Review of They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Seen in 2019.
Seen in a jam-packed theatre (Runan, Chalmers, GIFF 2019).
The personal experience of supposedly representative male British frontline servicemen throughout WW1, as described in interviews set to heavily processed contemporary films, cartoons, recruitment posters etc., as well as more recent footage of lice.
If you must have a feature-length summary of the typical British soldier’s experience, you won’t do better than this, but why would you need such a thing? The narratives are so tightly compressed that the pace is uniformly rapid. That’s a shame. WW1 was a massive tragedy, so monumentally horrible that you need the pace of Shoah (1985), if not the length, to take it in. Even at the accelerated pace of this film, you get only the view from the trenches, omitting all politics (including personal politics), science, technology, economics etc. The only women are prostitutes and the perspectives of allies, enemies and neutral powers are omitted. It’s a narrow slice and not the most useful one.
The anecdotes are not bad. There is an effort at dramaturgy on the usual Aristotelian curve. The climax, a major offensive, is portrayed with a combination of Vertov-like editing formalism and densely packed impressions: Intercut interviews, foley, actors reading lines read from lips in the original films, gunfire, intrusive music, stills, and coloured period film with details jaggedly interpolated by computer. It’s too much. The handiwork is (literally) spectacular but the more lurid and cowardly Apocalypse: World War I (2014) is a lot more informative.