They Shall Not Grow Old

I went to see Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, built from actual footage and recordings from The Great War. Jacksons’s attention to detail, to get the colorisation, movement, and sound right make it a different experience than what we usually see in archival film, where people are moving jerkily and too quickly. This is smoothed and shaded, and the sound recordings made by the BBC in the 50s and 60s of actual veterans of the war have been cleaned up as well, so that much of it seems as if it had been filmed recently. A good deal of it is grim, of death and decay, rats, lice, mud, and noise. The audience is not spared those realities.

The lighter and matter-of-fact attitudes of the soldiers are also captured with film and recording. We had a job to do and we did it… A lot of the lads were volunteering and I went down at lunch and signed up direct.  My boss said he couldn’t promise me a job when I got back.

There is a fascinating half-hour at the end in which Jackson describes the techniques they used to recover the footage and make it come alive, which is also fascinating stuff. For example, he describes how the original filming speed was not uniform, as it was cranked by the cameraman at 11-18 frames per second, usually about 15. Getting the speed right was not linear, but involved guesswork, which he says the eventually got good at.  Jackson describes seeing very clearly when the speed is right, and when he shows the film movement, you see exactly what he means.  When the speed is exactly right, the movement looks natural and human, it jumps out at you.  A touch slower or faster and it just isn’t right.

14 thoughts on “They Shall Not Grow Old”

  1. I too wrote about it on the web. Unfortunately in the US they are going to show it only 1 more day – Dec 27th. So many things impressed me about it. 200 or so actual WW1 veterans as narrators – telling you how it was. Jackson used the BBC archives to get all these interviews from the 60s and 70s.

    Employment of lip readers in production so for the first time in 100+ years, you know what they are saying.

    The effort to get “the right color” such that Jackson went to Flander’s Field taking 1000s of pictures of things like….grass.

    I felt – with the 3D – I was not a viewer but a witness.

    I have seen a lot of good films on History – Mary Queen of Scots was great. But this is the first historical documentary I can say that Jackson and his team “Breathed life into history”.

    If you are thinking of going buy your tickets early. My theater was sold out.

  2. I’ve read in other posts around the web that it’s going to open in January for a few days in places like Los Angeles

  3. We saw it Monday and did not stay for the last half hour. It was excellent but pretty vivid in the scenes of the dead.

    I was interested to see quite a bit of film about tanks although they came late in the war and had little effect as the British had no idea of tactics for them.

    The first real success was at Cambrai and even here it was quite limited.

    The German counter-attack showed the effectiveness of artillery, trench mortars and evolving stormtrooper tactics, adopted from a pattern introduced by General Hutier against the Russians.[38][page needed][36] From the German perspective, questions arose regarding battlefield supply beyond railheads and the suitability of the MG 08 machine gun for rapid movement.[39][page needed] By the end of the battle, the British retained some of the ground captured in the north and the Germans a smaller amount taken in the south. The British conducted several investigations, including a Court of Enquiry

    I expect they took more footage of the tanks because it was new and they were looking to analyze it.

    In our visit to Ypres, we saw an actual line of trenches and a lot of recovered equipment.

  4. @ Mike K – I read years ago, I wish I could remember where, that the tanks nonetheless changed the war because in a stalemate situation, the psychological change was enormous – much as the Americans entering should not have been that big a deal, but it was. With the energetic Yanks in play, small decisions at the front went from thoroughly discouraged we-tried-that-at-the-Somme-and-we-all-died to let’s-give-it-one-more-try-lads. The tanks could go over those barbed-wire nightmares. They could break through against those rapid-fire guns that were killing so many. They weren’t affected by the gas.

    They actually were affected by the gas, just more slowly and less visibly. Tanks had a maneuverability problem as well. But they solved the problems that had been ruining strategy for the previous three years, so the costs were not counted. It was horrible to die in a tank. People hadn’t thought that through and didn’t know it. The getting stuck in ditches or mud was even worse than with horses and carts, but they didn’t know it. They only saw the upside, and that changed strategy from risk-averse to risk-taking.

