From the opening frames of Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, you sense you’re in for a completely different view of The Great War. Not simply because of the magisterial restoration of century-old footage from hand-cranked cameras that Jackson and his celluloid alchemists have turned into a modern cinematic masterpiece. But because the story that emerges from his four-year production effort sheds new light on familiar scenes that defy at least some of what has become conventional wisdom about the war.
Having toured the battlefields of World War I on numerous occasions times, written two books on World War II battlefields and recently seen Jackson’s film in 3D, I also came away thinking as much about what was included as what was not.
Here’s everything you need to know before you sit down and watch.
Know Your World War I History
They Shall Not Grow Old employs no interviews with historians to provide a “big picture” account of World War I. No maps or text add context in the way of traditional war documentaries. Famous battles rate no mention. Even the locations of scenes aren’t noted.
Like Christopher Nolan’s 2017 World War II epic Dunkirk, the film simply thrusts viewers into the infantryman’s shoes and whisks them along on his terrifying journey through combat. This works well. The drama is continuous. If you think your heart started beating fast when that cloud of mustard gas began drifting toward your position, just wait for the next shot.
But faced with grisly views of maggots crawling over hideously stiffened corpses in rat-infested trenches, those without a basic understanding of the war may quickly become plagued by questions. Why is this happening? Who exactly is fighting whom? How many men fought?
Though more than 30 countries sent combatants into battle, at least 100 countries were involved in some capacity in “the war to end all wars,” including those issuing formal declarations of war and supplying allies with material. About 67 million soldiers were mobilized by the Allied and Central powers, resulting in 37.4 million casualties, including 8.5 million dead.
Jackson calls his work “a film made by a non-historian for non-historians.” This makes for a spellbinding story, but boning up on the basics of World War I ahead of time will greatly expand anyone’s appreciation of the film.
Coming in at under 150 book pages, British historian Michael Howard’s The First World War: A Very Short Introduction is the best quick primer out there.
Know Your Weapons
Although Jackson doesn’t dwell on technical specifications, there’s enough coverage of World War I armaments to keep gear enthusiasts riveted. Infantrymen are shown firing the famous bolt-action Lee-Enfield .303 service rifle (they loved it), the British Army’s standard-issue rifle for World War I and World War II.
Designed by American James Lee and manufactured in the London Borough of Enfield (hence the name), the weapon could be fired and reloaded faster than the rival German Mauser Gewehr 98 rifle. It could be operated so rapidly that, according to some reports, German soldiers advancing against them at times believed they were being repelled by British machine guns.
Sharp images capture artillery batteries loading and firing barrages from a variety of towable field pieces, including the ubiquitous British “18 pounder,” which weighed 2,825 pounds, had an effective range of 7,000-plus yards and used to fire an estimated 99 million rounds during the war.
Some of the most striking footage revolves around the introduction of motorized heavy armor, which the British first put into the field in 1916 in the form of the ungainly Mark I tank, followed by multiple updated models in the series.
Jackson’s enhanced footage makes these ungainly, rhomboid-shaped creatures with long treads designed to cross trenches look only slightly less awkward than we’ve seen them before. Yet with the corrected film speed they suddenly becomes a palpable portent of the mechanized destruction on Europe’s near horizon.
A Silent War No Longer
The film’s restored and colorized footage has drawn the bulk of attention from reviewers. But, like that scene with the officer attempting to stir his men into action, it’s the audio Jackson has meticulously recreated that gives the film its modern feel. Men whistle, tromp through mud and, of course, fire deafening artillery rounds. Jackson faithfully recorded all the boom and bluster of historic pieces, and it’s the audio that completes the sense of immersion into the World War I battlefield.
The psychoacoustic effects of continuous artillery bombardment and vibrations could be devastating to those at the front. Artillery rounds created sustained noise levels above 140 decibels and were intense enough to split eardrums. Explosions on the front could sometimes be heard in London, some 200 miles away. In the French Army, wartime ear disabilities ran between 10-20 percent among combat troops.
All of this is captured in a single haunting sequence of a shell-shocked soldier (we know the condition today as PTSD) with a badly shaking hand and spectral expression being escorted from the battlefield.
Get Ready for Horrific Injury and Disease
One of the most arresting images of the film depicts “trench foot,” often just a euphemism for gangrene, and now called “non-freezing cold injury.” It’s almost impossible not to flinch when the sock is ripped off a tormented soldier, revealing a swollen, dead appendage that will almost certainly have to be amputated. Trench foot accounted for some 75,000 British casualties.
