You might have thought there was nothing new to say about the First World War, but Peter Jackson’s astonishing and revelatory new feature documentary comes at the subject in a way no previous film, book or play has ever done before. In They Shall Not Grow Old, which is out in cinemas now and airs on BBC2 on Sunday, the Lord of the Rings director uses modern technology (digital restoration, colourisation, 3D) to make archive footage look as pristine as if it was shot on a smartphone only yesterday. From the fiery red of the poppies growing on the battlefield to the paint on the tanks, everything here is in the highest definition. Jackson’s storytelling skill matches his technical wizardry. Using voice recordings from the Imperial War Museum in a lithe and inventive way, he captures all the conflicting emotions expressed in First World War poems and memoirs or seen in movies and plays from “The Battle of the Somme” to Oh! What a Lovely War and Journey’s End.
Jackson eschews voiceover narration. He doesn’t try to give us a top-down history either. There are no experts telling us how Europe sleepwalked into a catastrophe. Instead, Jackson foregrounds the voices of the soldiers, speaking utterly frankly about every aspect of their experiences. This is the war as they saw it. They don’t always react as we expect. “I wouldn’t have missed it,” “I don’t regret having experienced it,” “It made me a man,” “If you survived there, you would survive everything,” are some of the more surprising comments made. That is, before they start talking about the smell of death and decaying corpses, or remember how they urinated in their handkerchiefs if they didn’t have time to put on their gas masks or describe colleagues drowning in the mud and having their brains blown out by snipers.
The footage of young recruits preparing for war is especially poignant. You notice how callow and naive so many of the soldiers seemed. (They lied about their age in order to be allowed to fight.) You can’t help but marvel at the chronic state of their teeth. (The film certainly isn’t any kind of advertisement for British dentistry of the period.)
Jackson includes several cartoons drawn in the trenches by Bruce Bairnsfather, depicting soldiers with walrus moustaches, eating plums and apple jam, or looking stoically British and phlegmatic in the face of extreme deprivation. These quaint pictures hint at the way the soldiers used humour to deflect despair. However, the real-life images Jackson has culled from the archives trump anything Bairnsfather could sketch. The New Zealand director has found photographs of soldiers sitting side by side on planks, reading newspapers or smoking pipes as they defecate into the mud without concern.
Sometimes, the reminiscences have a touch of Blackadder about them. Soldiers take boiling water from the Vickers guns to make themselves cups of tea. Officers who’d been playing rugby against a German team on the day that war is declared have to work out whether or not to attack their opponents. They decide instead to finish their boozy dinner together and postpone hostilities for a few hours.
Jackson and his team have unearthed plenty of footage of the Allies fraternising with the Germans. His witnesses reminisce about how well they got on with the Bavarians and Saxonians (often shop keepers and clerks or youngsters plucked from civilian life like themselves and were simply “stuck in uniform”) but how wary they always were of the murderous Prussians (“cruel bastards”).
The director previously already staged plenty of on-screen battles in his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit fantasy epics, but none match the sheer hellishness of what he recreates here when the Allies go “over the top”. Their new tanks may be able to manoeuvre through the mud, but they don’t transform fortunes in the way commanders had hoped. The men are therefore left to charge across a nightmarish terrain of craters and barbed wire – and as soon as they get anywhere near the enemy, they are mown down by machine gun fire. In case we are not getting the point that the carnage was just “indescribable,” Jackson fills the soundtrack with ear-splitting whistling and bomb blasts.
We hear anecdotes (and see) plentiful evidence of the lice and the rats which made life on the front lines such a hazard to hygiene and health. The colourisation and piercing high-resolution makes the images of gangrene and trench foot seem all the more grotesque.
All the time, the filmmaker also pays attention to the camaraderie of the soldiers and their ability to make the best of any given situation – in true British fashion.
Jackson takes us through the war in broadly chronological fashion. The Armistice, when it finally comes, is an almighty anti-climax, “one of the flattest moments of my life” as one of the voices describes it. When the surviving soldiers get back home, they are given new civilian suits but then promptly forgotten about. They’re a “race apart”. No one can understand what they went through. No one wants to hear about it either.
They Shall Not Grow Old is a familiar tale, but loses none of its poignancy or irony in the retelling. “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” reads the logo from the famous 1915 recruitment poster. By 1918, though, relatives and friends had no interest at all in hearing the answer to that question. It has been left to Jackson, 100 years on, to reveal in full digital clarity what the war poets called the pity of war and “the truth untold”.
They Shall Not Grow Old is out in UK cinemas now and airs on BBC2 on Sunday 11 November at 9.30pm