They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s remarkable First World War documentary, begins with a group of soldiers marching down a road. As the men walk past the camera they are unsure what to do. They have probably never been filmed before. Some remain awkwardly rigid, as was the style when having a still photograph taken. Others smile. The sound of celluloid film being projected whirs in the background. The footage is in black and white.

For the next 20 minutes, Jackson – who sifted through 600 hours of video and 100 hours of audio from the Imperial War Museum’s archives – keeps within the comfortable confines of Britain’s pleasant pastures. Multiple narrators (all recordings of men who fought in the war) offer their reasons for enlisting. 

Many of the underage troops are giddy about heading to Belgium, eager to get into the scrap. They could never have fathomed the grim reality that awaited. As they finally reach the frontline, their tone changes – and so, too, does the entire documentary. 

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The screen suddenly widens as the black and white turns to beautifully vivid colour, a Wizard of Oz-like moment that engulfs the viewer and breathes new life into these images. The Lord of the Rings filmmaker has worked his cinematic wizardry once again, adding sound (Jackson brought aboard lip-readers to work out what the men were saying and got actors to read the lines) and computer-generated frames that help smooth over the damaged footage.

As immersive and impressive as They Shall Not Grow Old may be, there’s an argument to be made that this hyper-restoration represents a bastardisation of history. Writing for the UCL Film & TV society, Milo Garner points to a certain sector of the “unruly film conservationist community” who have been angered by Jackson’s restoration. They suggest that “in making these images more ‘realistic’, one forgets that they do not necessarily represent reality at all. Much of the footage used is staged or in some way manipulated.” Not only this, but by restoring the images you lose out on seeing the method by which they were captured.

They Shall Not Grow Old – trailer

The conservationists offer an extreme example: enhancing these images, they argue, is akin to colouring in cave drawings to make them more lifelike. While the drawings would certainly be more realistic, the results would not represent the way primitive humans perceived and recorded their world.

That’s somewhat true here. A smartphone, capable of fitting in a uniform pocket, can take clearer images than those manageable 100 years ago by a camera the size of two mortar bombs. There were no microphones brought to the frontline, so Jackson had to add noise himself – his film is educated guesswork at the sounds these men were experiencing and what they were saying. 

Ana Carden-Coyne, director of the Centre for the Cultural History of War at the University of Manchester, points out the fallacy of this argument. Artists of the time, she says, used similar photo manipulation to Jackson’s to present the war to the public. Examples include Frank Hurley and Paul Castelnau: the first made a single dramatic image from many; the second used auto-chromes to colourise images of the French army. 

The Imperial War Museum seems to agree with this reading. Their head of film, Matt Lee, says: “When the cinema-going public during the First World War viewed the original footage, some of the films would have been tinted or toned. Music would have accompanied the screenings and the films could have had a spoken introduction or even commentary.”

How we use, contextualise and repurpose film when constructing historical texts should be debated, Lee says: “The discussion around these issues is important and the film makes us question the concepts of archival transformation, documentary and the nature of authenticity.”

What, then, about the moral implications of such a film – one which manipulates footage to tell the narrative the filmmaker wants? Adam Woodward, writing for Little White Lies, notes: “The sudden transition to colour, far from adding authenticity or realism, draws attention to the artificiality of his endeavour. It leaves us consciously examining the process – and ethics – of rendering real-life human tragedy as glossy spectacle.” 

A glossy spectacle the film certainly is. One scene, for instance, where the soldiers are seen going “over the top” and into no-man’s land, is presented as a terrifying moment. Does the scene show the truth of what happened? There’s no denying that men braved barbaric orders and took on the daunting task of marching over to the enemy side, but the footage here is actually of the soldiers in training. 

Jackson could never have shown actual footage of men charging no-man’s land, as no such footage exists – the camera operators would have been sitting ducks for German snipers. The Independent’s film critic, Geoffrey Macnab, argues instead that Jackson “strives after an emotional truth” and has made “a more honest film than, say, The Battle of the Somme (1916), which was propagandistic and highly selective in what it showed to the British public”.

Perhaps we should compare Jackson’s work to that of blockbuster directors such as Steven Spielberg, who helmed Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. Carden-Coyne draws this comparison, pointing out that the technological advances made by filmmakers – most recently Christopher Nolan with Dunkirk – are driving these films from the entertainment space towards the commemorative. “It’s fair to say,” she adds, “the idea of humanising the past is one of the things that film offers current audiences.”

As Jackson told All About History: “What I hope the film does is that it takes away 100 years and makes you think that those who fought were just the same as us. They were no different and yet what they experienced was something extraordinary in all sorts of ways, good and bad. Their human response to what they experienced is strangely familiar because we all go through times of hardship, pain, suffering and pleasure. We hear these guys talking about the same things that we feel and you suddenly realise that 100 years has just evaporated and it makes it more immediate.”

When They Shall Not Grow Old airs this Sunday on BBC2, chances are the arguments made by those “unruly film conservationists” will fall by the wayside. It’s a commanding work that will likely achieve exactly what the Imperial War Museum set out to do: inspire audiences to find out more about the events that took place during the First World War. 

They Shall Not Grow Old is in cinemas now and airs on BBC2 at 9.30pm on Sunday

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