They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

2018 #234
Peter Jackson | 95 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & New Zealand / English | 15

They Shall Not Grow Old

Commissioned by 14-18 NOW (the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary) and the Imperial War Museum to see what he could do to make their old World War One footage more engaging for a modern audience, director Peter “Lord of the Rings” Jackson’s initial tests at restoring the footage were so successful that the project was eventually worked up into this feature-length documentary. It tells the story of the Western Front from the point of view of ordinary Tommies living and fighting on the frontline, using only footage from the period (plus photos, posters, artwork, maps, and so on) and narration taken from interviews with men who were really there — no historians to provide context or analysis here.

This presents two distinct things to consider when looking at the film: not only its success as a documentary, but also the methods Jackson and co have undertaken to produce it. In terms of the latter, what Jackson and his computer wizards have done goes far beyond the normal realms of “restoration”. For starters, the original footage has been cleaned up (removing scratches and dirt, stabilising the image, etc) — so far, so normal. But that original footage was shot on hand-cranked cameras, giving it a frame rate of anywhere from 10 to 18fps (sometimes varying within one piece of film). So, computers have created additional frames to bring all the footage up to a standard, smoother 24fps. Then the footage has been painstakingly colourised, and also converted into 3D (if you see it at a 3D cinema screening, anyway. Maybe there’ll be a Blu-ray). The goal of all this is to make it seem more immediate and real; to try to connect modern viewers to these men in a more direct fashion, without the distancing effect of watching juddery, indistinct black & white film.

Before and after

Calling the work Jackson and co did to old footage “restoration” has been controversial in some circles, because it goes beyond mere “restoration” and into the realm of revisionism, like the colourisation of old movies that came to prominence in the ’80s and was widely criticised (though it still occasionally rears its head today — try buying a Blu-ray of It’s a Wonderful Life without both black & white and colour copies of the film). Jackson has a different and specific aim with his work here, however. He’s not saying this is a better way to view old film footage fullstop, but rather is looking for a way to bring these past events to life for a modern viewer; to try to erase the past 100 years and put us in their shoes, to make us see how much these people, though separated by so much time, were really very similar to us. The effectiveness of the end result in achieving this goal — of bringing that long-gone war vividly to life — is undeniable.

Indeed, anecdotally, a lot of people do find the addition of colour to be revelatory — after the film’s screening on BBC Two last night, I saw many tweets talking about the “extraordinary”, “breathtaking”, “jaw dropping”, “spine tingling”, “astounding” moment when colour faded in. Personally, however, it rarely seemed like more than a special-effects veneer painted over the original footage. Well, that’s exactly what it is, in fact. It’s not necessarily a criticism, either — it may be for the best, even, because this isn’t a kind of ‘restoration’ we want to see applied across the board to old films. Either way, I do agree that it added a new perspective to see the war presented in this way; but the idea that it’s a perfect, genuinely lifelike ‘restoration’ didn’t quite wash with me. In fact, I thought one of the film’s most striking, identifiable moments came early on, before it had made the transition to colour: as the narrators talk about how young they were when they signed up, we’re shown closeups of soldiers’ faces, and you can really see how young they were — many of them literally just boys. I think it’s pretty common knowledge that, although the age to sign up was 19, lads as young as 14 lied to get in, but seeing it so clearly is another matter.

Faces

Moments like that prove that They Shall Not Grow Old’s success as a documentary doesn’t just lie with its “restored” footage. The film’s worth lies as much in the way the story is told — the voiceover narration taken from genuine soldiers’ testimonies, recorded by the BBC and IWM in the ’60s and ’70s; the editing of certain sequences — as it does in the “modernising” of old footage. The added colour and clarity do bring some bits to life and make them feel closer to today, as per Jackson’s stated goal, but a lot of the time the smeary, blurry quality of the colourisation makes it feel as much like a painting come to life as it does real footage. Nonetheless, the truthfulness of what we’re being told burns through that, and it’s the combination of visuals and audio that aids our understanding of what life was like for those men in that place at that time.

It’s quite a dense film too, packed with information, constantly surging forward with the images, an imagined soundtrack to match them, and almost non-stop narration. At times it becomes like a tone collage, where you almost absorb it more than process it, getting an impression of life on the front more than specific experiences. In this interview, Jackson says the film uses about 120 narrators, edited together to sound almost like they’re telling one story — the “common story” of the experience of a soldier on the Western Front, with extreme or uncommon anecdotes having been edited out. It means a lot of the war isn’t touched on (other fronts, other experiences, like the Navy or Air Force), but there were budgetary reasons for that as much as anything (they originally offered Jackson enough money for a film about 30 minutes long).

Western Front

While those other stories are undoubtedly worth telling too, I think it was wise of Jackson to retain a degree of focus here. Rather than attempt to cram a wide-ranging account of a complex conflict into the brief running time of a single film, he’s instead painted a picture of what it was like to be an ordinary Tommy in the trenches of Europe. This is not the story of commanders and generals, of presidents and kings, but of ordinary blokes on the ground — the people most of us would’ve been, had we lived 100 years ago — and Jackson’s methods help make that story as real and relatable as it’s ever been.

