is, after a while, I actually became kind of numb to it all. For a film designed to break down all obstacles that might separate one from connecting with the slaughter and misery of World War I, I actually found myself growing more uninterested as time went on. Partly, this is because Jackson overplays his hand on the technological end. The colourisation is incredible and adds legitimate power to many an image, but the other additions either make a negligible difference or cancel out those made by the colour. My stance on 3D is, has and always will be “pointless gimmick that adds nothing and also doesn’t work properly due to my already needing glasses to see,” one that They Shall Not Grow Old does not change once the initial paper-puppets-on-a-stage effect that always occurs as one’s eyes get accustomed to a 3D movie dissipates. The sound design, however, actively detracts from the experience. Whilst the sound effects do have a certain, well, effect of their own – one of the film’s best moments comes at the end as the constant thunder of mortar fire that had ceaselessly blanketed the previous 45 minutes just rolls away until there’s only silence, a silence Jackson could have stood to let hang for a beat or two longer – the dubbed-in dialogue I found to be incredibly distracting and phoney, counterintuitively making the entire film (and by extension the War) more artificial-feeling.
Eventually, to be blunt, the gimmicks and hooks fade away, and a film has to stand up on its own legs. Frankly, at least to me, Jackson’s not made a very good documentary. Oh sure, it’s adequate and fitfully interesting, moving with extreme pace and purpose, every now and then hitting on an interesting or surprising insight thanks to many of the film’s narrators refusing to withhold their true thoughts and feelings – the pride many of them have for what they did, and the resentment over their treatment post-War, is especially unexpected and fascinating. But Jackson doesn’t arrange these voices and clips in ways that maximise their power, largely drifting around from segment to segment, some of which go on for so bloody long that I would end up failing to be moved at all many times. This may have been intentional, particularly in the sequence covering the Spring Offensive where Jackson pairs up faces of individual soldiers with smash cuts to their dead bodies in a technique he repeats for what feels like an eternity, but I found it tiresome and overly repetitious. They Shall Not Grow Old is an incredible technical achievement, I will not deny it that much, but this film feels more like an Imperial War Museum exhibit you don’t have to travel down to London to experience. Maybe it’s for the best that it’s going to air on TV. At least there you won’t be forced to wear 3D glasses.