The Futility of War: Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old

JS Adams commends a new film that is at once a technically ingenious tribute to those who fought in World War I and a moving critique of their mistreatment in both the trenches and in civvy street. 

Humanity’s repeated failure to remember the horror and absurdity of war is, for me, best symbolised by those people who confidently claimed that World War I would be ‘the war to end all wars’, yet who never lived to see all the other ones that have happened since, costing millions more lives around the world. If we forget or downplay the horrors of war then we will never learn how to avoid it in the future, and in this era of weapons of mass destruction, the price could be the near-annihilation of our species. As Einstein reportedly said, ‘I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.’

Peter Jackson’s new film, They Shall Not Grow Old, conveys something of the futility of armed conflict. He achieves this, in part, through technical inventiveness, giving archive film footage from World War I a complete makeover by colourising and stabilising each frame, and radically improving the sound. What were once monochrome, skipping frames and figures pacing quickly about like Charlie Chaplin are transformed into a much more realistic approximation of life in the trenches. The effect is reinforced by the speech of real-life veterans which is dubbed over the soldiers in the footage. Thanks to lip reading technology, these long-dead men are able to ‘speak’ again to we who are alive today. Jackson pulls it all off so well that you might ask yourself whether you’re in fact watching a modern reconstruction by actors. In the quest for even greater realism, Jackson took his crew to an actual anti-aircraft range to record live explosions and whistling projectiles.

They Shall Not Grow Old traces the entirety of the ‘Great War’ from beginning to end, from the perspective of those fortunate servicemen who survived it. We are taken from the volunteering phase into the army training camps, to the daunting walk to the front line and the sudden, random horrors of ‘no man’s land’.

And Jackson deals head-on with the full gamut of horrors inside and outside the trenches. Soldiers wearing the same, lice-ridden uniforms for four years. Trenches, little more than muddy, waterlogged pits, causing ‘trench foot’, a terrible form of frostbite. Other diseases like cholera raging through the unsanitary environs. And this was the good news, relatively speaking.

Machine guns. Mustard gas. Shell shock. Going ‘over the top’ was almost certain death. Yet the men had only two choices: face the Germans or face a bullet from one of their own officers. If you made it into no man’s land, you’d have to negotiate an immense wasteland of craters filled with rain water, near impossible to cross.

When the war ends there is no sense of decisive victory amongst the Allies. 10 million military personnel and 7 million civilians are dead. There is no more appetite for destruction on either side. When he depicts German doctors who volunteered to help patch up British soldiers, Jackson reminds us that there was more antagonism between the elites of the participant nations than amongst the working-class men – on either side – who were forced to do the fighting – and dying – for those elites.

For the surviving British Tommies, the return home could be unpleasant. Often enough, nobody had missed them at all. Some of their relatives viewed them as freeloaders who’d been off enjoying a four-year holiday. From the civilians’ point of view, Jackson shows, it was they who were the real heroes: slogging it out in the industrial jobs that drove the war effort, struggling with rationing and other shortages. They didn’t have much sympathy for the hell the frontline soldiers had endured.

This stigma made it hard for veterans to find civilian jobs, as businesses would include the phrase ‘no ex-service’ in their advertisements. This blatant discrimination was fed by those British people who had ‘kept the home fires burning’ not only forgetting the Tommies but misunderstanding and resenting them too.

By addressing these complexities, which kick against the dominant narratives that are still with us about ‘just wars’, ‘humanitarian interventions’ and public affection for ‘our brave boys’, Jackson has done his best to ensure that the British people of today – and hopefully the future – will never forget or misunderstand the tragedy of those young men, who were indoctrinated into fighting for the interests of the wealthy and then, if they survived, would be treated like second-class citizens in their own country.

Image by Trougnouf (Benoit Brummer) and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.