They Shall Not Grow Old – the sounds and sights of war, compellingly portrayed

In this film producer/director Peter Jackson stirs you and unsettles you, as he probably intends to do. Depending on your family history, and your political views, you may well feel a mixture of pride and revulsion. Jackson takes original footage and recorded interviews, adds colour and sound, and puts you in the training grounds and trenches of the First World War.

The work involved in this enterprise must have been painstaking. The level of detail is quite phenomenal, and for me the sound makes a bigger impact than the colour, especially the subtle touches. You’d expect the thunder of artillery cannon fire, but would you expect to hear the sound of falling roof tiles from an adjacent house, shaken loose by the boom of the cannon?

The real surprise in the use of sound comes when we start to hear the chit chat among the soldiers. Jackson and his team have dubbed conversation into the soundtrack, imagining the banter of the enlisted men. I wasn’t expecting this and it is a quite startling effect. Not that the content is anything unexpected, but the simple use of it takes you back as an observer, as if you yourself were the person filming the soldiers, and they were reacting to you.

Is this a good thing, and does it in some way corrupt the idea of this being a documentary? I’ve seen an opinion piece in a British newspaper raising this question. The conversations we hear among the soldiers are obviously fictional, but they are in context, and given that we are hearing the voices of soldiers interviews throughout the film, the added background conversations I argue reinforce the messages of the participants and are justified.

Another issue about the sound which struck me, but not until later, was what Jackson omitted. We see and hear all manner of guns, and we see dead bodies, many horribly disfigured by bullets, shells and other flying metal.  We hear soldiers describe the awful business of going over the top of the trenches to confront machine gun fire. Their mates are dropping, dead or wounded, all around them. But what Jackson does not do is try to replicate the sounds of anguish from the men on the battlefield. We don’t hear cries of agony, of those in excruciating pain. In this Jackson affords the soldiers a measure of dignity and respect.

The arc of the film follows the war itself: from conflict being declared, to the rush of blood of young men eager to join up (and encouraged to do so by many at home), their training, their despatch to the frontline, the misery and the humour of life in the trenches, the battles, the end of the war and the reception the soldiers receive at home.

Much of this story has been covered in modern times as New Zealanders each year commemorate Anzac Day.  We’ll all take different messages from the film. I’d heard about the way combatants could put aside hostility at Christmas time for example, but it was illuminating to hear and see how the two sides got along in a friendly and respectful way when the Germans became prisoners of war.

And the tendency for former soldiers not to talk about their wartime experiences is also well recorded. Here, we also find out that civilian folk often didn’t know how to treat the returned servicemen. To the soldiers, some at home seemed disinterested. The soldiers felt ignored. And this was a war which at the outset Britain enthusiastically joined. It puts into perspective what soldiers who served in unpopular wars like Vietnam or Iraq might have gone through on their return home.

In the end They Shall Not Grow Old is not an attempt to argue broader themes, but rather it is about the men who served. By giving us a great deal of detail, visual and aural, Peter Jackson goes further than before in allowing us into this world. And he gives us plenty of time to absorb the faces of the men who there. Some smiling, some looking haunted, most with missing or blackened teeth. Jackson doesn’t need to construct a grand anti-war theme. He honours the men who served (the film is dedicated to Jackson’s grandfather), and allows the circumstances of their plight to say all that needs saying about the futility of their mission.

They Shall Not Grow Old is grim, but also at times funny, and it is above all compelling. Highly recommended.

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