The evolution of photography seems to correspond with our modern capacity for sympathy. Someone in a Facetime conversation feels more present than a news clip from a month ago, while that clip feels livelier than just a picture, and so on and so forth. The Technicolored half of the Wizard of Oz is supposed to touch our imagination more than the first, and the subjects of black-and-white film still seem more accessible than the men and women of old daguerreotypes. As a kid, I half assumed anyone photographed before the twentieth century must have been perpetually dour and stern, in that sad era before people discovered the smile.
In the startlingly beautiful World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, director Peter Jackson disrupts this tendency we have to shield our emotions from the visually distant. Jackson’s film, which premiered at the BFI Film Festival on October 16 and is now screening in the UK, adds 3D and color to reams of original footage from the Western Front. The visual transformation is stunning.
The film borrows its title from Laurence Binyon’s ode, “For the Fallen,” which recalls, “they were young, / Straight of limb, /true of eyes, steady and aglow.” Jackson has indeed brought the Imperial War Museum’s (IWM) film archive to a glow. Without sacrificing the integrity of the original footage, the editing makes it possible for us to see into soldiers’ eyes—and wounds—in harrowing detail. As an innovation in documentary-making, it is on par with Ken Burns’s use of Michael Brady’s photographs in The Civil War.
They Shall Not Grow Old begins with the images of the shockingly young men who enlisted in 1914. Those who showed up at recruitment offices years shy of the legal service age of 19 were told to “go outside and have a birthday” so they could join up. Added to the footage of young Brits marching and waving and roughhousing in the early days of the war are the voices of servicemen from BBC and IWM interviews. Their words match these scenes of innocence. We hear of their teenaged sense that there was “sort of a nasty feeling between Germany and England” or disagreement over “that Serbia business” when that chap was shot.”
We learn that army-issue razors were ineffective but that the toothbrushes came in handy for polishing buttons. Meals consisted of “inevitable stew.” These voices of chipper honesty—one soldier describes the feeling of enlistment as like “a boy going to the play for the first time”—makes the visual shift to tanks and gas masks that much more wrenching. Suddenly, we see gangrene and flooded trenches and what shell-shocked faces look like in real time. As the camera zooms in on the geography of the trenches and thick brambles of barbed wire, one veteran recalls that war made him “sympathetic with how the rabbit must feel.” His observation speaks to both the quaintness and horror on display. At one moment, we see men, nestled into the tunnels, napping, smoking or playing practical jokes. At the next, a sky blurred by heavy ammunition or mustard gas, as we witness the men rendered into sitting prey.
By the time the armistice arrives, there is little sense of triumph. Soldiers first describe their strong desire for a hot cup of tea and, next, their dread that the end of the war had robbed them of their usefulness, as they looked ahead to years of mass unemployment. Amongst those who had not experienced the realities of the Front, the soldiers felt “a race apart from civilians.” As the footage shifts back to everyday life—London streetscapes and girls circling a maypole, one man complains that most people simply had no interest in sympathizing with the soldiers. And even among those who did, “the attempt to sympathize was a sign of not understanding.”
One hundred years later, it would be a terrible presumption for any of us to think we really understand what the Front felt like in 1918. But Jackson has made it more than possible—perhaps even imperative—for us to sympathize.