Monday 12 November 2018

Media: They Shall Not Grow Old, 2018

Usually I miss this sort of thing, as I discuss on my other blog (here). But at 9.25 pm last night I discovered that at 9.30, that same Nov' 11th evening, BBC2 would be showing a Remembrance Day programme I simply had to see. This is my photo-essay tribute to an amazing film about an amazing time.

They Shall Not Grow Old is Peter Jackson's superb WWI centennial commemoration, the heart of which is brilliantly colourised and enhanced archival footage. The 90 minute programme eases us in gently. First there's a slow full-screen fade in, from the stark title, via pale ghostly moving images,  in shades of grey, before the framing and aspect ratio changes to that shown immediately below, evoking old-fashioned TV formatting.

Pre-WWI England, very 19th century.

The soundtrack to the entire film is veterans sharing their memories of their experiences. We start with general memories of involvement in The Great War, before winding back to just before the outbreak, and feelings that arise when that occurs. In a time less saturated with worldwide or even local media coverage of events, a simple conformist patriotism dominates.

News of the outbreak of war arrives.

The rush to join up.

Many lied about their age, in order to serve.

Reality starts to sink in, abroad transports to the continent.

By this point the film has already subtly shifted into enhanced footage, only it's remained black and white. Now, as the troops arrive in France and Belgium, the film goes into colour. Unenhanced archival footage of this era tends to be played back with a frame-rate that produces quick jerky movement, and picture quality is poor. Jackson and co. have achieved a more realistic smoother tempo, with a clearer quality picture. And then there's the colourisation. It really is supremely well done.

Arrival in the zig-zag trenches.

The trench system from above.

It's a new and strange environment.

And not a very hospitable one, at that.

Petroleum flavoured water.

The stench of death is everywhere.

Adding to the fragrant bouquet at the front, the behind.

Camaraderie. When not fighting, or under bombardment, it's an adventure.

Grub's up!

Equine corpses stink, but they make tolerable furniture.

Supplies and logistics.

Food for the guns.

Food for the mincer, delivered by rail.

What were the mysterious 'tanks'?

Aha! So that's what they are!

Marching to and from the front.

Wow! Traction engines in the supply lines.

Sappers at work, maintaining the trenches. 

Getting ready for the push.

Officers brief the men before they go over the top.

Anxiety is clear in the faces of troops about to go over.

The pre-attack artillery barrage, supposed to 'soften them up'

Tanks mass for the attack.

A backward glance. Will I be coming back?

And then it happens, over the top

Tanks roll over the trenches.

The colour restoration is great. 

Tanks also handle barbed-wire better than ground troops.

A direct hit. The iron beast is gutted.

The situation for the wounded is dire.

Medics are greatly appreciated

This guy's had a bullet through the chest, a bad wound.

The guy on the left was clearly shell-shocked. Trembling, and so on.

Wounded Germans are treated.

German prisoners often did stretcher duty.

There was quite a lot of camaraderie between prisoners and captors.

The dastardly Hun.

This one does look a bit like a hobgoblin.

Group pictures often capture the happier moments.

Happy campers, lived like trolls.

The end in sight.

War is over. Many are too burnt out to celebrate.

And finally, at the 'eleventh hour', it's all over. The overall consensus amongst the veterans whose testimony we hear at this point is that there's are two major reactions to the armistice. Several state that there was no euphoria or cheering, or anything like that. Instead there was a kind of shell shocked numbness and exhaustion, and a sense of 'now what?'

At this point the film reverts to the smaller old-fashioned screen shape, and black and white footage, as we hear how veterans returned to indifference, unemployment, and the slow road to incorporation back into normal civilian life.

Troops returning home.

Only to find mass unemployment, sometimes even active discrimination against ex-servicemen.

In many ways, little appeared to have changed.

Another point of agreement was that war is a bad thing, and that this war was, ultimately, a pointless waste of life. Tough things to come to terms with, if you've given some of the best years of you life, or returned physically or psychologically scarred for life. And then there are those millions, and this film is dedicated to the million or so English or Commonwealth service men and women who died in WWI, of whom the title speaks, who gave their lives, and shall not grow old.

This is a terrific piece of documentary film-making that shkws both the positive and negative sides of war. The positive includes the sense of belonging and purpose, the training that builds physical strength, self-reliance, and communal bonds, and the advances in technology, from weapons on the one hand, to medicine and communications on the other. And then there's the social changes that come abought, as women go to work, and as the old class-system crumbles.

The negative include the destruction of so much, both natural and man-made, and the incredible cost in lives, and all over what? For what? The war against Fascism looks a lot easier to justify with hindsight, even though, rather ironically, it helped consolidate the rise and extend the spread of Communism. But World War One? That looks more like the last unadulterated gasp of 19th Century colonialism. 

Anyway, Jackson's technological finesse, the resources he can marshal, have helped him, with the backing of numerous U.K. based heritage organisations, a terrific testimony to this crazy and titanic war, and in particular the part played by ordinary servicemen. Thought provoking, and essential viewing


  1. I went to see it in my local cinema , rather unnerving seeing this old film in colour and at a realistic speed , a great tribute to a lost generation .

    1. I would've done the same, if I'd known about it sooner.