The Fellowship of the Tommies
I saw the They Shall Not Grow Old movie. In 2014, a historical association approached Peter Jackson, as Peter Jackson explains to us in a lengthy introduction that features only a a long and unappealing close-up of Peter Jackson’s face, with a project idea. They had 100 hours of World War I footage. They wanted him to make a documentary to mark the war’s centenary, and offered him unlimited creative freedom.
To a filmmaker, the words “unlimited creative freedom” act as catnip, even if that project involves filming a turtle crawling around a zoo. But only the man who filmed the impossibly complex Battle of Helm’s Deep could tackle something as vast as The Great War. The extraordinary documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, now playing in wide release, resulted.
THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Running time: 99 min or 147 min if you listen to Peter Jackson talking about the movie after the movie
They Shall Not Grow Old proves surprisingly involving, given that 50 percent of the footage involves closeups of British tommies, who’ve clearly never heard the word “dentistry,” chomping on cigarettes. Much of the rest of the movie is still shots of their fly- and blood-spattered corpses.
Jackson and his mighty crew of New Zealand wizards took the worn-out footage, originally shot at anywhere between 10 and 17 frames per second, and slowed it down to the modern rate of 24 frames per second. They cleaned it up, removing the ticks and flicks and bobbles. During the first 15 minutes or so a training and recruitment montage takes place in traditional black and white. But as soon as the troops get to Belgium, the screen blooms into stunning color, the most effective such transition since The Wizard Of Oz.
They Shall Not Grow Old doesn’t exactly have the melodramatic force of the best World War I movies, such as All Quiet On The Western Front, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory, or War Horse. But it still effectively gets across the banality of trench warfare, and the quiet indignity and noisy horrors the soldiers had to endure. The soundtrack booms with shouts and deafening explosions. Jackson doesn’t skimp on shots of marauding trench rats, of waist-deep mud, and of gangrenous legs. Soldiers stagger through clouds of mustard gas and walk about with bandages over their eyes.
Suddenly, World War I no longer feels like a visceral abstraction. Explosions burst massively into the air and tanks roll through ditches in ways that fuel dumb young boys’ imaginations of war. Then come shots of severed limbs, blown-apart heads, or guys sitting in a row on a plank and crapping into a ditch. Not so romantic.
Jackson also made the clever choice to use actual narration from WWI veterans, recorded by historical societies before that generation faded into history. There are no letters home read by famous actors, no speeches from politicians. General Blackjack Pershing doesn’t make a cameo, and no one reads “In Flanders Fields” while violin music plays. This lack of Ken Burns-style “Dear Abagail” posturing adds another layer of realism to the footage. The guys who narrate the movie have no idea why the war was fought, never did, and don’t care. It’s a British Band Of Brothers, without D-Day or the Killing Hitler endgame.
There’s no real plot, though the movie does lead up to a massive, effective, and brutal set piece. The troops stage an assault on the German lines during The Battle of the Somme. They die like dogs as the violence envelops them brutally. Then they capture prisoners, eat a tin of biscuits, and head on home. It ends quietly, with dignity. Upper lips stiff, forever changed by the experience, the soldiers carry on.
Note: When I bought my ticket, the theater told me that the movie was 147 minutes long. This time is a little misleading. After a rousing must-hear end-credits chorus of Mademoiselle From Armentieres, Jackson reappears for a 30-minute “making of” documentary. While interesting, I wouldn’t exactly call this compulsory viewing. You shall grow old watching what’s essentially a DVD extra on the big screen. Instead, you could spend that time enjoying a nice cup of tea. I’m sure the soldiers in the movie, who sacrificed so much so we could watch them for our entertainment 100 years later, would do the same. This concludes my review of the They Shall Not Grow Old movie.