Inside Story

Suspended between life and death

Peter Jackson’s vivid account of the Great War is also a tribute to the art of the cinema

Richard Johnstone 16 November 2018 2298 words

Breathtaking: a colourised scene from They Shall Not Grow Old.

They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s evocation of the first world war, and specifically of the experience of serving on the Western Front, combines visual and audio archive material into a startlingly immediate and affecting tribute to the men who fought. The film has taken four years to make — the same length of time, as Jackson has observed, as the war itself — and has been released to help mark the end of the fighting one hundred years ago this month. It revives historical footage and sound recordings for an audience accustomed to the high standards of contemporary image-making and sound design, using sophisticated contemporary techniques to create as natural a look and sound as possible. Most noticeably, the characteristic jerkiness of early film has been smoothed out, and the monochrome world with which we are familiar has been colourised.

Colourisation has been around for a long time and has had a chequered history, from the kind of hand-tinting first attempted at the end of the nineteenth century to the strange effect of coloured filters applied to silent film — suddenly turning the screen from black-and-white to a vertigo-inducing red or blue — and the lame colourisation of black-and-white classics in the first days of VHS, which gave Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, among others, a disconcertingly vampiric look. Those fads didn’t last; and notwithstanding the success with audiences of They Shall Not Grow Old, it is unlikely that a new enthusiasm for colourisation will take off, not least because of the height of the bar. These days our expectations of what constitutes “living” colour are far more demanding than they were in the 1890s or 1920s or 1980s.

Leaving aside the question of whether the process, however sophisticated, can ever be entirely convincing, there is no doubt that the colourised footage in They Shall Not Grow Old has had a tremendous impact on those who have seen it. The point in the film at which old black-and-white footage morphs into colour and the image simultaneously expands to fill the entire screen, a point that comes about twenty minutes in, does rather take the breath away, even on repeated viewings. When, towards the end of the film, the process happens in reverse, and we are taken back to the smaller, black-and-white world, it feels as if the reanimated soldiers are once again moving away from us, back into history.

The long central section of the film, much of it in newly applied colour and focusing on the front itself, is thus bookended by a more old-fashioned-looking, historical-feeling introduction and conclusion, covering the war’s build-up and aftermath. These beginning and concluding sections are carefully counterbalanced, the latter taking up and repeating themes, and sometimes reusing footage, from the former.

The common humanity and fellow feeling of the British and German troops, for instance, is highlighted at both the beginning and the end of the film. A voice recalls being at a dinner following a game of football with an opposing team from Germany when they received word that war has been declared. By common consent, the two teams agreed not to spoil things but to continue with their evening’s enjoyment. “As far as we were concerned, the war was going to start tomorrow.” Towards the end of the film, when the Germans are surrendering in numbers and peace is in sight, we see soldiers from the opposing sides laughing and trading helmets, posing for the cameras.

They Shall Not Grow Old makes inventive use of audio archives too, stitching together extracts from interviews with survivors, recorded some half a century later, to form what is in effect a commentary on and elucidation of what we see unfolding on screen. The film’s sound design seems to have been influenced by the phenomenon of podcasting and its emphasis on the natural-sounding, apparently untutored voice. Interestingly, some of these interviews were also recorded on film, but we hear only the voices. Moreover, these voices remain unattributed, at least until the final credits, and even then we are unable to link a particular name with a particular voice.

Instead we are encouraged to hear the voices as a collective interpretation of the war, more than as a series of individual comments and recollections. The archival sources — footage and still images from the time, together with the later audio material, some of it recorded for the BBC’s influential series The Great War (1964) — have been meshed with remarkable delicacy and sensitivity, to complement and illuminate one another. Jackson has been quite explicit in interviews about his intention. “I didn’t want individual stories about individuals. I wanted it to be what it ended up being: 120 men telling a single story.” (For those interested in hearing more, all fifty-six episodes of the BBC’s compelling radio series, the recently broadcast Voices of the First World War, drawn from the BBC’s own archives and those of the Imperial War Museum, are available as a podcast.)

Occasionally, when forensic lip-readers have been deployed to determine what silently moving lips are actually saying, the voices of actors have been dubbed in, lending the smoothed out, colourised footage a greater and even eerier immediacy. The voices illuminate the images, and the images illustrate what the voices are describing, whether it be food or latrines or what it was like to be gassed.

Remarkably, though, Jackson manages this process while never allowing us to make simple connections between the voices we hear and the faces we see. Apart from the use of superimposed background noise — explosions, indistinct chatter, a laugh — and those few instances where we can see that the person on screen is actually speaking and that what he is saying has been cleverly dubbed in, apart from those we remain clear in our minds that the voice does not belong to the face. It is a universal experience that is being recreated, by implication of other wars as well as of this one.

“It was a different war from year to year,” says one of the first voices we hear, and the film follows that cue, the tone growing progressively darker as more and more men are wounded and killed. In that sense, it is a conventional narrative of the war, conforming to the modern understanding of its progress that we have derived from numerous other sources. Yet it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that all these young men, who are made so alive with the help of technical wizardry, were shortly to die in battle, even as we know that this cannot be true, given that we are hearing the voices of some of their comrades as recorded half a century later.

