By J Simpson.
Peter Jackson’s impressive new documentary on The Great War, World War I, transports you across yawning expanses of time, for a first-hand glimpse of the atrocities committed therein.
In a world of 24-hour news cycle and constantly refreshing social media feeds, it can be difficult to remember what life was like two days ago, let alone years, or decades. In this current temporal climate, 100 years might as well be a million. Continuing that analogy, Peter Jackson’s documentary about the lives of British soldiers during World War I is like witnessing perfectly restored footage of Triceratops and T-Rex. It’s awe-inspiring as a time capsule and porthole into a very different world, which helped birth our current society.
There’s no shortage of war documentaries and dramatisations out there. While WWI is not as talked about as World War II or even Vietnam, there’s still plenty of documentation out there. There was even an epic 26-episode miniseries made back in the ’60s. What does Peter Jackson’s depiction of the British front of World War I add to the conversation?
The Significance Of They Shall Not Grow Old
They Shall Not Grow Old goes so far beyond the “talking head” style of documentary it belongs in a separate category. It’s also leagues apart from your usual newsreel-style historical deep dive, drawing out scratchy old footage from eras past. Jackson’s film lies somewhere between the two forms, creating something entirely new and utterly breathtaking.
For the 100th anniversary of the Great War, Peter Jackson and his team of technicians embarked upon a nearly impossible journey. They delved into the archives of actual footage from World War I, predominantly of life of British soldiers in the trenches of the French front. Jackson and his team then first completely restored the footage and then colourised it using the most cutting-edge photography. The results are beyond belief. The bright, bold, lifelike colours are vibrant and vivid, looking fresh off of a Hollywood soundstage rather than from the mud, blood, soot, and ashes of 100 years ago.
This modernisation achieves two main results.
- The high production values and contemporary pacing make They Shall Not Grow Old more approachable and engaging for modern audiences.
- Being more relatable, things hit closer to home. The horrors of war are in your face, inescapable and undeniable.
This second point hits at one of the more subtle issues of war films, as a genre. Are these movies glorifying war? Or are they a cautionary tale? Sometimes, they may be the former masquerading as the latter.
Here’s where Peter Jackson’s documentary finds its humanitarian footing. 100 years ago seems impossibly distant and difficult to imagine. To paraphrase the common cliche, when we forget history we are doomed to repeat it. World War I is a unique moment in history, acting as a boundary between the classical world and the crashing immanence of modernity. World War I, itself, is like the trenches of France, dug in and defending a way of life that would never be seen again.
Most significantly, World War I was the last war fought predominantly on the ground and hand-to-hand. World War II and beyond would become increasingly mechanised, distant. These days, you don’t even have to be on the same continent as someone to kill them.
This was not the case during The Great War. While most of the war was fought at an impasse – trench warfare – huge climactic surges were fought in No Man’s Land, in a hellish landscape of barbed wire, mustard gas, mud, and corpses.
Many of these scenes are recounted with excruciating detail by actual World War I veterans. They speak of rivers of rats gnawing on the bodies of their fallen friends. They talk of vomit and shrapnel, of fire and fury. They also speak of honour, bravery, and courage, even of their enemies. In fact, many British soldiers refused to kill their German captives due to admiring their grit during combat. This is a far cry from today’s dehumanising, sociopathic lack of empathy for The Other.
Instead of glorifying war, Peter Jackson and the veterans of World War I are warning against it by showing it for what it is. War is not noble. It is not exciting or admirable or advisable. War is hell. Seeing it in its pure, raw, unadulterated state shows that in all its infernal agony.
No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, it’s worth a look, to help make sense of the past and the role it played in creating our current world. It’s a hard scrutiny, however, make no bones about it. People truly do the most terrible things to one another. If we forget the hundreds and thousands and millions who laid down their lives in the mud and trenches of World War I, it may happen again, but with today’s technological capacities, that could make World War I look like a game of playground tag.
War is hell. Don’t forget it.
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