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Jackson WW1 documentary review

Last night, three days after its first broadcast on British television, I finally got around to watching my tele-recording of Sir Peter Jackson’s highly-acclaimed (colourised and modern-technology enhanced), six years in the making, 90-minute documentary THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD which was produced in conjunction with the BBC and the Imperial War Museum and timed to be released in cinemas in the run-up to the centenary of the end of WW1 on Armistice Day 1918 and then the first transmission on the day itself.

With one exception, the advance previews – and indeed reviews – I have seen or heard have been universally favourable.

The painstaking process employed (600 hours’ worth of Imperial War Museum archive contemporary black-and-white footage reviewed, much of it enhanced as stated above; a similar review/restoration of hundreds of WW1 veteran interviews housed in the Imperial War Museum collections, used to accompany the footage; even the employment of lip readers to ‘bring alive’ the unrecorded comments being made on the hitherto ‘silent’ footage) has been saluted.

Further, the on-screen results have been hailed as ‘breathtakingly poignant’ and ‘revelatory’ and even by some historians and others in the ‘public education ‘ industry as a seminal breakthrough moment that will have a positive and potentially far-reaching effect in terms of pointing to new ways in which ‘moving’ footage of historical subjects, both WW1-related and not, can better be presented to modern audiences and students.

In the above paragraph I indirectly but deliberately referenced ‘WW1 subjects’ in the plural because, of course – as some have pointed out before me – THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD devotes itself almost exclusively to the training and then trench-warfare experiences of British and Allied infantry units between 1914 and 1918.

There are tens of other WW1-related subjects – e.g. the war at sea, in the air, the home front, ‘reserved’ occupations, the ‘of necessity’ changing roles for women in factories, nursing and elsewhere, to list but a few – that might easily warrant (and benefit from) similar treatment.

Which leads me to my own reaction(s) to what I watched last night.

To be frank, I was somewhat underwhelmed.

Probably in large measure because (1) WW1 is a subject with which I’m a bit more than a bit familiar and (2) my expectations were sky-high – the advance publicity had been so laudatory that I had been anticipating a piece that would merit a Spinal Tap-type maximum of “11 out of 10” for quality and excellence.

In the event, for me – for all its plusses – it scored no more than  a “7”.

Indisputably the project was a worthy one – and huge credit indeed needs to be placed at the feet of everyone involved from Sir Peter Jackson himself and the BBC (as joint producer/broadcaster) right down to the ‘best boy’ and the kid or kids in charge of the ‘clapper board’.

But – and it’s a big but.

However mind-blowing it was at first to see Jackson’s ‘enhanced’ colourised WW1 footage, for me – after about the first ten minutes or so in which it was used – the accompanying commentary of excerpts from interviews with genuine WW1 vets, recorded maybe 30 or even 50 years after the event, began to fade in its impact.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like a narrative – some sort of narrative – to anything I’m watching.

With THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD, there was none.

Uninitiated viewers would have gained little to no understanding of the course of WW1’s progress, or where any of the scenes were filmed – they were just being presented with images – admittedly wonderfully enhanced ones – of ‘life in the trenches’ as one homogenous blob of gloop without any context or time-line.

Maybe Jackson knew exactly what he was doing and this approach was deliberate. If so, I’d venture to suggest that it was an error.

My slim degree of background knowledge, for example, meant that I was aware when the events being covered switched to early 1916 (and beyond) because of the fact that the soldiers were then all wearing the famous British Tommy’s WW1 steel helmets: they hadn’t been issued prior to that date.

Nobody watching who did not have similar prior knowledge would have been aware of this because it was never mentioned.

There was a fair bit of footage of British tanks included – these first saw action at all in September 1916 (on the Somme) and their first major battle was Cambrai (20th November to 7th December 1917).

Again, these facts were never mentioned so some viewers maybe have been left with the impression that British tanks were in action from the moment war was declared in August 1914.

The particularly bloody Battle of Passchendaele (31st July to 7th November 1917) was also mentioned in passing, but neither its date nor its place in the chronological order of things.

Accordingly, my overall considered view of THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD is (for all its many achievements) that of an opportunity missed.

I do not wish to be too harsh – very little in life is perfect and there’s a degree with artistic endeavours of any description that whatever anyone does will be wrong as far as someone will be concerned.

Sadly, despite the amazing effect of the colourised and enhanced film footage, there was no narrative and – at a point where there was still half an hour or more go to the advertised end of the piece – last night I began to ‘wind down’ mentally and start wondering how much longer before it was going to be before I could finally turn out the lights out and waddle along the corridor to bed.



About Henry Elkins

A keen researcher of family ancestors, Henry will be reporting on the centenary of World War One. More Posts