Friday, May 10, 2019

Movie Review: They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old **** / *****
Directed by: Peter Jackson.
Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old is an odd experience. What he was done is taken old footage from WWI, and using modern remastering techniques, have cleaned up the images so they look pristine. At first, the footage is small and boxier – and in black and white. But when the fighting starts, the footage switches to color> it’s not perfect color, but it is a heck of a lot of better than colorized old movies, and the color is key to what Jackson is doing here. The soundtrack of the movie is made up of a lot of voices of British soldiers who foot in the war, and describe their experiences. Jackson wants to give a trench’s eye view of the War – but also make it feel fresh and vibrant – not like an old movie soon in history class. He succeeds.
In many ways, WWI is the lesser known older brother of WWII. While everyone can tell you about that war, WWI doesn’t quite hold the same place in our collective memory – probably at least in part because there isn’t as much footage of it, and it hasn’t been as memorialized as WWII – and its veterans – became over the decades. Jackson’s film seeks to change that – at least in a way. There is not real talk in the movie about the politics that lead to the war – if you don’t know why it started when you walk in, you won’t know why when you walk out. As the voices in the film make clear, they didn’t really know why they were fighting either. They were determined to go and – and kill the Germans if they must – but they almost didn’t hold it against them. Some share good memories of the Germans they did meet during the war, if they didn’t have to kill each other when they did.
Jackson builds the narrative slowly here – first how all the young men volunteered and went off to war, and then what life was like in the trenches. It was dirty and disgusting – filled with disease and rats. They had little food, and spent all their time buried in the muck – some of it mud, some it other things. You were constantly on guard because you didn’t know when artillery would start raining down on you – or when the gas would come. Eventually, Jackson will get to the battles themselves – and the pure hell that it was – bodies piling up, corpses all around you, the wounded everywhere. It is pure chaos.
The color in the film is key, I think, because it doesn’t allow you the same distance that old black and white footage does. When WWI is thought about, it’s of a grim slog, dark greys, and the misery of the mud. That’s true, but as They Shall Not Grow Old makes clear, it was still a world filled with color – the men, were mostly boys. The film shows them smiling and laughing. It will also show the darker moments. Coupled with hearing their voices, it becomes impossible to write them off to history.
The main purpose of They Shall Not Grow Old is to pay tribute to these men who fought – and in many cases – died. The film makes it clear what it thinks of this war – and most wars – and the catastrophic human toll it takes on those who fight, for purposes that are not always clear. It is a stirring tribute to those men – and a reminder of the horrors of war. Jackson is an interesting filmmaker, and here, he has done something truly special.

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