    I may be talking out my ass here, because I am not knowledgeable on military tactics, I only know what I have read. And what I have read may be only one slice of a pie. Still, I offer that thought for consideration.

  5. I wish that I could see it in a theater, but it looks like it is only showing in three theaters in San Antonio at the same time on the 27th – and I have an appointment with a paying client at that time.
    Rats. Have to wait until it’s on DVD or Netflix.
    I love that they are using Elgar’s Nimrod, from the Enigma Variations for the music on the trailer. Did they use that in the movie itself?

  6. I agree the psychological effect was enormous. The Germans panicked but they quickly learned to counter them with artillery and mortars.

    Here is a bit more on tanks.

    On August 23, 1914, the French Colonel Jean Baptiste Eugène Estienne, later a major proponent of tanks, declared: Messieurs, la victoire appartiendra dans cette guerre à celui des deux belligérants qui parviendra le premier à placer un canon de 75 sur une voiture capable de se mouvoir en tout terrain (“Gentlemen, the victory will belong, in this war, to the one of the two belligerents who will be the first to succeed in mounting a 75 mm gun on a vehicle capable of moving in all types of terrain”).</i˘

    The French had more tanks by 1918 than the other powers.

    The first use of tanks on the battlefield was the use of 49 British Mark I tanks at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette (part of the Battle of the Somme) on 15 September 1916, with mixed results; many broke down, but nearly a third succeeded in breaking through. Of the forty-nine tanks shipped to the Somme, only thirty-two were able to begin the first attack in which they were used and only nine made it across “no man’s land” to the German lines.

    The first really successful use of tanks came in the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. British Colonel J.F.C. Fuller, chief of staff of the Tank Corps, was responsible for the tanks’ role in the battle. They made an unprecedented breakthrough but, as ever on the Western front, the opportunity was not exploited. Ironically, it was the soon-to-be-supplanted horse cavalry that had been assigned the task of following up the motorised tank attack.

  7. re tanks….here’s Erich Maria Remarque:

    “From a mockery the tanks have become a terrible weapon. Armoured they come rolling on in long lines, more than anything else embody for us the horror of war.

    We do not see the guns that bombard us; the attacking lines of the enemy infantry are men like ourselves; but these tanks are machines, their caterpillars run on as endless as the war, they are annihilation, they roll without feeling into the craters, and climb up again without stopping, a fleet of roaring, smoke-belching armour-clads, invulnerable steel beasts squashing the dead and the wounded–we shrivel up in our thin skin before them, against their colossal weight our arms are sticks of straw, and our hand-grenades matches.”

  8. I saw it yesterday. Well worth it. I hope they show it again.

    The last half-hour is worth staying for. Aside from fascinating technical details one sees how deeply and personally interested Jackson is in the history of the war. He tells the story of his grandfather who fought gallantly, was badly wounded and never fully recovered. He mentions that he used vintage artillery pieces from his personal collection (!) as sources of sound effects. The film focuses on British soldiers’ experiences of trench warfare on the western front, and ignores strategy and politics and other perspectives on the war. He was probably wise to focus in this way. Jackson is old enough to have grown up within living memory of the war, but young enough and with the means and skills needed to put together this project.

  9. All the showings have been sold out. The January schedule will be expanded. I have already read of 25 cities now.

    We will probably see it again. We did not stay for the last 1/2 hour but will next time. The dog was home alone.

  10. I saw it yesterday in Prescott Valley. I haven’t been to a movie theater in at least 10 years. Very worth while including the 30 minute
    explanation at the end.

  11. It is being shown again in my town Jan 21 and I got a ticket the other day. The choice seats were already taken and I am on the second row.

    Other than Star Wars in 1977 or so, there are only 2 other movies I have cared to see again. Well, 3. Dunkirk, They Shall Not Grow Old, and Free Solo.

    To see the latter on an IMAX screen was breathtaking. I think Alex is a bit nuts but one can’t take away what a spectacular achievement that was, to climb up the vertical 3,200 foot wall of Yosemite’s El Capitan – without ropes.

    I don’t understand the movie business where they have sell-outs and only show it (so far) 3 days in 2 months.

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