They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

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This is the end. Ninety nine reviews down and just this one to go for the century. It’s been a great journey through the ups and downs of one hundred years of Great War Films. I’ve struggled through the likes of Deathwatch, The Red Baron and Flyboys, but then I’ve also seen the classics, Lawrence of Arabia, The African Queen and Paths of Glory to name just a few. I’ve discovered a few beauties that I will hold close to my heart until the day I die. Films like J’Accuse, King and Country, A Very Long Engagement and The Lost Patrol. And I’ve been quoted in the Bluray booklet of a Great War Film re-release, helped crowdfund the DVD release of another, come into contact with film-makers and historians, a stunt pilot and podcasters. All because of this little niche project of mine.

I’ve reviewed a decent cross section of Great War Films over the past four years and if I’m honest I don’t have many more in my back pocket. So I’ve decided this is going to be it. I’ll finish this one hundredth review and I’ll call it quits….I might do a bit of editing and vanity publish a book as a final act of personal commemoration. One copy for me, one for my mum and then I’ll send the website on its’ merry way. Now I just needed a shit hot film to bring it all to a climax. And up until a few short weeks ago I’d still not hatched much of a plan for that.

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And then dear old Peter Jackson popped his massive bearded head up above the parapet and told the world about ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’. For those scant few of you who don’t know, ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ is a documentary about the Great War, with a specific focus on the Western Front. With first-hand accounts of the conflict largely taken from the BBC recordings of veterans of the war for their 1964 documentary series ‘The Great War’ (which is amazingly detailed in 26 parts) the narrative has a very personal feel. The stories follow the interviewees from recruitment and training, through mobilisation, the trenches, going over the top, injuries, death, destruction and eventually on to the Armistice and back home to Blighty.

Since its cinema release in the UK a few weeks back I’ve read some reviews where people complained about the lack of a wider scope on the conflict. If this film was called something like ‘The Complete and Un-abridged Final and Absolute History of The Great War’ then I might feel like they have a point. But it isn’t. It’s just a documentary about the conflict, a bit of the conflict, a very interesting bit of the conflict that has some mass appeal. So the focus is clearly on the Western Front with a particularly Anglo-centric view on things. It’s all about life in those trenches. But the details, the actual theatres of war and indeed the battles themselves are not mentioned by name, they don’t matter. The narrative structure is such that we get the details about what life was like in the trenches across any given length of a trench, in any given sector, by any given company. It’s an Everyman story.

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From a technical standpoint Jackson and his Weta Workshop buddies have given this film the absolute beans. They’ve taken original wartime footage, cleaned it up and padded it out, adding computer generated frames to make it run at a smooth 24 frames per second. This would’ve been enough on its’ own but they’ve then colourised it, added foley sound, got lip readers to interpret the silently mouthed words being spoken and then got actors with accents matching those of the units to overdub the speech. The result is mesmerising. What a thing of beauty it is.

But it’s not perfect. It’s like we need another ten years or so of CGI computing evolution before this kind of restoration will be totally seamless. The addition of the missing frames causes some very odd morphing of the images. When the colourised footage kicked in about twenty minutes into the film I initially stared in wonder at the vibrancy and clarity on screen. But as the film went on and I got used to the colour I found the morphing effect of the additional frames caused the footage to look faker than it actually was. But even so, what I viewed today, along with the dubbed speech of the soldiers was an amazing thing to behold.

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I recognised most of the voices from either the aforementioned BBC series “The Great War’ or from the Imperial War Museums’ ‘Voices of the First World War’ podcasts. Both of which I heartily recommend. But there were also new voices and new stories I’d not heard before which gave me new insights into life in the trenches. But for the most part, as an armchair Great War enthusiast I didn’t have my socks blown off with any new or ground-breaking information. We had a pretty much standard narrative that helped move the thing along. And it chilled you to the marrow and make you smile in all the right places.

So, just like pretty much anything else coming out of the Peter Jackson stable, it’s well worth the watch. If you know a bit about the conflict don’t expect to be blown away by the narrative, but the restoration work, colourisation and added sound make for a real spectacle. It’s a shame the technology wasn’t a few years further ahead to clear up the morphing issues but that is really a small complaint when some of the other clips took my breath away with their clarity and vibrancy. It’s a good watch and if you’ve not yet I urge you to see it.

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This bit of footage sent a shiver down my spine. It’s just like the ending of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1930)

So that’s it. I’d like to thank you, dear reader, for taking the time to read my rambling, narcissistic and idiosyncratic reviews. It’s been fun and I’ve learned a lot of stuff about a lot of things. The reason I started doing this was because I had an interest in both the Great War and classic movies, combining the two interests together has created something for me that is much more than the sum of its’ parts. These films are something special and quite different to other war movies. They are mostly anti-war and anti-establishment in sentiment, with sad endings and a jaundiced view of the future. Some are cutting satires, some are screams in the face of humanity. They are exactly what art should be. A mirror held up to us all to help us question our lives, our decisions and our motives. With an eye on the past we can better view the future.

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