Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “They Shall Not Grow Old” (2018)

Commemorating 100 years since fighting in the First World War ceased, Peter Jackson’s documentary tells the stories of the soldiers who fought during the war, using testimony from over a hundred men to tell of both the horrors that they faced in the trenches as well as the camaraderie that was shared between the soldiers. The film uses never before seen archival footage that has been painstakingly colourised and given a crisp new audio overlay.

This has been a much talked about film of late and much admiration has been given to the colourisation of the recorded footage and this is indeed one of the film’s biggest selling points. Though not perfect (more on that later), it cannot be denied so much hard work has gone in to updating the quality of the footage and with the inclusion of colour, we’re able to see life on the front lines in a whole new dimension – it’s probably the closest that we’ve come to actually being there. Some shots are so effectively rendered that you would have tremendous difficulty in actually seeing it as a piece of hundred year old footage because it looks so good and the crisp new audio (all the sound effects and soldiers’ words were added in post production) helps greatly because it also gives the film that extra dimension, making it seem like it was shot only a few years ago.

The modernisation and colourisation doesn’t always work though because some of the faces appear too blurry and artificial (I could’ve sworn that one soldier didn’t even have a face!), the explosions don’t look quite right, and the vibrant green added to the grass is a bit too much, not quite realistic. A great deal of it is impeccably accomplished but still, I also couldn’t help but feel that looking at it for too long was giving me a slight headache!

But those minor gripes aside, the film is wholly successful in illustrating the experience of an average soldier – from eagerly signing up, certain that the fighting would only last a few months, to facing all the horrific deaths and unforgiving trench conditions, and all those moments in between when they were able to share in some laughs with their fellow soldiers, even with the German soldiers given how they too were fed up of fighting. What’s admirable about the documentary is that is takes recorded testimony from around 114 soldiers and Jackson expertly arranges all the different stories into one coherent narrative – as if it were one soldier telling the story; there were hundreds of hours of footage available and the filmmakers have efficiently combed through it and brought us the most important and interesting parts.

He also incorporates several effective techniques such as beginning the documentary on a 4:3 format and then slowly expanding to widescreen and gradually fading to white as the title screen is shown and we continue to hear the veterans’ distant voices. In a wise decision, he also holds off on introducing colour until the men arrive in the trenches and the true reality of their situation is made apparent. And since this is is a very special commemoration of all the young men who gave their lives in the war, certain sections unapologetically linger on the soldiers’ faces and we all see just how young, innocent and fresh faced many of them were; Jackson and co. really want us to notice them and the film is especially successful in this regard. And as hinted at before, there’s an ideal tonal balance because there’s the necessary doom and gloom – with images of trench foot, mangled bodies and creatures like lice and rats – but there’s also a jovial atmosphere where the soldiers “get on with it” and have fun with each other when they’re away from the terrible peril.

“Remember all their faces, remember all their voices . . . “

A painstakingly crafted and coherent documentary with vibrant colour and crisp audio that successfully honors all the soldiers who fought in the First World War – a wonderful commemoration.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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