On the screen: a camera at the parapet
5 Dec 2018|

Peter Jackson’s film on the centenary of the Great War, They Shall Not Grow Old, is a masterpiece. Jackson has brought the hostilities of the Western Front of 1914–1918 to vivid life in a brilliantly constructed film which charts the course of youthful soldiers, some as young as 15, from recruitment and training at the outbreak of the war to the stunned realisation that the war was at an end at the armistice of 11 November 1918.

The Imperial War Museums in the UK must be acknowledged for their decision to commission Jackson to make this film. The director builds on his earlier outstanding effort for the Australian War Memorial, Over the Front, which recreated the aerial conflict of World War I.

Both movies are superbly crafted; no one is in any doubt of Jackson’s movie-making skills, given his Oscar-winning triumphs with The Lord of the Rings.

But Jackson achieves much more with They Shall Not Grow Old.

Early scenes will be familiar to most audiences. Black-and-white footage of 1914 shows recruits enlisting, being outfitted and training as infantrymen. However, the arrival of the troops, mainly those of the British Empire, on the battlefields of France and Belgium is where Jackson brings historic footage into the current century.

Not only is the film presented in colour, but the soldiers move in real time and a soundtrack has been added, which means that the constant artillery fire becomes a backdrop for much of what we see.

Throughout the movie, interviews with veterans of the Western Front play continually. Overwhelmingly, these are British voices, with the occasional Australian, Canadian or American added for diversity of involvement but also commonality of experience. These are real voices of real people who describe what life was actually like behind the sandbags and going over the top.

More than a few movies have accurately portrayed life in the mud and blood of the Great War. The best is probably Stanley Kubrick’s The Paths of Glory (1957), which is focused on the French army mutinies of 1917. Joseph Losey pursued a similar theme in King and Country (1964). Australian director Peter Weir didn’t flinch from showing the futile courage of Australian troops going knowingly to their deaths at the Nek in Gallipoli (1981).

However, the original version of All Quiet on the Western Front, directed by Lewis Milestone in 1930, offers a different perspective. Milestone’s movie, as with Erich Maria Remarque’s original novel, demonstrates beyond doubt that the German war fighters did it every bit as tough as their allied opponents.

Indeed, towards the end of They Shall Not Grow Old, there is extensive footage of the taking of German prisoners as the Kaiser’s army disintegrates and allied forces advance. There is still bloody fighting, but the fraternisation of allied troops with German POWs shows that battlefield enmities are transitory despite the best efforts of the propagandists. In particular, the German wounded are shown receiving equal treatment with their wounded victors.

World War I was brutal beyond belief, as all histories attest. Jackson brings that home with scenes of battlefield dead; uninhabitable trenches filled with water; plagues of rats; soldiers battling the scourge of lice; and the fallen being buried in makeshift graves.

On occasion, the soundtrack comes into its own, as with the scene in which a cavalry unit attempts to move in the open and is bracketed by German shellfire. The event is witnessed at close quarters, giving the cinemagoer a very deadly equivalent of a day at the races. Jackson opens the door to a grim universe that is passed from firsthand human experience, but should never be lost by current and future generations.

It is to be hoped that Jackson’s masterpiece of a film leads to other directors following. Fortunately, there’s a wealth of vision recorded by cameramen on the various World War I battlefields of Europe and the Middle East and beyond. Nothing will reach younger generations better than colourised accounts of events that happened more than a century ago.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a record of an ordinary soldier’s war. True, it’s obvious from certain camera angles that a number of scenes were staged for the early filmmakers’ benefit. But that doesn’t detract from the overall impact of the film, and the interviews confirm a credibility that only a surviving veteran can afford. Indeed, some of the battlefield drama goes unremarked, as with an obviously shell-shocked infantryman shaking uncontrollably as he moves back from the line with other wounded. Like all great directors, Jackson lets his viewers draw the necessary conclusions without intervening with editorial bombast.

And in the midst of the carnage there’s humour, as with very young soldiers discussing their amazement at their first visit to a French brothel or the striking contrast between military life and civvy street at home. Certainly, the final line of the film alone is worth the price of a ticket.

Every Australian should see this film. It is a landmark achievement from a director who has reached the summit of his skills and has a clarity of understanding that is rarely given even the best of storytellers. Peter Jackson is deserving of every accolade earned by They Shall Not Grow Old.