Insensibility

By chance I happened to pick up Peter Jackson’s THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD on DVD for £1. I’ll buy pretty much anything for a pound, and I was curious. Morbidly so, perhaps, but I will attempt to be studiously fair.

One thing to say is that the film’s soundtrack, a medley of archival interviews with old soldiers, is brilliantly assembled, with the sound effects underpinning it used sparsely and tastefully. It DOES however begin with a lot of old guys talking about how brilliant the war was and how glad they were to do it, which made us both feel rather desperate for a dissenting voice. There are some horror stories later on which suggest that SOMEBODY must have had a negative view of the experience.

To my surprise, the film goes on for some time in b&w, Academy ratio, with visible scratches and effects of age and most importantly GRAIN. This covers all the build-up to actually getting to the front and it’s all quite compelling and you get to see the authentic footage.

Then the killing starts and suddenly we’re in Oz — the picture blossoms into colour with postcard-blue skies. This strikes me as very iffy but I will say that WETA’s digital manipulation does have a positive effect — a sense of immediacy is in fact produced. It’s a spurious immediacy, arguably, but the trenches are taken out of a historical framework and become something that could be happening now. Emotionally, that has some kind of value.

The problems come when Jackson starts enlarging the frame to turn a single shot into multiple blown-up fragments. This would look crappy in a normal film — sticking the camera in the corner and zooming in on bits — but it’s hideous here, since faces get inflated until they’re only a few grains across, but the grains have been glazed over, so that we have these freakish bumpy faces that look like shifting bags of golfballs.

Jackson’s promotional line, “we wanted to give them their humanity back” is ballyhoo and one shouldn’t take him too seriously, but I’m going to, because even as ballyhoo it’s offensive. He’s gotten lipreaders to give their best guess as to what the old silent faces are mouthing, and then dubbed in voices. This is fine as a way to work out what was being said and then convey it to an audience, but it’s certainly not authentic — the chances of the voices matching what those people actually sounded like are approximately nil. A better, and more interesting way to do it would be to fold in the investigative method into the film — make TSNGO become it’s own making-of featurette — so we can see how it’s all faked up.

Despite the gung-ho opening, there’s some really grisly stuff here — the film resorts to stills when no motion pictures are available, but this works fine. The sadism displayed by much of Jackson’s filmmaking causes a few squeamish doubts about his attitude to what he’s serving up, but it largely plays as compassionate.

The film is very watchable — the technique is successful in places — but BOY it’s a very clear illustration of what you can’t do with CGI gussying up of old footage.

7 Responses to “Insensibility”

  1. I inexplicably missed this when it was streaming free on TubiTV for a while; still waiting for one of my other streamers to pick it up (or find it in a charity shop I suppose).

  2. I could mail it to you I guess.

  3. Can’t Jackson and his audience accept that “It was all so unimaginably different and all so long ago”? If they do, they can let their imaginations realise that – surprisingly – it wasn’t really. Davies’s recent Benediction has no problem with b-and-w in a colour film.
    Personally, I agree with Aleksei German, that sound was invented a hundred years too soon in film and colour two hundred years too soon and I think it’s patronising to impose their benefits on the past and people of the past.

  4. I basically agree, and I think you’re dumbing down the audience by presenting airbrushed history. Anything that reinforces the prejudice against b&w is bad.

    I was surprised the colour had any kind of positive effect, but it did. I still wouldn’t do it, and I wouldn’t call it “restoration.”

  5. John Seal Says:

    The recent documentary BABI YAR. CONTEXT reminded me a lot of THEY WILL NOT GROW OLD, but the filmmakers wisely chose not to colorize anything (though they did add sound effects and dialogue, to brilliant effect IMHO). I think it’s the best doc I’ve seen this year and certainly couldn’t be timelier. The film depicts the German Army rolling into Lvov and Kiev in 1941 and being greeted with great enthusiasm by the locals…then it shows the Soviets reoccupying the same cities and being greeted with great enthusiasm. And yes, in between it depicts the massacre of the Jewish citizens of Kiev at Babi Yar…which couldn’t have been accomplished without the assistance of right-wing Ukrainian militiamen. It’s a gut punch of a movie.

  6. John Seal Says:

    I meant THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD, of course!

  7. Still to see the Kennedy lady doc! So many Damianis, so little time!

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