Award winning film director Peter Jackson was tasked way back in 2014 by the Imperial War Museum to create a film to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice. Four years later and I was sat in a cinema, waiting with anticipation, to watch They Shall Not Grow Old – the end result of four years of hard work by Peter and his team.
Throughout the years, countless film producers have been the name behind various film productions based around events of the First World War. Most notably for me would have to be War Horse and as such, many films have depicted battles and weaponry used. Not many however have shown what life was really like for those men in the trenches and how they felt at different points during those poignant few years.
In schools today, we learn a little bit about the First World War, about trench life and the soldiers who fought during that time. Yet in reality, its hard to really understand and relate to such events from fuzzy black and white photographs and film clips or by reading a small extract of a persons experience. I’ve always found, throughout the years, that the best way to understand someones experience is to listen to them and take note of how they say things as well as their body language. You can tell a lot by taking note of this rather than by reading a few sentences in a book.
Sadly of course, as time has gone on, we no longer have any of those soldiers that we can ask about the First World War and so now we have to turn to archive footage instead.
This is exactly how Peter and his team created this film. He has used original archive footage, taken during the First World War and added colour and sound to bring those men to life. They are able to tell their story with their own words and from their own experiences in chronological order, from recruitment to armistice. The results are truly outstanding and something not to be missed. What started as a short documentary in theory, soon turned into a feature-length film.
I first heard about this film a couple of months ago now when I first saw the trailer. It looked just the thing I would be interested in, having run A Wartime Life blog since 2014 and I knew I could also gain a lot of knowledge through it. I must admit though, that with other events taking place in my life, I completely forgot about it until my friend Cris brought the subject up and suggested we went to see it. So here we were, sat in the cinema, waiting for the film to start.
A new experience for me, after the film was to be a Q & A, where I hoped I could
gain even more knowledge about how it was achieved. This was certainly true because I learnt just a little of how much hard work and time the process took. From the 100 or so hours of footage taken, each small clip had to be restored into black and white, where understandably in time they had faded. The clips then needed to be sharpened as well as the speed changed using modern day technology, so that it didn’t look disjointed like some of the old Charlie Chaplin films used to. After fixing the visual of the clips, so that they were clear enough to be used, colour was then added to them to really bring the clips to life.
As well as the visual film, added to this is voice overs, so that you can understand somewhat of what is being said. The voice overs have been done in two ways. The first is with the use of lip readers to establish what was said in a particular clip and subsequently re-recording the speech so that it can be added to the clip. The great thing about this idea was that they also used the voice of somebody from the area in which the regiment in the clip was from. For example, if the clip was a Lancashire regiment, they used somebody with a Lancashire accent. By doing this, it made it so much more relatable when you recognise an accent.
The second way they used voice overs was extremely moving because they used the voice recordings of just some of the soldiers that had been interviewed about their experiences after the war. Although it wasn’t mentioned in the Q & A, I’m presuming these recordings were also restored because they are so crisp and clear, that it feels like you are in the same room as them and that you are being told their story personally.
Although I knew it was a film I was going to enjoy watching, at the same time I wasn’t sure what to expect. The film started off in black and white, which made me think that, despite what I had read, the film would only contain a small clip in colour. However, shortly after this thought crossed my mind, the clips were suddenly all brought to life in colour. The amazing contrast between seeing the Western front in black and white at the beginning, to suddenly being able to see the same again in colour, complete with soldiers in uniform was unbelievable. The first time I heard a soldier talk in one of the clips, I was completely taken back! These were real people, young men, many of them a lot younger than they should have been, with families at home, all on an adventure together.
I’ve read countless accounts from soldiers on the Western Front over the years and one of my favourites to read was that of Harry Patch. Not because he was a local man and so close to my heart, but because of the antics he described him and his mates getting up to. I could picture them having a kick about during their rest time back in a local French town. I never thought I’d see it with my own eyes and that it wasn’t just the odd few that had a laugh and a joke along the way. Instead, during this film, what became apparent to me was how, no matter what they had endured, or how tired they were, they were still always able to have a laugh and a joke around. Peter and his team have really been able to capture that camaraderie within this film and the fact that it’s in colour makes it so much more relatable. I could almost pick out people I knew from the men I saw before me that were so much similar to those men in my own life. I could tell the joker, the serious one, the tired one etc.
Despite the film being about war which, lets face it, it’s never going to be a happy film in a sense, I found myself laughing at some of the tales I heard. One such tale was that of the toilet facilities or lack of them as the case may be. I was in stitches as a voice over described the moment something went wrong and a few soldiers found themselves in the mess! What I didn’t realise until I got home was that the said voice over for that clip was the recording of a man who I, without knowing it, have followed his grandsons journey for the last few years as they rebuild a Bristol Scout, the very plane that the man in the clip flew. (For anybody interested in this project I’ll leave a link here so you can find out more about it)
To round off this review without giving too much away, for me, the most interesting part was the end. I don’t mean when the film finished, instead what I mean is when armistice
began and the moments leading up to it. I’d read stories of how some German soldiers hadn’t got the memo and so had kept shooting, but what I’d never heard before was,
how, near the end, some German soldiers actually helped the British. I witnessed these wonderfully restored clips of firstly German soldiers surrendering as the end of the war drew closer, where they were marched off in groups rather than killed as some might think. I saw wounded British and German soldiers being helped by each other and I saw again the two enemies having a laugh and a joke, swapping hats, sharing food and just generally laying side by side. This is something that is very rarely publicized aside from the Christmas Truce of 1914, which you can read more about here. To me, that was my favourite part of the film, because not only were they helping each other as the war drew to a close, but when armistice was declared, many German and British soldiers heard that news together, as young men who had been fighting a war, and not as enemies who wanted to kill each other.
When I got home, I read the news that They Shall Grow Not Old has been a sell out and that more dates are soon to be added. I would highly recommend, if you get the chance,
to go and see this amazing film for yourself. Even if you are not necessarily into the First World War, the message behind this film really makes you think. Not just about the past, but about the future too and what we can do as a nation, to prevent similar bloodshed in the future. Overall, an amazing film which I can’t wait to watch again. I’d also like to think that more films and documentaries will now be able to show restored clips in colour to bring other historic events to life and that’s all down to Peter Jackson’s vision and his teams hard work.