*. The centenary of the First World War saw a revival of interest in that epic conflict, with scores of books and conferences and films to mark the occasion. They Shall Not Grow Old was part of this, being commissioned as a special memorial.
*. I think it has to be considered a resounding success on that score, being very well received both critically and among a broader audience. It’s also a tremendous achievement in terms of the restoration of archival film sources. The First World War has never looked so good.
*. There were purists who criticized colourization and other liberties taken with the source material to be a bridge too far, but I think this is to examine the matter far too closely. I do think it’s important that the critiques put forward by historians be heard, but at the end of the day this is popular history. Director Peter Jackson even said that he wasn’t that worried about accuracy. He wanted to convey the experience of the war in general terms, leaving out any mention of dates or locations, and not identifying any of the soldiers’ voices we hear. If you’re looking for that kind of documentary there are plenty of them out there. This was an attempt at doing something different.
*. I’ve read quite a bit about WWI, memoirs as well as histories, but I still appreciated the grunt’s-eye view of the proceedings here and felt I learned some things, mainly with regard to the more mundane aspects of life on the Western Front. Things like diet, going to the bathroom (there was no toilet paper), and (what never ceases to amaze me) the weight of the kit these human pack horses had to haul. I have to say that it never looks, when the troops are marching, that they are carrying 60-100 pounds of gear. This is a point I’ve often wondered about and that I should try to do more research into.
*. Also revealing is the ambiguous response to the war itself. War is hell, yes, but it’s also a peak experience for these men, and something they wouldn’t have missed for the world. This echoes similar sentiments I’ve heard expressed by other veterans. In their return to civilian life there’s an unmistakable note of bitterness struck, returning to meaningless industrial or office jobs, at least where they haven’t been made redundant. Rambo’s rant at the end of First Blood has a long history.
*. The film is structured well, following the Tommy experience from the outbreak of war, through enlistment, introduction to the front (where the film switches to colour), life in the trenches, the day of battle, and the end of war and its aftermath. The flip of ending on a joke is also, I think, a great touch.
*. Jackson dedicated the film to his grandfather, as Sam Mendes dedicated 1917 (which came out the next year) to his. Both movies are heartfelt memorials, but I much prefer this to 1917. While it makes some concessions to absolute accuracy and authenticity I found it revealing, informative, and moving throughout. It’s a cliché, but as in the best such films we really do feel the past coming to life.