Machine guns and other new weapons caused unprecedented injuries that challenged even the most creative doctors. Thousands of appendages were amputated. Some French military hospitals resorted to using modified guillotines to quickly and neatly chop off limbs in order to save lives.
The doctors and hospitals near World War I front lines made Trapper John, Hawkeye, and the whole MASH 4077th look like they were working at the Mayo Clinic. In the film, bullet entry wounds are treated with a swab of iodine. Rudimentary field dressings and tourniquets are expected to patch up broken and severed limbs. Neither of these available? Then it’s an extra ration of rum and a hearty “Well done, lad” before the newly maimed are sent on their way.
This One Isn’t a Tear-Jerker
Despite the ominous title, They Shall Not Grow Old is not a somber war film. With a few exceptions, the veterans who provide commentary, many of them teenagers when they enlisted, some as young as 15, recall their part in the war in matter of fact, sometimes even jaunty and self-congratulatory tones: “I wouldn’t have missed it.” “I had no regrets at all. No regrets and no horrors.” “I felt very proud about it.”
Conventional wisdom surrounding the war has been largely informed by the work of writers and poets such as Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Erich Maria Remarque. Owen was killed in action while others were profoundly changed by the war.
Developments such as the dada art movement, a reaction to the insanity of the war that rejected logic, embraced irrationality and scorned nationalism, also provide a framework for modern understanding of the widespread effects on society.
Though the physical horrors of the war are crucial to the film, you don’t suspect much psychological damage from the accounts that form the audio narrative.
This Film Is Anglo-Centric
Virtually all footage and interviews used in the film come from Britain’s Imperial War Museums (IWM). Most of the interviews were recorded with veterans in the 1960s and ‘70s, meaning the story here is told by British veterans presumably approved by the IWM, who not only survived the war but lived long enough to be venerated for their achievements.
Jackson acknowledges the limited scope of his material. Rather than recount the entire war, he wisely uses the part to tell the whole. He describes the end result as an “accurate generic experience of World War I combat” on the Western Front. This is undoubtedly true, but it might be truer still if the word “British” were inserted somewhere within that quote.
WWI Soldiers Were Surprisingly Young
In the early 20th century, British children often left school at age 12 and were working full-time by 13. As many as 250,000 “boy soldiers” under the age of 18 joined the “doomed procession” as part of the British Army during the war, many motivated by lack of work at home, patriotic urges, and the age-old quest for adventure.
Filmmakers generally consider it a no-no when actors or subjects stare into the camera lens. But film technology was still young during World War I, and most of the soldiers were seeing a movie camera for the first time. As a result, and despite cameramen’s instructions, many of them couldn’t help but gawp at the curious contraption as it recorded their movements for future audiences a century later.
Their hard stares provide the most arresting images of the film. They not only convey the range of emotions felt by men in battle-everything from wonder to determination to dread-they enable modern audiences to share an intimate moment with a soldier just 30 minutes away from the end of his life.
There’s Almost No Battle Footage
Because it was dangerous and nearly impossible to rush into combat while hand-cranking a heavy camera, little close-up battle footage exists from World War I. Jackson gets around this dilemma during battle sequences by inserting a clever montage of pencil sketches composed by front line artists for a popular British magazine of the day called The War Illustrated.
It’s not a substitute for the insanity of trench warfare, but Jackson’s deft artistic touch-and a soundtrack of realistic artillery and machine gun fire-makes it work.
Stick Around for the Credits
The documentary’s run time is 99 minutes. But following the credits, Jackson appears on screen for a 30-minute, behind-the-scenes addendum. This is where he reveals some of the technical methods used to restore fuzzy, warped, and poorly exposed 100-year-old film. He describes the colorization process, using as an example his insistence that the shade of green on the grass of a French battlefield not come across the same as the green of the grass in New Zealand or America. Authenticity is his ruthless guide.
More importantly, this “making of” bonus includes footage that didn’t make the final cut, such as British women working in armaments factories and the participation of colonial troops from as far as Africa, India and China in what was truly a “world war.”
Jackson’s explanations of the tough editing decisions he had to make answer some of the objections that may arise among dedicated historians while watching the film. Skipping out on this special feature amounts to missing a mesmerizing piece of a landmark production.
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