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They Shall Not Grow Old - Barney's Incorrect Five Second Reviews
Brilliant documentary on the everyday life of a British soldier in the first World War. Peter Jackson spent four years putting together raw footage, colorizing and improving frame rates, splicing and matching it with actual audio from veterans (all from the Imperial War Museum in London), and presenting it just like that. With no narrative or agenda to push.
Peter Jackson is no historian and historians will not like this movie as it takes a bit of creative license (matching up footage of soldiers’ faces with those of mutilated corpses to try and get you to feel the battle sequences (since there was no raw footage of battles in WWI)). This ends up working well to evoke emotion and understand the danger, but historians will hate that.
Instead he’s simply trying to get the viewer to get a sense of what life was like for a soldier of the first World War. It would be not much different from that of a Canadian, American, Australian or Kiwi solider either (although apparently the Canadians gambled a lot more in their spare time).
The casualty and mortality rate of these soldiers was insanely high in this war. A million British soldiers lost their lives between 1914 and 1918. Knowing this makes some scenes extremely heavy. For instance, there is footage of a large amount of British troops in a sunken road all gathering before an assault over the ridge. Almost everyone there had lost their lives in the 30 minutes after that footage was filmed.
Bringing much needed levity throughout the movie was the fact that this was the first exposure almost all of these men have had to being filmed. So in almost every shot, you have half of the people looking at the camera, giggling, while the other half try to stand perfectly still since they think it’s a photograph (where you had to be motionless for 10 seconds back in the day). Every shot has this. It’s really special and unique.
I HIGHLY recommend staying until the end of the credits as there is a 30 minute documentary on the making of this film and for me, this was almost better than the movie itself. Peter Jackson has a huge amount of passion for this project and you feel it in his explanations. He expresses pain and regret at not being able to cover everything he wanted but decided that this was the best way to tell the story of these amazing soldiers, many of whom were aged 15-19 at the time.
The colorized and improved footage doesn’t start until the soldiers hit mainland Europe so try to get through the first part, which is VERY sleepy and slow. After that it really is a work of genius and a good way to honour the sacrifice of these brave men.
Heart rating: 5 stars (absolutely)
Brain rating: 4.5 stars
It's actually a really nice modern version of the work of the offical Australian war photographer, Frank Hurley. Hurley was consistently frustrated in his attempts to capture what the front was like on film - he couldn't get everything going on into one frame to really get to the heart of what it was like. So he experimented in the darkroom and created composite images - basically doing photoshop in 1917 . The authorities went ballistic - "that's not historically accurate" - but Hurley argued that they represented the truth more than anything he could get otherwise. Interesting debate. The authorities won, but some of the images survive, like this one:
PJ has a great passion for this war from his grandfather who fought in it and has his own amazing large collection of memoriabilia which he used for a lot of the colour matching (he also has his own replica collection of WW1 fighter planes that he uses some of his previos LotR craftsmen to build).
I would have loved to see this on a big cinema screen (it still looked fantastic on a large TV) as it changed from the half screen B&W original footage into near HD full screen colour as the troops hit France, that must have been jaw-dropping for the audience.
Great comments, guys. The only laugh I had was when Jackson mentions in the documentary how he has an actual piece of WWI artillery, “as you do” he says, lol
MC, yeah he used lip readers for most of the voice over that was added. There is one part where a leader is giving a pep talk to a bunch of men in a town, probably right before front line deployment. Lip readers couldn’t make out what he was saying so Jackson did a ton of research on that date and actually found the speech the guy was reading. He then tried reading it to the footage to see if it lined up with the lips and it did. Brilliant dedication.
Yeah, they used historical books on the uniforms to know how to colour them. I used to use books like that to paint miniatures back in junior high.
Glad others have seen this great movie!
If anyone is a fan of military history, I can also recommend a trip to the National WWI Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. It was the model for the National WWII Museum here in New Orleans, LA.
I can also recommend a free podcast on the Great War by Dan Carlin called "Blue Print for Armageddon."
I have ancestor U.S. Army "Doughboys" who fought in the Great War. In my collection, I have a WWI P17 Enfield Rife and Bayonet (longer than long), which is a surprisingly heavy rifle, but, with a very effective and unique long-range ladder sight with a close range volley fire battle mode too.
