They Shall Not Grow Old could fairly be labeled The War Movie to End All War Movies. It is surely the World War I movie to end all World War I movies.
The visceral impact of this digital-age documentary directed by Peter Jackson comes as close to planting viewers in the Western Front trenches as any footage could achieve -- and with scenes more gruesome than some in the audience might desire.
These you-are-there images, shot during the Great War in scratchy black and white but transformed by 21st-century computer wizardry into crisp color footage, give a ghastly twist to the notion of "virtual reality."
Classic World War I films include All Quiet on the Western Front, spun from Erich Maria Remarque's novel; Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion; and Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory. Bodies shattered by shelling imbue the opening of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan with the brutality of World War II combat. The last part of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket is splattered with gory snippets of Vietnam War action.
But those memorable movies are all works of fiction. The British soldiers who populate They Shall Not Grow Old are real people (many displaying that era's rotting teeth). They're among the nation's 5.4 million people who fought in France and Belgium from 1914 to 1918. They include some of the 512,000 Britons who perished there, along with the 1.5 million wounded. In Jackson's masterpiece, we meet them face to face -- sometimes as putrefying corpses.
They Shall Not Grow Old
90 Cast: British World War I troops
Director: Peter Jackson
Rating: R, for disturbing war images
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
I praise this film as someone who rarely writes a movie review. But as a consummate traveler and a persistent dabbler in military history, I have visited dozens of battlefields, museums, cemeteries and other monuments from what was so wrongly imagined as "the War to End All Wars." Jackson's film shook me to the core by personifying the names inscribed at those century-old memorials to mass death.
The sights I've seen over the decades speak to the high-explosive carnage that blew to pieces so many British soldiers, as well as French and Germans -- and late in the war, also Americans. A towering monument at Thiepval on the Somme lists 72,337 British and South African dead, most of them pulverized by artillery fire. On the Menin Gate in the Belgian city of Ypres are recorded 54,395 British Commonwealth victims with no known grave.
The British cameramen with their bulky gear were not ordered (luckily for them) to follow attacking Tommies from the trenches into the German machine-gun fire. So Jackson's documentary, which uses black-and-white footage of the soldiers in homeland training before deploying lifelike color (in 3-D) once they're in France, depicts actual close combat via artists' sketches from British periodicals.
If anything, the illustrations add to the movie's mystique of menace and doom. Given the unvarnished realism of such filmed images as plump rats rummaging among skeletal human remains, my wife, Marcia, (by no means squeamish) found herself sometimes averting her eyes. One element lacking, and thankfully so, is the horrific stench of death and decay -- a miasma that would overpower refined 21st-century noses.
Jackson, director of the wildly popular (and to some critics, interminable) Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, is a New Zealander long absorbed in World War I history. His grandfather was a career British soldier who survived the entire four years of combat.
The film was generated by a project of Britain's Imperial War Museum to commemorate the centennial of World War I. The museum supplied Jackson with about 100 hours of archival footage, which his operatives spent three years restoring, winnowing and colorizing. The result is by no means a history of the entire war. It focuses, as Jackson has said, "on the experience of an average soldier infantryman on the Western Front."
Scenes in rest areas behind the front lines show the pleasure troops took in even short respites from combat. Men are shown playing soccer, drinking warm beer and posing with captured German spiked helmets. Toward the end of the film, as Allied victory loomed in the autumn of 1918, some Tommies escorting processions of enemy prisoners walk with a spring in their steps.
But the sheer wretchedness of trench existence, beyond the ongoing threat of death or disability, is shown not only in the scampering of those well-fed rats over partly decayed corpses mired in mud. Daily existence below ground level in squelching mire amid the reek of unwashed bodies and human excrement lies almost beyond our cosseted imagination.
The primitive nature of trench sanitation is depicted in a shot of a half-dozen bare-bottomed troops perched on a plank over an open-air latrine. Other images include the daily losing battle against omnipresent lice as men burn off the blood suckers with lighted cigarettes or pinch them between thumb and forefinger.
There's a chance for the audience to decompress in the screening's last half-hour. As a postscript to the World War I footage, Jackson presents an explanation of how the documentary was made. Viewers tempted to depart at the end of the movie proper are advised that the background details are well worth watching.
Regarding the title of this flabbergasting film, it is extracted from a verse of Laurence Binyon's 1914 poem, "For the Fallen":
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.
That eulogy aimed to soften the sorrow of families and friends. It is a viewer's challenge to search for such solace while They Shall Not Grow Old thrums with the shelling that killed so many for so long with so little sense of victory -- and, amazingly, no evident British mutiny. An astounding number of Tommies are seen smiling for the camera, a few even in the god-forsaken trenches amid the death and decay.
Jack Schnedler retired in 2011 as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's deputy managing editor for features. He is an Army veteran of the Vietnam War era, but saw no combat.
MovieStyle on 02/01/2019
Print Headline: Hell in the trenches: 'They Shall Not Grow Old' documentary uses actual British combat footage to tell the grisly tale of men fighting in WWI