They Shall Not Grow Old – Reflections on the Film

Yesterday morning Alex and I went on a cheeky ‘date’ to go and see They Shall Not Grow Old. For those not in the loop, They Shall Not Grow Old is a 100 minute film made up of IWM archival footage from the First World War, as well as oral history interviews with veterans. ‘Directed’ by Peter Jackson, the majority of the footage has been restored and colourised, “bringing to life World War I on the big screen like never before”. By colourising the footage, the audience as able to see the war “as the men saw it”. According the the film blurb:

Using only the voices of those involved, the film explores the reality of war on the front line: their attitudes to the conflict; how they ate, rested and formed friendships in those moments between battles; as well as their hopes and dreams for the future. Each frame of the film has been hand-colourised by Jackson’s team, transformed with modern post-production techniques, enabling these soldiers to walk and talk among us. Reaching into the mists of time, Jackson has aimed to give these men voices, investigate the hopes and fears of these veterans that survived and were able to tell their stories, and detail the humility and humanity of those who represented a generation forever changed by the destruction of a global war.

Although not directly relevant to my research (the film deals with British soldiers and experiences, rather than those of the Anzacs), I obviously wanted to go and see what Peter Jackson had achieved. Not only was I interested in the colourisation (which can sometimes look a bit shoddy), but I wanted to see what narrative of the First World War the film would tell. Obviously. Because in case you haven’t noticed, narratives are my jam.

I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised. Of course there were a few issues. The footage is primarily Anglo-centric, as are the oral histories used. The timeline of the narrative didn’t always match up to the date of the footage used. But on the whole, it was successful in achieving what it aimed to do, and definitely exceeded my expectations.

The narrative spun by the veterans and the footage was a remarkably balanced one (particularly for a project produced as part of the centenary funded by the IWM). It presented the lived experiences of a select group of soldiers – the positives and the negatives. It didn’t present war as a rollicking fun adventure (something some narratives tend to do), but it also didn’t present the entire experience of war as a nightmare. It was interesting to hear veterans recall the moments of fun and humour they had behind the front lines, supported by footage of men laughing and joking around, and then juxtaposed with recollections of the horror of battle and day-to-day life on the front line, complete with colourised footage of decaying bodies and wounded men. Moments were incredibly confronting, both because of the unavoidable violence and horror, but also because of the way some men discussed their experiences of joking around or gaining a rush of endorphins from killing German soldiers. But there were stories that made me chuckle along with the veteran telling them, told to a backdrop of laughter and messing around. I was also really interested that they chose to include realities of the returned soldiers’ life, including unemployment and isolation from the communities they had once been a part of. It’s a part of the FWW narrative that is SO important, but is often brushed aside in favour of images of returned servicemen marching and couples kissing on the streets.

It’s really easy as a historian to hope that every film, book, TV show, etc. etc. etc. that comes out is going to tick all of my boxes. Diversity of experiences showed, voices used, narratives explored? Explicit mention of non-white soldiers and their role in the conflicts? A balance between ‘war is hell’ and ‘for some men it gave them purpose’? But the reality is that a lot of things cannot reach that bar. Given the footage and oral histories available to Jackson, the focus of the project, and the funding of the IWM, I was satisfied with what they were able to achieve. Would I have liked more than a few moments of footage of non-white soldiers? Of course. But that wasn’t the story this film was telling. I suppose you can then raise the question of ‘do we need yet another story of the British boys who went to war?’. But in this case, I think the project has undoubtable merit. The colourisation and modernisation of grainy, jumpy black and white footage, as well as its screening in cinemas around the world, makes stories and footage of the First World War far more accessible than it traditionally is. People often find it easier to connect with colourised footage. Colour also makes the realities of war (such as death, decay, and injury) harder to brush over – particularly when you also have the ability to zoom in on injuries. When the footage was first aired back in the 1910s and 1920s, people fainted in the cinemas because it was the first time most people had seen corpses. Now, dead bodies in film and TV are run of the mill, but something about seeing the decay bodies in colour makes them far more confronting.

So what’s the point of this ramble? If you have an interest in the First World War, go and see They Shall Not Grow Old. Is it perfect? No. Is it still worth a watch? Definitely.


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