In 2015, Peter Jackson, the director most famous for the Hobbit trilogy and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was approached by a coalition of British entities to make a documentary about World War One to commemorate the centennial anniversary—in 2018—of the end of that most mindless, motiveless, moronic, and murderous of all wars.
Anyone who knows anything about the film industry might immediately ask why the British didn’t give Mr. Jackson a little more time. Movie making is never fast. Yes, yes, I know: some of the old golden-age B-movies that were considered mindless little nothings were cranked out in a matter of weeks (movies we consider classics today; Casablanca and It Happened One Night are good examples) but “matter of weeks” doesn’t include the time (weeks, months, sometimes years) it took to write the scripts, or the pre-production time, or the post-production time. And back in the Golden Age, the studios kept countless employees on the payroll year-round; now, in the post-studio-system era, crews have to be assembled, if they are not gainfully employed elsewhere and unavailable. Minus the studio system, things are a lot slower, more complicated, and both less and more efficient today, depending on which technology aspect one is referring to. Directors of Mr. Jackson’s stature usually set their own timetables, but for whatever reason—and to world’s enrichment—he rose to the challenge.
And challenge it was.
This is quite the most unique documentary I’ve ever seen. Mr. Jackson took hundreds of hours of contemporary archival footage, shaky, scratched, black and white, frequently in very poor condition, sometimes third- or fourth-hand duplicates of indifferent quality, recorded at varying speeds that were all different from today’s twenty-four-feet-per-second standard, and managed to edit it down to a reasonable time (ninety-nine minutes) and more importantly to correct, compensate for the fps differences, restore, colorize (for the most part very accurately), and make it all uniform. For those technical achievements alone, he deserves praise.
Mr. Jackson’s also deserves kudos for his choice to use no narrator, but rather to overlay the contemporary voices of World War One survivors, recorded in live interviews back in the 1960’s and 70’s, describing their experiences. He also hired forensic lip-readers to figure out what soldiers were actually saying on the old silent films, and then had voice-over actors recreate those voices, complete with correct accents. (Remember Henry Higgins, in My Fair Lady: “An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him. The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.”)
The sheer horror of wholesale destruction was never captured on film (cameramen and their cameras would obviously both have been destroyed) but there are hints enough of it in the uncollected, unburied bodies, British, French, Belgian, and German, to give more of a taste than anyone would want. And the documentary eschews sentimentality, showing much of the day-to-day routine that occupied most of the men’s time: soldiers training, laughing, roughhousing, trying desperately to stay semi-clean, using a latrine, singing, laughing and roughhousing some more. Those sequences reminded me of my cousin’s response when I asked him once if his three tours of active duty (sometimes very active indeed) in Viet Nam had been the constant round of horror I thought they must have been, as they surely would have been for me. “Jameson,” he said wistfully, “I never laughed so much or so hard in all my life.”
And yet, for all the rough-and-ready reality of the film and the capturing of the natural lightheartedness that is part and parcel of being young and fit and confident, what remains for me are two images that show the essence of the horrific, mindless waste that was World War One.
The first is the footage of soldiers making their way along muddy, blasted and cratered fields and roads, through the shattered remnants of what had been homes and villages, marching past the wounded and dying horses that were sacrificed as carelessly—probably even more so—as the young men and boys. Having spent so much of my life with and around horses, seeing those poor animals thrashing and trying to get up was almost unbearable.
The other is a brief scene of soldiers getting ready to go over the top in a charge at (I believe) the Battle of the Somme. Some of them are laughing, some are singing, some are serious and clearly scared but focused on checking their rifles and bayonets and gear. But in the foreground is one even younger than the rest of those young men, a handsome, dark-haired boy who looks no more than sixteen or seventeen, staring at the camera, and on his face is a stark, thousand-yard stare of pure terror and despair. Thirty minutes later, every last one of those young men and boys was dead, including the handsome young one.
The only moment of levity—and how could there be much levity in that nightmare that we should and haven’t learned from?—comes after the documentary is over, in a thirty minute special Mr. Jackson added to explain the technical aspects of what he had to do and how he was able to do it. It turned out that at the end of production, just a matter of a day or two before he had to have the film expressed to England, he suddenly realized he had completely forgotten to arrange for any music for the lengthy credits. He quickly decided to use a famous World War One song, Mademoiselle from Armentières. Unfortunately, there were two little problems.
The first was that he was doing all his production in his facility in New Zealand and New Zealand accents wouldn’t work in a documentary about British soldiers. Solution? He called the British Embassy in Wellington and asked if they had anybody there who could sing. With true British sporting spirit, the embassy quickly rounded up six of their best male singers and shipped them down to Jackson’s studio where the diplomats gamely spent an entire day singing Mademoiselle from Armentières over and over again.
The other little problem was that some of the lyrics of Mademoiselle from Armentières are filthy (it was a soldier’s song, after all), so when you go to see They Shall Not Grow Old, sit through the credits and listen carefully; you’ll hear certain verses—the least obscene ones—repeated over and over.
The title of the film is adapted from a famous poem, For the Fallen, by Robert Laurence Binyon, who wrote it only a few weeks after the war had started. Only a few weeks, but already the casualties were appalling enough to inspire the poem, and yet those first few weeks were nothing compared to what was yet to come. Here it is:
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is a music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted:
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables at home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end they remain.