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Peter Jackson’s World War I Masterpiece

Peter Jackson set out to make a half-hour film about the Western Front in the First World War. What he ended up making is a 140-minute film that has revolutionized the documentary form. They Shall Not Grow Old, released in 25 theaters around the country on February 1, does for movie footage what Ken Burns did for still photography in The Civil War (1990).

Jackson has restored century-old film stock so that the herky-jerky quality of archival footage is gone. The movements and facial expressions of soldiers fighting in France and Belgium from 1914 through 1917 are as crisp, alive, and natural as film images in our own time. The work has an immediacy that is better seen than described, but I’ll try.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a documentary but it has no narrator or talking heads. Instead we hear the voices of some 120 British veterans of the conflict, from interviews that the BBC and the Imperial War Museum recorded in the 1960s and 1970s. The cumulative narration moves rapidly from one voice to the next, creating a kind of collage effect.

As the Lord of the Rings director explains in a supplement at the end of the movie, in early cinema, cameramen cranked the handle of a camera. This produced film speeds from 10 to 16 frames per second. That variation, and the warping over time of the sprockets on the sides of the film, imparts that signature jumpy quality to silent movies. Jackson and his team digitally inserted frames to bring the speed up to today’s 24 frames per second. The camera zooms in on images, which enables the tilts and pans of contemporary filmmaking to be added. Jackson used forensic lip readers to figure out what the people in these films were saying, and actors voice their words. Colorization has been added, but tastefully and with fanatical attention to detail. (Jackson’s crew had the benefit of his personal collection of World War I memorabilia to match the hues of real uniforms from the war.)

In the Trenches and Shell Holes

The Great War is remembered for the horrors of the trenches. Weaponry had advanced, but the way the infantryman fought at Ypres, at the Somme, and at Passchendaele had not kept pace. It was a conflict in which “generals fought machine guns with young men’s chests,” as George F. Will once wrote.

But Jackson, a New Zealander whose grandfather fought in and survived the conflict, did not want his film to carry a particular political or technological point about it, or to present historical or strategic details. Surveying some 100 hours of footage from London’s imperial museum, he realized not only that he couldn’t do the job in 30 minutes, but that he should stick to a simple task: conveying the day-to-day existence of the individual soldier.

We think of the infantrymen of the Great War as living in the trenches. Judging from this film’s personal testimony, they spent a lot of time in shell holes—that is, the craters blasted into the earth by flying artillery shells. The shell holes were only habitable if they were recent, and the only recent ones that were habitable were those that hadn’t yet filled with water. These soldiers (many of whom, on the Allied side as well as the German side, were in their teens) led the life of hoboes. It was hoboism plus mayhem. Those who survived speak of living in the wet and cold, “covered in mud and lice,” but that wasn’t at every moment. The things of ordinary life are here, too, made vivid by the wizardry and painstaking care of Jackson and his team: the flowers on a grassy ridge; a crumbling, red brick wall; a panting dog sitting with a group of resting soldiers.

Hinky Dinky Parlez-Vous

Each interviewee describes only what he saw, what he did. There is little to no overview, and even when important inconsistencies show up, the film presents them unresolved and without comment. One says: “If Jerries came up with their hands up, we just waved ’em on, we didn’t fire on them, obviously.” But the next says: “Prisoners were a nuisance. We would shoot them in the back to get rid of them.” As in every war, there are those who obey the laws of war and those who break them. We just heard from one soldier who obeyed and another who did not.

Recollections of gore and pain fill the movie, and here and there an anecdote tinged with the peculiar humor of war. “There was a little German fellow,” one man recalls. “I gave him a cigarette and he was terrified. And I was very sorry for him, really. He was only about 16, and I just took his pocket watch. It was a normal thing. We used to rob them, you see.”

The camaraderie of the troops amid their deprivation is palpable. Together they gaze self-consciously toward the camera lens at us, never having seen a film camera before. In the sound track, over the closing credits, we hear the cheerfully cynical verses of “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” one of the popular songs of the war. “I didn’t care what came of me, so I went and joined the infantry, hinky dinky parlez vous.”

A number of the men say they enjoyed the experience and would do it again. You hear them express pride in their combat service, and gratitude for small comforts and for the medical officers’ efforts, inadequate as those were. These surprises add to the film’s poignancy. As Jackson puts it, “We’ve made them victims, when they didn’t see themselves as victims. There’s no self-pity.” But there is tragedy—and it only hits us with greater force because there’s so little self-pity.

The documentary includes some of the war’s most well-known images, such as footage of the Lancashire Fusiliers, taken as they waited to launch an attack on the German trenches on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916. The young men sitting in the Sunken Lane gazing at the camera used to seem far from our own experience. But no longer. “Most of those guys were in the last 30 minutes of their life when that film was shot,” says Jackson, and we feel it more acutely than we ever did, because of his efforts.

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