Just a terrifically moving film.
I admit that it is a technological triumph in that the restored and colorized footage is remarkable. I think that the wonder of that soon wears off. Living, as we do, in the age of HD everything, it is the normal state for things to look great on film. It is only by contrasting the footage that he started with can we appreciate what has been done. This, I think, is the point of starting the movie in rough black and white "unrestored" mode.
The way he's added sound and voice to the silent film was also exceptional. There is nothing new in adding bullet, machine gun, and explosion sounds to documentaries where the footage is all silent but the process by which he voiced over those speaking on film using their actual words, or as close to it as he could get, was really great.
So, after the wonder wears off what do we have left. A film with voice overs taken from recordings of actual WW1 Veterans. This is good and bad. Good in that they are authentic but bad in that they were recorded many years removed from the actual experience. These were old men recalling their youth. Memory is a tricky thing and the human mind has a tendency to let bad memories fade and be forgotten while only remembering the good things. So we get testimonies like "We were all school boys on a lark." Now this may be how the man looks back on it but I'm willing to bet if you had recorded him in 1917 he would have had a very different perspective. Also, we have to keep in mind that the testimonies are, of course, only from those who lived long years after the end of the war. Those who died during the conflict or spent years of pain and despair after before dying are not and never will be heard.
Also, if I am being honest, much of those testimonials were droning and banal. There were long boring stretches.
The biggest lack, though, was the absence of any real narrative. There wasn't any real story. It didn't tell much about the how and why and where of the war. I didn't learn anything and I wasn't drawn in.
I know his goal was to humanize the participants and maybe he did accomplish that but as I've studied, read, and watched a great number things about this war I never really saw the participants as anything but human.
My recommendation then, if you have not seen it, is to wait for it to hit the streaming services and watch it for it's technological brilliance. If you want to learn about the war, go read the Guns of August.
repoman wrote: So, after the wonder wears off what do we have left. A film with voice overs taken from recordings of actual WW1 Veterans. This is good and bad. Good in that they are authentic but bad in that they were recorded many years removed from the actual experience. These were old men recalling their youth. Memory is a tricky thing and the human mind has a tendency to let bad memories fade and be forgotten while only remembering the good things. So we get testimonies like "We were all school boys on a lark." Now this may be how the man looks back on it but I'm willing to bet if you had recorded him in 1917 he would have had a very different perspective. Also, we have to keep in mind that the testimonies are, of course, only from those who lived long years after the end of the war. Those who died during the conflict or spent years of pain and despair after before dying are not and never will be heard.
Plenty of contemporary primary source material to back up some of those perspectives though.
Even after the fact primary sources are susceptible to that sunny view. Look at the dimming memory of actual world war II; read Rick Atkinson's liberation trilogy and compare it to how veterans talk/talked about the war for years afterwards. Morale was at times dire, especially early in the war, and commanders frequently extremely incompetent all throughout.
I haven't seen the thing yet, so I can't comment on the quote I guess, about the school trip. At a guess, it sounds like the kind of thing that they used to say about joining up and heading over. In that first period. patriotic fervour was pretty strong. Young guys all joined up together out of duty but also for fun (check Kitchener's Pals).
The Somme kicked that in the pants for the most part. But I'm not just talking about their enthusiasm on the way there - or after it was all over. I've read diary entries/letters of guys speaking positively about it all - in the trenches. Excitement, patriotism, this ain't half bad sort of thing.
I totally agree that you need to be careful about people reminiscing about the past many years later. I was just saying, I've read sources from the trenches that echo that idea - of it being an adventure. Usually early days. But still.
And like I said in my initial post - yeah, this isn't some historically sound piece of information - but I don't think that's the intention. Jackson, from my understanding, made the choice to use those interviews with the veterans because he didn't want to go down the path of having actors voice letters and diaries the way every doco ever has - he wanted to give the film the emotional resonance - these people were real, etc etc. I agree with repo - personally I don't need that, I get it already - but for others, that's powerful.
Now here's a thought. Maybe he could have mucked with the audio to make them sound less old.
Or used their voices to get them to say things that they said in diaries/letters at the time.
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