Tuesday, January 22, 2019

They Shall Not Grow Old (movie review)

The film's title has an ironic double meaning:  we won't forget them, they stay fresh in our minds, and... they were cut down as youth, sacrificed to the war gods.

This movie is not about the big egos who used wars to enshrine their place in history.  These were the working people, abducted from civilian life, commanded by the wartime economy, to grab a uniform and hop a ship to the front, to be executed, wounded, or returned home.

The film achieves its effect as a storytelling project by letting the people who were there share their memories.  These were BBC recordings spliced together.  Then was the magic of doctoring the film, mainly to overcome the ravages of time.  Some of the most under and over exposed film was in the best condition, as no one had bothered to make copies (the originals were available).

Those who've done homework understand this telling was orchestrated by Peter Jackson, the director of all those Lord of the Rings films in New Zealand.  NZ was indeed the HQS for this project.

I'd always wondered, since childhood, why older films were always played on fast forward.  Yes, I understood they used fewer frames per second back then, so why not project at a lower rate?  For some reason, variable speed playback was beyond the abilities of Hollywood and TV land for many decades.  In this movie, that problem is overcome.

The version I saw was an encore performance in a busy commercial multiplex.  The projectionist forgot to use the 3D lens or something, so although we were all wearing our glasses, the first ten minutes or so were just blurry.  Probably someone from the audience went out to complain, as then the screen went black and came back in 3D.  Color would come later.

Jackson, the director, both introduces the film and then reappears after the credits for thirty minutes, to explain the project in more detail.  He establishes his credentials as someone who has always cared a lot about WW1, his grandfather having been a career soldier.

Although the archives Jackson was given to explore is full of a huge amount of footage, the end goal was a feature film with a sane pace.  He decided to focus on the experience of an average British soldier in the trenches in France.  He collages together many episodes to tell a generic tale of mounting a tank-led assault on the enemy line.

The German side is not demonized.  The pervasive sense, in the absence of a lot of media, is no one knows what's going on, least of all the soldiers.  Soldiers have a blend of stoicism and fatalism to choose from.

Whereas there's no glamorizing of the war, the film is honest in letting the men speak for themselves.  Many express gratitude they were able to experience this great tragedy close up, for all the pain it caused them.  The most bitter voices don't get as much say.