They Shall Not Grow Old

theyshall Near the end of the immersive World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, director/assembler Peter Jackson gives us perhaps the most breathtaking sound in the whole film: silence. Before that, we have heard the staccato of rifle fire, the grunts and creaks of tank treads, the death-dealing bass of artillery shells. But here, Jackson lets us hear something close to what Kurt Vonnegut described as the voice of God. “When I was a boy,” Vonnegut wrote in Breakfast of Champions, “all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.”

We don’t have them any more, of course — veterans of the War to End All Wars are long dead now, and those of WWII and Korea aren’t far behind. What Jackson has done, aided by firsthand accounts on the soundtrack from men who fought in the trenches, is to capture and modernize a period when Satan walked the earth, when weapons of mass destruction — machine guns, mustard gas, flame throwers, shrapnel — came into wide use. World War I was a bloody, filthy, diseased, maggot-ridden experience, repulsive in almost every way, and Jackson does his best to make it vivid for current audiences, using technology to slow and smooth the stuttery, farcical Keystone Kops effect you always get from early-20th-century newsreels, so that the filmed record of these muddy, exhausted men takes its place alongside footage of later wars.

They Shall Not Grow Old is probably the finest thing Peter Jackson has had his hand in since Heavenly Creatures. In both, he kicks off with deceptive old-timey footage; here, it goes on for about 25 minutes, at which point we arrive at the front and the film opens out to widescreen and blossoms into (subdued) color. After the war has ended, Jackson constricts the image back to squarish black-and-white. In a way, the film is something of a cheeky riposte to Christopher Nolan’s you-are-there WWII epic Dunkirk; Jackson could be saying “Good job, mate, but you had the luxury of stars and re-enactment, didn’t you?” As the (disembodied) voices continue on the soundtrack, our imaginations fill in a lot, and, as with many WWI accounts, we may wonder how anyone could have survived. A plague seems to have descended among men; Satan walks and God, until 11/11/18, is conspicuous in His absence.

We see many bodies reduced to ghostless meat, pale and torn apart, consigned to the mud and becoming part of the muck that drowned other soldiers who unluckily fell into it. Hell on Earth! Some of the voices are chipper or matter-of-fact — that incomparable British get-on-with-it attitude — others haunted or choked with trauma. Jackson takes his cue from the veterans’ accounts, indulging in neither rabble-rousing nor the modern privilege of hindsight. These were men who were born around the turn of the 20th century, and were not our idea of enlightened. (Jackson plays a popular bawdy song of the period, “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” under the end credits.) Still, though, there is room for compassion and even kinship between the English and the Germans. They have been trained to slaughter each other without hesitation, but near the finish, when it looks as though more killing would be beside the point, the adversaries sit and talk and eat together.            

Until then, though, the mood is dread-ridden — when it doesn’t give way to nervous giggles. They Shall Not Grow Old is as much about how men function under fire as about the fire itself. Many weren’t even men yet; many died still boys. WWI birthed the concept of “shell shock,” which became “combat stress reaction,” which became “post-traumatic stress disorder.” The constant of war — the thousand-yard stare coveted by an unwise combat photographer in Full Metal Jacket — is everywhere present in this film. In that first half hour or so, voice after voice tells us he joined because it was the thing to do, you stood up and fought for your country, et cetera. They had no idea of the infernal meat grinder they were signing up for, which would pulverize them into machinery or into parts.

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