Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, December 28, 2018

They Shall Not Grow Old: Film Review

I had a chance today to go see the limited release World War One documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, directed by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame and The Hobbit infamy. The concept of the film is fairly well conveyed by both the poster and the trailer. As Jackson explains in a brief interview before the film (and in a 30min making-of piece after it) the Imperial War Museum approached Jackson (who was known to have an interest in WW1) to see if he'd be interested in doing "something unique" with the ~100 hours of vintage film footage from the war that the museum possessed. The request was open-ended, and what Jackson eventually decided to do is surprisingly restrained and quite effective.

If you've watched movie footage from 1914-1918, it tends to look jerky and fast. The reason for this is that the frame rate of early movie cameras (and projectors) was slower than today, and often inconsistent. The "standard" for silent movies was 16 fames per second. A standard modern movie is shot at 24 frames per second. So if you run film stock shot at 16 frames per second through a projector at a rate of 24 frames per second, you get jerky, fast movement. Add to that the effects of 100 years time on the physical film stock, and you can see why the clips you see so often in documentaries don't look very good.

What Jackson did was to make use of the full powers of a modern special effects house to adjust the frame rate, bringing the movement back to a natural, smooth movement. You can see this contrast watching the trailer above. They also cleaned up scratches, smoothed grain, and in places colorized the footage. Conscious of the bad artistic reputation that colorization has, Jackson argues that the use of black and white footage by military photographers in World War One was not due to some artistic choice, but simply due to the fact that they didn't have access to color, and thus that by colorizing the film he's doing a better job of conveying what the soldiers really saw.

All this technical work is very well done, and the movie would be worth watching just for this.

The additional very interesting choice which Jackson made in putting the film together was to restrict himself exclusively to images from the war and to narration taken from recorded audio interviews with WW1 veterans recorded by back in the 1960s. Thus, rather than hearing historians or writers tell us about the war, we hear veterans in their 60s and 70s talking about their experiences. The only modern voice talent added is where the footage clearly showed someone talking, in which case Jackson's team had forensic lip readers figure out what the men in the film were saying, and voice talent from the proper part of the UK for that regiment dub in the words.

From the ~100hrs of film footage the Imperial War Museum had, and ~600hrs of audio interviews with veterans, Jackson has created a movie which provides a soldier's eye view of the war experience from start to finish. At the beginning, we hear men talk about how they enlisted and about training. Then we hear them talk about trench life, life behind the lines, and about an attack. At last we hear them talk about the end of the war and going home.

What's good about this is that there's fairly little interpretive filter on what we hear. Jackson seems to have gone into this with no particular ax to grind, and so we hear a wide variety of reactions, from men who said they'd do it all again to men who said there was no point to it all.

What's limiting is that this is such a relentlessly soldiers-eye view that we get no sense of how the war progressed and changed. Near the beginning, one of the veterans who fought all the way from 1914-1918 talks about how the war changed so much that if you could take a man from 1914 and drop him straight into 1917, it would seem to him like a different war. However, because the film focuses on the experience of training, the experience of trench life, the experience of attack, we don't get any sense of how all those things changed during the four years of the war. Near the end, we see footage of men preparing for an attack, and we hear narration from men talking about an attack. But the narration is cutting from one veteran to another, and if you know your WW1 history well, they're clearly talking about different battles. One talks about an attack with 300 tanks, which must be from 1918. Another is clearly talking about the Somme. One talks about how their attack would be a complete surprise with not long barrage. Another talks about the artillery firing all night before the attack.

I'm not actually sure that a non-expert would notice this much at all. You do get a strong impression of the war, both visual and audible. But it's a very static impression, which is too bad in that one of the misconceptions about the war is that it was one long static period in which tactics and technology failed to develop as foolish generals sent millions of men charging towards machine guns.

That sort of editorializing isn't here. I don't think that generals are mentioned even once in the movie. The view is totally at the foot soldier level. And in a movie that's only an hour and 39 minutes long, there's not time to get across all of the change that went on during the war. So I think that the approach Jackson took is a good one for what he was doing. It just has certain limitations.

The movie itself was only in very limited release in the US. It played on two days (December 17th and 27th) so the next stop will doubtless be DVD and/or online streaming. If you have an interest in the period or in the technology of film restoration, it's definitely worth your time.

1 comment:

Finicky Cat said...

Thanks! Definitely one to see.