Documentary

Let the boy try this bayonet-blade

theywillnotgrowold

BOYS to men: Solders in the Great War, part of the footage in Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. Photograph courtesy epicstream.com

THE GREAT WAR. It was billed a war to end all wars, and it radically changed the nature of society. Ask any historian. Read any biographical or fictional account of it. A world war is grist for a million story mills, the premise for timeless love stories and coming of age issues. But in this particular splaying of all that world war is about, director Peter Jackson has done the unthinkable in crafting They Shall Not Grow Old, and releasing it commercially on the art film circuit. This is not your The World at War narrative, with a voice overhead explaining the political whats, whos and whys. It’s not your Richard Attenborough’s Oh! What A Lovely War! which offers a sarky and sophisticated take on the greedy monster of this kind of war, coloured as it is by false promises and propaganda. It’s the real thing.

Jackson has worked with original filmed footage of a surprisingly fine quality in constructing this no-holds-barred essay into the horror and humour, the tragedy and victory of the First World War. The voices are those of the men themselves, the interstices between footage draw from war posters and propaganda, and the digital remastering doesn’t force its 21st-century technologically sophisticated elbows into the material. This is video-editing at its most astonishingly fine which allows the unknown photographers and cinematographers behind those 1915 camera devices proper immortality.

If you don’t know anything about the First World War, or if you’re an aficionado of anything vaguely related to it, you will be swept off your feet by the important credibility that this project offers. It’s 100 years, this year, since Armistice Day in 1918 which saw peace reigning in Europe after the Great War. Two generations ago. This filmic achievement stands in a position where it can educate people of the present and future about what this monster war was and did for the ordinary chap in the world.

Not only does it examine the testosterone adventure that the prospect of a war represented to many youngsters in the pre-teens of the 20th century, but it also looks at the propagandistic machine which painted the German antagonist, “Jerry” as a demonic brute, to say nothing of the physical hardships which made millions of youngsters into men (if not corpses). It also looks at the dire aftermath of the war in which veterans, broken in spirit and body were no longer able to serve their society. It’s a cruel reversal of the hoodwinking they were subject to under the white feather, a symbol of pre-war cowardice.

This is a film to watch in conjunction with war requiems such as the enormous work composed by Benjamin Britten in the 1960s. It’s a companion to the words of the war poets of the ilk of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and others, as it is an embrace of universal values. Of course, it is politically one sided, drawing as it does from British archives, but in looking at the young men rather than the politics, it upholds the kind of story told by the youth on the other side too.

They Shall Not Grow Old should be mandatory investments on the part of any history teacher or lecturer who wants to imbibe the values of an ideology in her students, properly.

  • They Shall Not Grow Old is directed by Peter Jackson and features a cast comprising real First World War veterans. Produced by Peter Jackson and Clare Olssen, it features creative input by Jabez Olssen (editing) and John Neill (music score mixer). Release date in South Africa under Ster Kinekor Cinema Nouveau: November 15 2018.
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