5 out of 5

They Shall Not Grow Old is available on iPlayer until Sunday 18th November. A documentary about the making of the film airs on BBC Four tonight at 7:30pm.

Wonder Woman (2017)

2017 #81
Patty Jenkins | 141 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA, China & Hong Kong / English | 12A / PG-13

Wonder Woman

Following Wonder Woman’s introduction in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (her central role in that film’s final act surely being the inspiration for its terrible subtitle), here we flash back in time to learn her origin — of her childhood on a hidden island of warrior women; of the events that brought her into our world; and of what made her keep quietly to the sidelines for almost a century.

The fourth film in DC’s shared cinematic universe, commonly dubbed the DCEU, is by far its best reviewed to date. It’s also the first superhero movie of the modern era (i.e. post Iron Man) to be based around a female character. I can’t help but think one has a lot to do with the other, because, in my estimation, Wonder Woman is not massively better than or different to the action-adventure blockbusters we get several of every year — the only exception being, of course, that it stars a woman. While that is undoubtedly important, and its meaningfulness can apparently not be understated, it doesn’t automatically elevate the quality of the rest of the movie. Or maybe it does for some people — maybe “the same, but with a woman” is enough to make it a genre classic.

The film’s strongest feature (gender politics aside) is its cast. Gal Gadot is fantastic — it’s no wonder this role seems to have made her an instant star. Chris Pine also gives a likeable performance, while Lucy Davis nails the comedic support. Also of note are the strong Amazonian ladies who shape Diana’s childhood, Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright. On the other side of the fence, Danny Huston is pretty much wasted, while David Thewlis ultimately feels a little miscast.

If anyone can take a sword to a gun fight...

The action is very much from the Zack Snyder school — an inexplicable mix of slow-mo and almost-sped-up (or speed-ramped, as it is either known or people have become fond of calling it). Fortunately it doesn’t degenerate into this all the time — while it was a neat effect when it was new, now it feels derivative and overdone. The rest of the action is of mixed quality: some of it is exciting and well-staged, but at other times succumbs to the modern foibles of shooting it too close and cutting it too fast. The climax is a disappointingly bland CGI-athon, which goes on and on as if someone is stalling for time while they try to think how to end it.

The third act as a whole is probably the film’s biggest problem. The opening stuff on Secret Lady Island is all great; the middle stuff in London is often fun; and there’s some dramatic stuff when Diana & co first arrive on the front lines. It does drag a little in places, mainly when we get the umpteenth go-round of Diana and Steve debating their relative morals; but it’s as the film tries to bring itself towards a conclusion that it really begins to flounder, forcibly manoeuvring our heroes into a position to actually face the villains (who we’ve been seeing on-and-off in scenes where the only purpose is to remind us those characters exist). For instance, there’s a party scene which serves very little purpose. It’s not a bad idea for a sequence (even if it is a well-worn one), but it doesn’t contribute much to justify its existence. You could cut it entirely and nothing would be lost.

Undercover woman

Even after the climactic battle, some things just aren’t rounded off. Like, how Secret Lady Island sort of just disappears from the story (does Diana want to get back there? Does she try? What’s happened to it now Ares is dead?) There’s no closure given to the supporting cast either; and, as the inevitable sequel is reportedly to be set in the present day, I doubt there ever will be. They may not be the greatest or deepest characters, but Davis at least feels like she needs a final moment (there’s one included on the Blu-ray, at least, though it feels like it was intended as a post-credits tease that someone thought better of).

I don’t want to try to ‘mansplain’ (*shudder*) away the significance of either Wonder Woman as a character or this Wonder Woman movie to female audiences both young and old. It’s fantastic that there’s a strong, capable, independent, successful role model being presented in the blockbuster arena. It’s brilliant that it was also directed by a woman, something all too rare in movies as a whole, never mind big-budget ones (though note that none of the three credited screenwriters are female). It’s marvellous that it’s been such a big box office success, proving that these issues are important, and that Hollywood’s received wisdom that “female superhero movies don’t sell” is exactly as bullshit as it always has been. And, actually, all of that is good for men and boys too — to be exposed to such high-profile representations of women that are more than just objects of desire or support for their own endeavours. That’s part of how you begin to change thinking and status in the wider world.

Climbing the ladder of progess, or something

But, if you set societal significance aside, I don’t think this particular film is any better, nor any worse, than your averagely good male-led blockbuster. And that’s okay. I like those films. It’s important to have female leads in movies at the same level as their male counterparts. But I think some people have got carried away, hailing a film that’s averagely-good as being incredibly-great just because it has a female protagonist. In some respects, maybe they’re right, just to make the point (I won’t be surprised if the same thing happens next year with Black Panther and heroes of colour). But there’s been talk of Wonder Woman launching a Best Picture campaign, and I feel that’s just a little bit daft.

Still, let’s not end on a down note. I enjoyed Wonder Woman a lot, even as it exhibited many of the flaws — and, equally, many of the successes — found in most blockbusters nowadays. It’s a good blockbuster, and its significance in terms of little girls (and boys) seeing a strong, capable female hero is immense.

4 out of 5

The latest DCEU movie, Justice League, is in cinemas now.