Sunday, 11 November 2018

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) - Movie Review

In the grand horror show that is humanity’s history of war, World War I doesn’t seem to get brought up much anymore. The once-described ‘war to end all wars’ has largely taken a back seat to World War II, Vietnam and even America’s ill-guided ventures into the Middle East in the realm of cinema. Whether that’s due to a more immediate connection to our present, the heightened atrocities committed on all sides, or simply because the leaders in power during WWI don’t have the instant recognisability of Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt or even Menzies, it’s not entirely clear.

Enter Peter Jackson, heralded filmmaker, vanguard of modern cinematic technology, and a man whose grandfather fought on the western front alongside Tolkien himself. While Peter made no secret of how much that would help form who he is today, he has also turned that into a frankly startling look at the experiences of those soldiers with this feature.

Through a combination of archival footage taken in the trenches, narration from British soldiers and the kind of computer wizardry Jackson has helped changed the industry with, They Shall Not Grow Old serves as a still-living memory of a particularly bloody part of British history. Treated with modern colourisation techniques and truly exceptional audio reworking, the footage presented gives us a confronting and immediate look at what it was like on the front line.

The poppy-red blood shed, the muted brown of the uniforms, the admitted comedy value of soldiers describing falling into latrines after their sitting log broke in twain; this shows Jackson’s typical attention to detail turned to astounding ends as he brings the ‘world of noise’ described by the soldiers roaring to life. It carries a similar rippling effect as similar necromantic efforts like Guy Middin and Evan Johnson’s The Forbidden Room, and it leaves the same eerie effect on the finished product. It’s like the memory of this event has been sitting in the corner of the collective consciousness, begging to be brought back into the light lest these soldiers truly did die in vain. And as a result, it makes the events that took place 100 years ago feel all too proximal to today, giving them an urgency that something this culturally disregarded truly deserves.

Not that the proceedings are entirely grim; if anything, Jackson’s ingrained willingness to see humour in the visceral allows the visuals to sit a little easier. Through the soldiers’ recollections, we are given a front-row seat to their memories, whether it’s their surprising amount of decorum when encountering German soldiers, their fears at being refused because they were too young to legally serve, or their so-very-British perspective that the whole affair was like a holiday with ‘a spice of danger to keep things interesting’.

It ends up overriding the initial disappointment that New Zealander Jackson didn’t go for the depictions of ANZAC soldiers, since this depiction of British war-time society is quite revelatory and gives an earnest look at those who put their lives on the line for a war that both they and their opposition agreed was not what they wanted. But in the face of national endangerment, they still agreed to do so, and on the centenary of the armistice that ended this war, this serves as a healthy reminder that their stories deserve to be remembered.

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