Conceptually and technologically, it is breathtaking to behold, but the experience of seeing it is at best ambivalent, and at worst problematic.
Dir. Peter Jackson
2018 | UK/New Zealand | Documentary/History/War | 99 mins | 1.78:1 | English
PG13 (passed clean) for disturbing war images
Plot: A documentary about WWI with never-before-seen footage to commemorate the centennial of the end of the war.
Distributor: Warner Bros
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Unconventional/Experimental
Audience Type: Limited
(Reviewed at The Projector)
I think if you are a cinephile, you will be excited to see They Shall Not Grow Old. Firstly, it is a new Peter Jackson film, albeit a documentary, his very first, unless you count his four-hour long The Making of The Frighteners (1998) as one. Secondly, it purports to have made used of advances in technology to restore WWI footage shot by soldiers in the midst of war and imbue them with natural colours. Thirdly, it is made up entirely of oral accounts of veterans who survived the war, narrating over moving and still images. Conceptually and technologically, it is breathtaking to behold, both in thought and theory.
However, issues arise experientially, its dazzling ambition mediated by a number of things, most pertinently the sensationalisation of war through film language, the tedium of conceptual execution, and the very nature of viewing a film such as this from an ontological standpoint. The novelty of seeing actual WWI footage in colour wears off after a while, though it is interesting to see how Jackson bookends the film with black-and-white content that enlarge or diminish in size. Whether making full use of the screen or part thereof (or sometimes through creative superimpositions), They Shall Not Grow Old’s central selling point comes a bit too late in the game.
The desire was to make this about the experience of being a soldier.
By that time, it is hard to be involved emotionally because the wall-to-wall recordings of veterans’ voices speaking fondly of their experiences from enlisting to training to combat can be quite monotonous and draining, somewhat akin to a home video movie commentary that offers insight up to a point, and then overstays its welcome. Footage are also sometimes repeated—a clear case of having one too many a voice recording, and one too few a moving image (but really it could have just been tighter in terms of overall editing and pacing).
What I can’t accept is Jackson’s intention to use impact editing to show quick shock cuts of dead soldiers (some images are very gruesome, which also begs the question: how is this film rated PG13?) in tandem with the ‘exciting’ narration on the adrenaline and horrors of war. I think there’s a sheer lack of sensitivity toward the dead in how actuality photographs (and in colour!) are presented. I can’t imagine, say, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1956), employing such flashy techniques.
Lastly, it takes getting used to viewing ‘colour(ed)’ footage shot during the time of silent black-and-white cinema—this inevitably falls back onto one of the medium’s perennial inquiries: how can we reconcile with realism in the digital age, and in this unprecedented form? It is here that I have to concede that there might need to be an ontological shift in terms of how we critically examine such films in the future. In sum, They Shall Not Grow Old is at best an ambivalent, and at worst a problematic experience for me. But I respect Jackson for pulling this momentous historical project off, regardless of its inherent issues.