I’ve come to this one rather late in the day, partly because of other commitments and partly because I really wanted to wait until I had the opportunity to see it on a cinema screen. I’m glad I waited.
Peter Jackson’s First World War documentary is, of course, a considerable technical achievement, featuring state-of-the-art colourisation processes – but it’s also a powerful evocation of a brutal military campaign. Using archive footage from the Imperial War Museum (much of it getting its first public airing here), They Shall Not Grow Old is primarily the chronological story of the British ‘Tommy,’ following his tortuous path from enlistment to armistice.
Jackson cannily holds back the film’s trump card for a good twenty minutes or so. The images we are first presented with are in a square framed ratio, those speeded-up monochrome visions that we’re already familiar with, the kind that somehow contrive to demote the Great War to the level of a Charlie Chaplin comedy routine. We watch as ranks of new recruits skitter haphazardly across the screen, marching as though auditioning for Mack Sennett. We see countless numbers of young men answering the call of duty, doing their basic training, boarding troop ships to cross the channel, and still Jackson holds back.
And then there’s a spellbinding change when battalions of troops arrive at the Western Front to prepare for the upcoming conflict. Quite without warning, the pace suddenly slows, the screen floods with naturalistic colour and we hear the sounds of mobilisation – the relentless trudge of boots through mud, the rumble of engines, the whinnying of horses – and off in the distance, the forbidding rumble of explosions, the nagging rattle of gunfire. It’s a chilling transition, one that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention. Quite suddenly, one hundred years of history have evaporated in the blink of an eye and I realise I am looking at real people, many of them just teenagers, who turn their mournful, apprehensive faces to the camera as they stumble by, knowing they are almost certainly going to their deaths.
It’s the film’s most unforgettable moment.
Which is not to denigrate the rest of it, not at all. I listen to the accounts of real veterans who went through the ordeal and somehow survived; and I’m shown the inevitable consequences of war: the heaps of dismembered, bloated bodies; the shattered buildings; the splintered trees; the twisted hell of No Man’s Land. And through it all these young men continue to grin for the camera, give it a sly wave, mumble a quick ‘Hello Mum,’ as they pass by. I feel humbled by seeing them and by experiencing just a little of what they had to go through.
How does the rest of that famous stanza go? ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we shall remember them.‘
And we do – now. But back then, when those men returned, no one wanted to acknowledge the truth of what they had been through. And I’m still not sure we’ve learned the lessons that would prevent such a horror from ever happening again.