The first thing you need to know is that the theater my pal Emily and I saw this at must have mistyped the name in their computer system, and so our ticket receipts read “THEY SHANT GROW OLD,” and that’s what we’re going to be calling this documentary exclusively from here on forward.
The second thing you need to know is that if They Shan’t Grow Old is still playing anywhere near you, the theatrical run opens with Peter Jackson welcoming you to the movie and letting you know that if you want to stick around after, he’ll explain how they did everything. And you sure as hell do, the point of Peter Jackson movies is to spend about as much time inhaling the special features as you spend watching the actual film itself. I’ve talked to multiple friends about this doc and do you know what I tell them most about? All the stuff I learned in the making-of.
The other thing I tell them is the key production change I would have made, if I had known several years ago that I should have sent a cover letter to Petey Jacks explaining how my unique skillset as a former cooking show producer & WWI buff specially qualifies me to help him produce his First World War documentary.
What Jackson and his team chose to do is pair their astonishingly clarified and colorized archival footage with only first-hand veteran accounts of their time in the war, no outside voices, to create an immersive experience of what it was like to be at the Western Front. I like this! The once jerky and grainy old footage looks strikingly more real after being refurbished, and so doubling down on the sense of this time in history “coming alive” is a cohesive and strong approach. But. These oral histories were recorded primarily in the ’60s and ’70s by various British historical organizations, and all the voices are unmistakably the voices of old men. For all that the more modern-looking footage makes this war feel more current, these grandfatherly voices bring it right back into the past. So you ask the BBC for more money, and you hire actors. Still use the words of the soldiers themselves as your scripts, but when we spend at least seven minutes with them just telling us how painfully young they were when they enlisted (17, 15…) over footage of these scrawny teenagers in their stiff uniforms, if those voices were voices of actual teenage boys? It would be a gut-punch.
Taking this approach would also allow you to correct the representational problem of the only narrative source being these first-hand accounts: we only hear from the men who were willing to talk about the war. A lot of First World War soldiers never wanted to talk about it again. But we do have some raw material that could be pieced together, because we have files from the shell shock clinics, with the doctors’ written notes and interviews conducted in the course of trying to treat their traumatized patients. Once you’re already putting together “scripts”, you wouldn’t be restricted to the self-selected group in the oral histories, and could write sections that sure, may not be real word-for-word accounts of specific soldiers, but would nonetheless create an overall work that’s more complete, and ultimately, maybe more truthful.
Anyway, these are just my own grand plans. What Peter Jackson’s team did create was made with great care and technical artistry and was really fucking harrowing. The moment when we finally reached the trenches and the video suddenly spread to widescreen and burst into color as the booms of the guns came in for the first time, our whole audience gasped. I got goosebumps. I have goosebumps right now. And that’s some powerful filmmaking.