Movie Review: They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
The light bulb went off for me when I saw “Road to Perdition” starring Tom Hanks in 2002. At one point, Hanks’ character, a Chicago mobster, drives through downtown Chicago circa 1931, and it’s not a backdrop, and they’re not filming in neighborhoods that evoke the era. Through computer technology, they resurrected the past. “Oh,” I thought, “CGI isn’t limited to sci-fi futuristic stuff. It can restore history.”
In a more immediate way, director Peter Jackson has done that here.
In 2014, Imperial War Museums, a British institution, asked Jackson if he could create a documentary for the centenary of the end of World War I, Nov. 11, 1918. The museum had 100 hours of footage from the 1910s and 600 hours of interviews with surviving war vets from the ’60s and ’70s. To hear him tell it—in a half-hour “making of” doc that follows this 99-minute doc—he mulled it over for a while. He didn’t want to do it unless he could do something new.
The footage was silent, of course. It was old, scratched, and some of it was just copies of copies. Like most films of the era, it also looked comically sped-up. Our current standard is 24 frames per second. The standard back then was 16 frames a second, but Jackson soon discovered it wasn’t even that simple. Many film cameras were hand-cranked, so the speed depended upon how fast the cameraman twirled the lever. In order to bring them up to the current standard and look natural, each film had to be adjusted individually.
Ultimately, he and his team at Wingnut Studios tried an experiment: How good could they make a segment of film if they cleaned it up and adjusted the speed? And how about if they colorized it? Jackson is against colorizing movies generally, but that’s an artistic integrity argument; here, he wanted to see the men as they saw themselves.
The result is astonishing. It's the past restored.
Not in Kansas anymore
The title of the documentary comes from the fourth stanza of Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen,” about the men who died during World War I:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
According to IMDb, Jackson switched up the “grow not old” line to avoid a Yoda-ish cadence, but it also makes it more of a declaration, doesn’t it? It makes it more of a crime. Political leaders and emperors ensured that millions would not grow old; Jackson and his team brought them back to life.
Immediate thought as I was watching: Can we do this with other footage of the era? Baseball movies? Chaplin films? I assume we can. It’s just a matter of time and money and will. Mostly money. It just depends how much we care about the past. (Answer: not much, sadly.)
Some of the shots are truly astonishing: horses killed; men dying in trenches, covered in insects. Also the ordinary: the look upon soldiers as they realize they’re being filmed. As Jackson says in the post-doc, film was such a new medium, and the act of filming so rarely seen, that they didn’t know what to do. The tendency was to do what one did with photography: stand still. Waving at the camera wasn’t a thing yet. “Hi, mom,” was half a century away.
One young man—you can see him in the trailer—turns to his comrades and says with a smile, “Hey boys, here it comes. We’re in the pictures,” then laughs, and the work that went into that little bit, and all the audio in the doc, is equally astonishing. First, Jackson hired lip readers to figure out what was being said; then he and his team researched which outfit was what, and where its men were from; then he hired voice actors from that region.
As in the trailer, the movie begins with a small black-and-white box that expands until it fills the entire screen. But the footage is still a bit choppy, and it’s still in black and white. it’s only when we arrive at the battlefield that the full effect takes place—that we enter into their world. It’s like “The Wizard of Oz” in this way, but an Oz of blunt reality rather than fantasy.
With such a technological feat as this, so beautifully realized, and done pro bono, it would take a real asshole to quibble with it.
Here I go.
Again, from IMDb:
It was a deliberate choice not to identify the soldiers or battlegrounds as that would ground the film in too many facts and slow it down. Instead, the desire was to make this about the experience of being a soldier.
I think this was a mistake. Individuals, and individual stories, are lost. Everything becomes part of the mass. It’s like reading an oral history that’s been stripped of who stays what, and when, and with no overarching narrative. I’m a detail man; I wanted the details rather than the generalities. The details that Jackson worked on technologically should‘ve been worked on narratively.
I get, too, that Jackson had 600 hours of commentary to choose from, and he wanted to fit in what he could; he wanted us to hear their voices. But the narration winds up feeling somewhat relentless. I wanted a little more silence. I wanted to absorb more of what I was seeing. Ironic, given these are silent films.
A long way to Tukwila
Even so, if you have the opportunity to see “They Shall Not Grow Old,” don’t hesitate. It’s being parceled out in movie theaters—a week’s showing here, a day’s showing there, so blink and you miss it. Next show in Seattle is apparently January 21. No, not starting January 21. Just January 21. In December, Patricia and I drove all the way to Tukwila to see it; Seattle theaters were already booked.
I’m glad there’s such interest. Most of us forget the past too quickly; Americans are particularly bad at this. Jackson and his team have put it right in front of us. They’ve made ghosts of long ago seem you like or me. We’re in the pictures.