Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’ celebrates the immortality of the WWI soldiers who died in service. “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:/ Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.” The word contemn isn’t used very often – it means “to treat with contempt”. The poem, popularly recited at Remembrance Services, argues that the sacrifice of the fallen will be honoured by the following generations, but also means that they are suspended in the aspic of their youth. While we grow feeble, they retain their strength and vitality.
In a similar spirit, Peter Jackson’s new film, produced in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum and 14-18 Now, seeks to erase the lapsed years between today and the Great War. The soldiers in his film are ostensibly unwearied – living, breathing, talking men in full colour, rather than the silent, black-and-white figures of archive footage. It’s telling that Jackson has taken Binyon’s line and contorted it. The film is called They Shall Not Grow Old – a more digestible, less archaic version of the original, with modern grammar, and arguably less mystery and grandeur. It also seems to have a more literal meaning, pointing to their demise, not their immortal memory.
Jackson’s film draws on two sources. First, footage of the Great War, mostly from the IWM the archives, much of it from famous films such as The Battle of the Somme (1916), which has already been beautifully restored. The second source is audio – the reels and reels of fascinating interviews with Great War veterans taped by the BBC.
The combination of contemporary image and latterday audio isn’t enough to satisfy Jackson’s appetite for modernisation. He’s a fantasy filmmaker for the most part, and it shows in the heavy digital dressing he has provided here. The bulk of this film consists of colourised moving images with sound – archive footage cropped into widescreen but then “boosted” with a number of technological interventions, mattes and dyes to mimic a modern war movie. To the existing images, he has added colour, audio dialogue (taken from lip-readers’ transcripts and voiced by actors), sound effects, 3D rendering and vastly more computer-generated frames.
To give the figures a smoother, more naturalistic movement, Jackson has used software to interpolate new frames between those captured by the silent-era cameras. So now the soldiers move in preternaturally smooth 24fps, and at times they even appear to float. Jackson has a well-recorded mania for frame rates, having shot The Hobbit in an unasked-for 48fps. So he should know better than to claim, as he has done in interviews, that the archive footage he was working with was shot at a barely mobile 10fps. It’s likely more in the region of 15-16fps, which renders very well as long as it isn’t sped up to compensate. Instead, Jackson occasionally slows it right down, transforming what is perhaps intended to be hyper-real into something uncannily unreal. The faces of the men distort at this speed – eyes blur into cheeks and mouths bend in unlikely directions. We are suddenly aware of what we can’t see – as when a close-up of a newspaper photograph reveals that it is composed merely of dots.
Such bizarre and slightly disturbing effects are clearly preferable to the monochrome reality of the existing footage – in the director’s view at least. Having spent much of the advance publicity trail for this film discussing the “the technical limitations of 100-year-old cinema” Jackson’s film re-enacts the transformation from archive film to his enhanced version in the most literal way. In the first section of the film some unrestored footage, grainy, scratched and yes, sped-up, plays out within a small, crinkled-edge frame, accompanied by the clattering sound of a vintage projector. If you’re watching in 3D, as I was, the effect is that these images are set back from the black mask around them – more distant and hard to watch than in any archive screening. It’s a clear sign of contempt for archive footage that has been untouched by Jackson’s team of “restoration artists”. In one especially ugly move, the vintage film is clumsily superimposed on to recruiting posters. It’s notable that that the printed materials Jackson uses – posters, magazine illustrations and Bruce Bairnsfather cartoons – are untouched. I half expected them to spring into life or be stencilled with colour to match the film segments. Some records are allowed to stand intact.
When our boys reach the front, suddenly the frame bursts into widescreen and the colour and sound wash in. It’s a blessed relief to be rid of the projector noise, and to get a closer look at the men’s faces. However, it’s a bizarre sight that greets us, and not just because we lose the top and bottom of each frame. The effect is initially impressive, but that soon wanes. Almost every man has a creamy, peachy skin tone, and the grass in each shot is a warm, yellowy green. The sky is blue. If it weren’t for the daubs of bright red blood, and the bomb craters, this would risk being a unnaturally prettified image of war, with remarkably consistent scenery. These are really incredible images – so homogenising them in this way does them a disservice. It’s not easy either to dispel the thought that all these colours (as well as many of the sounds) are simply guesswork: the colour of hair, blankets, signs and wildflowers having been plucked out of the air.
There is plenty of red here in fact, and plentiful gore. While I recognised many shots (which was made more difficult by them being topped-and-tailed), I am not sure I have every seen so many fly-blown, bloody, disfigured corpses in archive footage – not in one film. One close-up of a pair of feet blackened with gangrene is especially stomach-churning, although it’s noticeable that the archive images don’t come close to the vivid descriptions of exposed entrails and shattered skulls in the voiceover interviews.
The voiceover is the strongest card this film plays. The humanity and humour of the soldiers’ collaged recollections are more moving, and more immediate than the tarted-up pictures. Stories about improvised trench latrines, how to get hold of cigarettes and the tedium and pain of route-marching give way to the terrors of the battle, and then the entente with captured Germans and the anticlimax of the Armistice. There’s no need for pictures to accompany these captivating tales, or at least not all this CGI trickery.
The voice acting is intriguing too. While lip-readers were called in to estimate what the soldiers are saying in the old film, the dialogue carries few surprises – expressions of disgust or annoyance, a funeral service in front of a shallow grave. At one point a soldier in a trench waves at the lens and calls to his pals, “It’s the pictures, mate” – a reminder that there can be no raw, unmediated moving image record of reality, whether silent or sound. The presence of the camera changes what happens around it.
As it stands, the film is a very moving and valuable record of life in the trenches, as ambitious as it is well-meaning. Its focus on the war as it was experienced by the men on the front line, not the politicians and generals directing the action, is vital social history. Certain sequences, such as a powerful evocation of combat in No Man’s Land are especially eye-opening, not to say harrowing. My problem with the film is that the presentation of the archive imagery diminishes its impact, rather than the other way around.
With all this additional visual and auditory information heaped on to the archive images, the project is more like rotoscoping than restoration, which latter word Jackson has often used to describe the film. The soldiers of WWI are here little more than motion-capture figures for Jackson’s team to drape with colour and sound and stereoscopy. An army of Gollums: not wearied by age perhaps, but certainly contemned by technology.
- Review: Journey’s End: a vintage view of WWI.
- Sound Barrier: Dunkirk & The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands
- Read Lawrence Napper’s blogposts on They Shall Not Grow Old, written before seeing the film. The first, and the second.
- Read Lawrence Napper on The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands and other silent films about the First World War.
- Walter Summers at war: ‘The service has got into my blood’
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