Peter Jackson achieved his greatest success with a distant variation on first World War themes – The Lord of the Rings was coloured by J R R Tolkien’s experiences in the trenches – so it makes sense that, as the centenary draws to a close, he should deliver a definitive semi-documentary take on that conflict.
They Shall not Grow Old exploits all the director's technical gifts to convey the everyday Englishman's experience. (And we do mean "Englishman". Weirdly for a film from a New Zealander, the picture features few voices from outside that country.) Jackson has ploughed through the Imperial War Museum's archives, polished up the combat footage, colourised it, altered the running speed to modern standards, added dialogue where mouths move and – for certain venues – rendered it into 3-D.
This is more than a gimmick. The picture begins and ends with the footage as it is normally presented. The spotted, hazy monochrome, running too fast with no sound, puts distance between the subjects and us. This is happening “in the olden times”.
Some film historians may scream heresy but, when They Shall not Grow Old moves into JacksonVision, a little of that distance is stripped away. We now notice how curiously the soldiers peer at the unfamiliar technology recording their movements. The blood and the entrails are more vivid. Despite all that awful carnage, it's still impossible to avoid marvelling at the consistently dreadful state of the teeth. No wonder my generations' grandparents all had false replacements by the time they reached middle-age.
Yet the spoken testimony remains at least as powerful as the imagery. Rather than isolating particular subjects and following their stories, Jackson invites a collage of nameless voices to talk us through recruitment, engagement, mourning and post-war disillusionment.
There are some depressing revelations about the coolness of civilians to the returning heroes, but, for the most part, the larger arc is familiar. It’s obscure nuances that really set you back. Dark humour is derived from the information – news to me – that some Saxon prisoners hated the Prussians more than their British captors.
Indeed, we’re never too far from a graveside joke. The film ends with a delicious punch-line that gently reminds us of how ordinary life potters on in the midst of carnage.
Very much worth seeing in the cinema before it migrates to the telly.
Opens: November 9th