A line at the conclusion of They Shall Not Grow Old might be the driest closing credit I’ve ever seen at the movies: “Filmed on location on the Western Front, 1914–1918.”
And how: This monumental cinematic achievement re-creates the experience of war like no documentary I’ve ever seen. Steering clear of all political and strategic matters, Peter Jackson’s intensely moving and technically amazing documentary seeks only to answer the question, “What was it like to be a British soldier in the trenches?” It does so to a degree that will astonish you.
Jackson, the New Zealander who directed the Lord of the Rings films, owes his existence to the Battle of the Somme. His English paternal grandfather was wounded on the battle’s first day, and while home (temporarily) to recuperate, he met and married Jackson’s grandmother in 1917. He survived several other war injuries, and Jackson’s father was born three years later. Such is Jackson’s fixation on the Great War that his own personal collection of such items as uniforms and even artillery pieces proved helpful in making this matchless documentary, which began with a request from the Imperial War Museum in London to forge a narrative out of some 100 hours of filmed images and 600 hours of interviews with veterans.
From the propaganda-powered recruiting game in Britain through training sequences and the journey to France, Jackson turns archival footage into a linear story of what the war was like for a generic Tommy who served for the duration. “I just wanted to have a go at Jerry” and “I was desperately keen,” recall the veterans, who were as young as 15 when they signed up. Recruiters encouraged them to lie if they were not yet of age. As was true in every other country that leapt into war, young men were led to believe they were worth ten of the enemy; and as was true in every country, they were afraid the war would be over before they could join the fun, but certainly by Christmas of 1914.
There’s no talk of specific battles or the larger picture, simply a visceral exploration of everything the Tommies of Britain saw, felt, heard, smelled, tasted. We learn about the plague of rats who fattened themselves on corpses, see the gangrenous feet that had to be sawed off, hear about the all-pervading, sickly sweet smell of animal and human corpses, the taste of which stuck to the food the soldiers ate. The mud was so thick and so sticky that a wounded man could simply be swallowed up by it. When attacked by poison gas, some men sought relief by applying handkerchiefs soaked in their own urine to their faces.
Narration to pull the images together is provided by the actual voices of dozens of veterans who years later shared their recollections with archivists, while Jackson’s team added to the silent film matching sound effects and even incidental dialogue voiced by actors after professional lip readers discerned what the men were saying. The understatement in much of this dialogue is as awe-inspiring as the destruction. Back home, a survivor recalls, “People never talked about the war. It was a thing that had no conversational value at all.”
They Shall Not Grow Old is obviously one of the best films of 2018, but I didn’t see it until this week; it proved unusually elusive. Instead of the usual open-ended theatrical release, it was previously booked in theaters only as a special event on selected individual dates (December 17 and 27 and January 21). Moreover, DVD screeners were not sent to critics, a break with the usual practice for an awards-caliber film. On February 1, though, the film finally received a conventional release and is playing on more than 700 screens. Don’t miss it.
And stick around afterwards, for the greatest post-credits sequence you’ve ever seen: a 30-minute mini-documentary about the making of the film. Jackson explains the difficulties of piecing together footage that in many cases was nearly black, or washed out, or damaged, or shot at the wrong speed. His effects hobbits summoned all the digital magic of our age to make a film that meets today’s standards, in color and 3D. (The 3D effect, for once, adds to the film’s value.)
So much inventiveness went into They Shall Not Grow Old (a misquotation of a line from a poem by Laurence Binyon) that it makes you wonder what else the world’s top filmmakers and film technicians could do instead of spending most of their time creating cretinous carnival rides like Aquaman. It seems somehow fitting that Mortal Engines, a monstrously expensive CGI clunker Jackson produced and co-wrote, is going to wind up being out-earned at the U.S. office by his documentary. If the film is as magnificent as They Shall Not Grow Old, the audience will find it.
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