19 Nov 2018
Go see: They Shall Not Grow Old
Through painstaking restoration, Peter Jackson’s extraordinary film brings the experience of the First World War to life. It’s a masterpiece, says Paul Cardwell.
"Art is the lie that tells the truth."
We all know the quote, but if you want to know what it really means, stay in and watch They Shall Not Grow Old.
The Imperial War Museum and the BBC wanted to use their archives to commemorate the War To End All Wars on this, the centenary year of the Armistice. Some inspired person had the idea of asking Peter Jackson to look at the footage. (If that person shows up for an interview, hire them. Better still, send them round to me.)
Jackson was not the obvious choice. A masterful film-maker, his talent is in storytelling. But this is not a story: this is the truth.
He restored the footage. It’s an extraordinary technical feat. The originals were shot at ten frames per second, mostly hand-cranked so the framecount is approximate. The result is Chaplin-esque jerky movement. Digital technology allowed Jackson to generate the intermediate frames, so the finished film runs at twenty-four frames a second and the motion is smooth and seamless. He then colourised every single frame, bringing the antique black and white images to life.
Sound was another problem: there wasn’t any. His solution was extraordinary. He assembled a team of forensic lip-readers, who usually work for law enforcement, and got them to reassemble what was being said on the film. Actors then recreated the voices. But to cast the actors he studied the badges on the men’s uniforms to identify the regiments and then cast voices from the same regions, knowing that regional, and class, differences would be much more pronounced then than now.
He augmented this with recordings from the BBC’s 1960s series The Great War, finding master tapes of veterans that have never been broadcast. There are no historians or commentators, just the men who took part. “This is not a film about war. It’s a film about the experience of the men who were there.”
What makes this a real work of art is the integrity of the process. Jackson pulls no tricks. Time and again he starts with the raw footage then transitions through to his augmented version. We see what he did, and we understand why he did it. From being distant, antique figures, the men come vibrantly to life. You feel their presence, even as he shows you how he’s doing it. The lie that reveals the truth.
And what a truth it is. Jackson’s technique is impressive, but it is his editorial voice that really makes this film an outstanding historical document.
We peer back at the Great War through a fog created by generations of indignant judgement. Jackson, gently and persuasively, blows it all aside.
We may have thought that these were innocent souls, fed into a murderous meat-grinder by callous and indifferent leaders. Not so. Most of them were eager to go. Some say – and this froze me – “If they called again, I’d go again.”
We are horrified at the conditions of the trenches. None of us would last a fortnight: the dirt and disease would kill us, without a shot being fired. But for the men who went it was often not much worse than what they were used to. Miners and factory workers, from the industrial north. “When the guns weren’t firing, it were peaceful. Quiet.”
Plain-speaking men, they knew how to put a punch into a sentence. “The rats weren’t like back home. They were fat. We knew how they got fat, too.”
For Jackson, this film was a huge challenge. It’s personal, his grandfather was there. He would have to use all of his craft and his skills to recreate these stories, but at the same time he has to stay completely true to the experiences of a generation he respects and people he loves.
Art looks easy when it’s good. It feels like one big, bold statement. It never is. It’s meticulously assembled from hundreds and hundreds of small choices. Each brushstroke is a decision.
Every day, Jackson had to make hundreds such decisions and yet, somehow, stay true to the veracity of this huge project.
It is the integrity of his decisions, and the clarity of his judgement, that make this a masterpiece. It is a work of history. And a work of art.
I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more.
They Shall Not Grow Old was co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s official arts programme for the First World War centenary, and the Imperial War Museums in association with the BBC. It was produced by WingNut Films and currently has a limited cinematic release in the UK. It was also screened in secondary schools in the UK. A ‘making-of’ documentary, part of the BBC’s What Do Artists Do All Day? series – is available on the BBC iPlayer.
First published in Creative Review.