The names of these comrades are likely to be recognised now only by their descendants, if indeed they are remembered at all by anyone still alive. Occasionally, though, a name among the final credits strikes a chord: Australians of a certain age, with very retentive memories, may just about recognise the credit to the splendidly named Captain Frank Officer, later Sir Frank, who served with the Australian Imperial Force and went on to crown a distinguished career of public service as Australia’s ambassador to China and then to France. In other words, for those who survived, life went on, and often it was a very successful life, by all external measures at least. Even so, the experience of the war was always there in the background, corralled from the trajectory of ordinary life, difficult to talk about and impossible to forget.

Recent years have seen a huge revival of interest in the documentary form. While it remains unusual for a documentary to go mainstream — in the sense of enjoying wide cinematic release and high box-office returns — there are everywhere signs of its renaissance, not only in dedicated streaming sites and film festivals but also in the active participation of big names like Netflix and HBO in funding new work in this earliest of cinematic genres. If we stretch a point and include reality television, the phenomenon is even more noticeable.

This is happening alongside another sea change, the full significance of which is still barely discernible, namely that we are increasingly inclined to distrust performance in favour of an elusive authenticity (itself a kind of performance, but that’s another story). To say, for instance, as a few loudly do, that a particular character should be played only by an actor who can lay claim to a matching background and experience of life seems to contradict our most basic understanding of what it means to perform a role. But it is also a sign that we are in the midst of a complicated process of reassessing the dominance of performance in our culture.

How “real” then are these colourised Tommies, and how far have they been reformatted as actors? Purists will argue, and are already arguing, that They Shall Not Grow Old is not a documentary at all, but a fictionalised version of the front line, deploying the wonders of contemporary technology to compromise the integrity of the archive, by reanimating and colourising and smoothing out, and also by zeroing in on faces, returning to some of them again and again, and in the process giving them starring roles.

You can see their point. Some faces do stand out, and the camera accordingly and lovingly notices. In many cases its attention seems to be caught by teeth, and more than one commentator has been struck by the images of soldiers smiling for the cameras, revealing the appalling state of their mouths — teeth missing, blackened, almost theatrically misaligned, and thus markedly out of step with our current, obsessive quest for dental perfection.

It is a risky business, venturing into history. As many have noted, some in passing and some in a huff, the film’s title is almost but not quite the first line of the fourth stanza of Laurence Binyon’s famous poem, “For the Fallen,” which reads in the original “they shall grow not old.” In rendering the line as the more vernacular and more modern “they shall not grow old,” the film-makers are perhaps doing nothing more than reflecting the way in which most of us are inclined to retain that culturally iconic line in our heads. To use the original and self-consciously poetical word order for the title of the film would have sounded a jarring, artificial note in a project that sets out to reveal the essential ordinariness, and the extraordinary ordeal, of the men who served.

But amending the original line was the right call for other reasons too. The full text of Binyon’s poem, seven stanzas long, now reads as turgid in the extreme. “Death august and royal/ Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres” gives the general flavour. Only the lines from which the film’s title is very nearly taken retain the power to move: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:/ Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.”

Crucially, the poem was written and published in 1914, only a few weeks after the outbreak of the war. The seeds of doubt had not yet been sown; belief in the justness of the cause and the value of sacrifice were very much in the ascendancy. It is the mood that is captured in the introductory section of Jackson’s film, the twenty minutes of largely monochrome, mostly small-screen sequences, some bucolic — sheep in a field, young girls dancing round a maypole — most detailing the process of recruitment, the enthusiastic rush to join up. We had to go, the voice-overs tell us.

Binyon’s lines are in tune with the time in which they were written. The men will grow not old, but they will grow in other ways, despite but also because of their deaths in battle. They will continue to acquire stature and significance. It is the ones who are left behind who are condemned to a slow and unremarked decline, rendering the fallen almost to be envied. To a twenty-first-century reader, this is likely to seem perverse, glamorising the real tragedy, namely that these men were not given the chance to live out their lives in peace.

In that sense, the film’s revisionist title is more in accord with the mood of the closing minutes of the film, when it reverts once more to black-and-white and to the small- screen format, as the war becomes the past and the survivors return from the front to a world that would prefer to forget what they went through, and move on. Indeed, one of the cruellest effects for survivors was how the war permanently divided participants from those who had remained behind. Fellow soldiers understood; non-combatants didn’t and never would.

They Shall Not Grow Old is, among other things, a celebration of the backroom arts of cinema, of the work of editors, sound technicians, compositors, matte painters and voice artists, restorers and researchers, all of them masterfully orchestrated by Jackson. Whether this elaborate and passionate exercise in restoration and modernisation brings us closer to the people and the time, closer to understanding what they went though, is infinitely arguable. It may be an indelible feature of war that to understand the sheer intensity of what it was like you really had to be there.

Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich shows this to be a phenomenon common to all armed conflicts in her haunting collection of interviews with veterans of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and their loved ones, Boys in Zinc (1989), a book that in many ways foreshadows Jackson’s technique. “We were suspended between life and death,” says one of her informants. “Is there anything stronger than that feeling?” •