Peter Jackson certainly does us a service in terms of historical preservation by restoring century-old footage for They Shall Not Grow Old. Seeing it in a normal frame rate, and in colour, opens up the past in a new way by allowing us to see the world as those soldiers once saw it. It becomes more immediate and, in a sense, more terrifying, because blood has returned to being red, and the deathly pallor of a corpse now can stand out amongst the muddy browns of the trenches. You have a better feel for the unspeakable conditions they had to face, and seeing their faces clearly allows you to perhaps see in them the faces of your own ancestors. People who were whisked off to a war that was more gruesome than anything we can comprehend as ordinary citizens, and who were changed in the most fundamental ways after the fact. Just listening to their voices opining on how badly they were treated after they returned home is not easy. In fact, nothing about this is easy.
The question here is: Have they been better treated by Jackson’s new project in death? That’s a hard one to answer, because the final product is heavily manipulated. Sound effects are added, for instance, in order to approximate the sounds of war, while close-ups of smiling soldiers are immediately juxtaposed with dead bodies—regardless of whether they were the same people or not. Yet is this level of artifice truly necessary to enhance this experience, or is it partaking in the same mistakes of glorified Hollywood epics, which like to bend the truth for dramatic effect? Purposely removing mention of key dates and places also homogenizes this historical record in a way that robs those specific events of their individuality. This works in tandem with how the voices of the veterans are all plastered together, so that we cannot match them up with a name. These veterans have, in effect, returned to being mere faces in a crowd, and while I realize this was a deliberate choice, it doesn’t feel right. Perhaps because all those voices are now gone, Jackson felt it was easier to just push their names to the end credits, knowing that no one would complain.
It’s a slippery text, this one. Commendable in some areas, but suspicious in others. That’s why I don’t think Jackson can claim to have made a definitive documentary about the Great War, in spite of his hard work in getting so much footage restored. There are a few too many tricks here that come to undermine his efforts.