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They Shall Not Grow Old, Reviewed: The Indelible Voices in Peter Jacksons First World War Documentary | The New Yorker

Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” is an instant classic case of the tale that moves the dog. the film was made using elaborate manipulations of archive footage from the imperial war museum, and that technical work is its highly publicized raison d’être. but it is completely inessential to the dramatic power of the stories told in the film, told literally, not through the images, but only on the soundtrack.

The film opens with Jackson facing the camera, offering a light-hearted and candid account of the film’s genesis: a commission from the museum to make a film of his archive footage, provided he could come up with “a unique way and original” from use it jackson had an idea: he cleaned up the footage, slowed it down to natural speed, colorized it and rendered it in 3-d, making it look like actual movie footage, to tell the story of the beginning of the war, the training of the recruits, their passage to the front—specifically in trench warfare, in Belgium, fighting against the German forces—and the end of the war and the return of the troops home. also added sound effects, including artillery fire, rifle fire, the slapping of boots, the splattering of mud, the screech of tanks, the clamor of soldiers shouting indiscriminately and, in some cases, thanks to the detective work of lip readers , dubbed dialogue (which is relatively pointless).

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Most importantly, however, the film features voiceovers almost from start to finish, a set of sound clips drawn from oral history archives, in which war veterans describe their experiences. this testimony is the core of the film; opens up vast depths of the cinematic experience. the voices have a primal authority that resonates gravely throughout the film with literary majesty. in their turns of phrase, choice of words, and their simplest inflections, the dozens of soldiers (whose names are listed in the end credits) do more than describe the war; they embody it. “They Shall Not Grow Old” is an almost great talking head documentary in which the talking heads are never seen, only heard.

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The retrieval and exaltation of these voices, even if heavily edited and cut into short snippets, is Jackson’s enduring and exemplary achievement. the images, despite all the work that went into adapting it, are mostly illustrative, a kind of visual backdrop and temporary space filler, stretched and condensed to fit the soundtrack. where jackson’s flattening of the imagery to the bland standards of mainstream entertainment vitiates its iconic power, reduces its sense of direct contact with the events under discussion, and feels as synthetic and vague as its manipulations, its dramatic composition of the arc of wartime experience. , guided by the accounts of its survivors, covers a wide and insightful range of illuminating details, beginning with the informal shrug with which young Britons greeted the country’s declaration of war on August 4, 1914. Several of them they describe the war as “a job”, even an eagerly awaited adventure in contrast to their everyday work life.

jackson devotes much attention to the draft, to the martial fever that swept across the country and drove many teenage men below the official service age (nineteen) to volunteer (some veterans enlisted at the age of fifteen years) and the practical aspects of military training. the rigor of marching with a bundle of one hundred and nine pounds, with official boots that rarely fit (it is explained that he urinated on the boots to soften the leather), was matched by training in marksmanship and hand-to-hand combat. he melee with bayonets, as well as the emotional conditioning of the recruits to kill the enemy.

the film details the sudden transportation to war: the train ride to dover, the ship from dover to calais, the march through the agricultural countryside of france unscathed (and apparently unaffected), until the troops reached what are called “abandoned” cities, sites of eerie almost total devastation, uninhabited, reduced to ruins and, in places, to lunar desolation. passing through them, the troops reached the trenches they would be defending and from which they would launch their attacks, not mere dugouts, but a labyrinth-like ensemble built on a city-like scale. (At this point, the images in the film change from their original black and white to color and 3D.)

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A soldier speaks of his arrival in the trenches as “like an adventure, like camping, but with a bit of danger to make it sporty.” but the danger soon proved to be no small thing: the German artillery fire very quickly exhausted the nerves of some soldiers; in the five or six seconds between the blast of fire and the shell exploding, one says, “you could go through any number of psychological changes.” Along with the horrors of war – the destruction of artillery shells, the terror of sniper fire, the constant threat of death, the agony of gas attacks – the soldiers endured grueling physical conditions, including cold, mud, lack of hygiene, lice, rats, dirt. , fatigue, illness and work, and also boredom. soldiers describe how their neighbors in the trenches are suddenly killed by a sniper’s bullet or a piece of shrapnel, of a skull being “splintered” and a body sliced ​​in half, vertically, from front to back, offering a “lesson in anatomy”. others describe the macabre danger of mud pits formed in part by rotting corpses, into which soldiers slipped and sank to their deaths.

The most effective and memorable images are mainly those that show places and things: the devastated villages that the soldiers pass through on their way to the front, worms and flies on the corpses, the cloudy shine of this putrid mud. The images of soldiers relaxed, at work or in combat, and, for that matter, the terrifying and sad ones of those fallen in action, are not as indifferent as, despite Jackson’s best intentions, Generals. attached by technology to our own times, they are cut off from their own physicality, from their iconic connection to the moment they preserve.

the dramatic center of “they shall not grow old” is an attack on the German lines, as the soldiers “run up and down” from the trenches to “no man’s land” and charge the positions of the German machine gunners, who await the time to spray the advancing British troops with bullets and kill almost everyone in the “first wave”. soldiers describe being hit by German artillery, and also by British artillery, when the guns had inadequate range or the gunners misjudged. the advancing British army trampled on the corpses of their own comrades; tanks, used in battle for the first time, ran over corpses; reaching the German lines, the British soldiers were incinerated by German flamethrowers; and, when the British forces managed to reach the German trenches and capture German soldiers, some took prisoners and some took no prisoners. (“I’m afraid there was a bit of bloodshed,” says a British veteran.) One moment filmed after the final attack on the German lines takes precedence over the others: After the battle, a wounded soldier with a bullet holes in his arm are treated by a doctor who applies iodine to the wounds, a process that, on the soundtrack, a veteran describes as excruciatingly painful; when he lifts a bandage and covers his nose and mouth, the soldier’s gaze into the camera apparently defies the cameraman’s effort to record his and his comrades’ suffering. it is a gaze that is both defiant and imploring; he expects no chance of the inner understanding so desperately desired and hurls a stifled fury at the impassive camera. The challenge is one Jackson doesn’t worry about, Second Hand; it takes for granted the camera’s ability to capture the soldiers’ experience and its own power to convey it.

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