Written by Chelsea Pickens
Being real for a second, the draw of this documentary film for me was undeniably that ‘it was something by Peter Jackson‘, our very own Kiwi king of film. It’s not that I’m not interested in World War I, or war-related cinematography – I am, as much as the next vaguely aware but detached youngish person. I learnt about the war in high school. It sounded horrible and I tried to empathise as much as I could – as much as anyone can when they’re reacting to far-away stories of long ago. The details have faded in my mind since then; until now I have had only a basic awareness of what really went on. In fact, I had to google some facts to enhance my basic knowledge in preparation for this review, such as ‘why did WWI start’, which, while I felt stupid typing it, it actually turns out a lot of people don’t know. An assassination and a lot of complicated stuff? Well, enter the need for films like We Shall Not Grow Old. Because us youngish people do need to know. This is our history too and the history of those before us who bravely sacrificed for what they were told was right.
To commemorate 100 years since the end of the Great War, Peter Jackson uses real footage from Britain’s Imperial War Museum and the BBC to bring the story to us. Not the political story (which I’m sure not even he could straighten out), but the human story of the British soldiers, the men who eagerly enlisted and ended up being thrust into a world they could have never envisioned, and us, generations on, could never envision until now. So many movies have attempted to retell and glamorise the war through Hollywood fictions, but this film gives us the true story, using the real faces and voices of those who were really there on the front line in one of the most ghastly and notable times in recent history. This is not a story about war but a story about men, their day-to-day activities, what they ate, what they thought, when they were scared, when they could only act and not think, how they had to learn to cope and adapt when their friends died around them.
The story is told sequentially, starting with the original black and white, flickering footage of the English propaganda and recruitment, all the time being narrated by the voices of veterans (which are unfortunately at times difficult to make out). This mixture of voices tells us about the vast numbers of underage boys encouraged to lie by officials and slip into the system, of the social pressure on young men to enlist for their country, and the excitement of others to escape mundane everyday life for an adventure and purpose. The original grainy footage takes us through training camp, complete with gun and bayonet drills, meals of slop and school-boy pranks on commanding officers. Jackson allows for different narratives to weave through each scene, making it clear throughout the film that life in the army and war was neither only a torture nor a picnic. Some flourished and found their place, others suffered and struggled. Like so many things, the experience was different for each individual.
The newly trained soldiers sail to Calais and march through France. When they enter the trenches and battlefields, the world of war opens up to them and to us, the viewer, as Jackson begins his restoration of the footage. This is where the soldiers become real people, in bright colour and sharp focus, the screen comes alive and now we can really watch them and know them, looking into each individual face. We see the men laughing and joking around together, we see them drinking tea in the trenches, we see them trying to sleep in the mud and waking up confused to a camera in their face. We’re told about the hardship and the many physical discomforts, and the ease brought by automatic comradery and fast friendship, in finding a laugh in the simplest of things.
When the men are ordered to enter the German lines on foot, we’re there waiting with them in position. As the camera moves around, we can look into the eyes of these young men and teenage boys, waiting for a probable death, fear shining through the faces of some, others detached and focused. It’s hard to remember this was real – these men really were waiting, knowing they were likely to get blown apart or shot down by moving forward. Yet they move forward. Of course, Jackson is not shy with restoring the gore in all its glory and throughout the film we get a fair few shots of fallen and then decaying soldiers, and even some split-open horses. These are the realities of war after all and that’s what we’re here for.
What was surprising and especially moving for me was the way the men treated the German soldiers. Despite being the ‘enemy’, they were talked about as equals, no pleasure was taken in killing them and the men tried to alternatively take them as prisoners where possible. We can see images of them all talking and joking around, and swapping hats back behind British lines. The veteran narrators, even as boys recognised the Germans were in the exact same position as themselves, just regular people being told to fight for their country, with both sides unable to see the point in it anymore, or caring about who wins. When the war ends no one celebrates. They’re all exhausted and deflated, reclining in heaps on the sides of French roads. Some were relieved, yet some felt like they’d been ‘made redundant’. When the men arrive home, we arrive back at our original black and white footage, paired with descriptions of the struggle to fit back into society and a sense that civilians could never fully understand or comprehend what the soldiers had gone through. That world of war was only theirs, real only to them, illustrated cleverly by Jackson’s colourful reanimation of war life, and subsequent reversal to grainy original footage when the war ends, signalling their disconnectedness with civilian life after war.
As I’ve found myself saying when asked about the movie, it’s not a film you would go to for a good time, but it’s an important and moving piece of work – especially important for those of us who, up until now have struggled to connect with or even remember anything about the Great War. We need to know what these people went through and how it’s shaped our world, and why it should never happen again. Lest we forget.