Tonight the S&G attended the premiere of Sir Peter Jackson’s eagerly-awaited new film, They Shall Not Grow Old. The film’s trailer told us all that we needed to know: in 60 seconds we saw the familiar jerky, grainy silent images from the Western Front transformed into warm colour, played at real-life speed in modern high definition.
With the footage thus transformed, lip readers could easily see what was being said and actors with the correct dialect for each regiment brought their words back to life against a background hubbub of the genuine noises of war.
Our screening was not the ritzy all-star affair at the British Film Institute with Prince William, Mark Kermode and some former Hobbits in tow. This was just one of 250 simultaneous screenings taking place across the country, which gave a telling snapshot of those for whom this film will have the most resonance.
The majority of our sell-out audience was white haired and, as we waited in the lobby, appeared somewhat nervous looking. No doubt they were remembering their own grandfathers, if they had survived, and all the others of that generation whom today’s pensioners had known doubtless as nurturing figures but equally taciturn and seldom willing to address their war with younger generations.
One sensed that they knew this film would be a chance to glimpse into the shadows under the stairs and into the uneasy silences of their childhood.
Of today’s children there were very few to be seen. The youngest members of the audience were generally 40- to 50-year old men: some bookish, some city types fresh off the 17:30 from Waterloo, some shaven-headed reprobates juggling plastic beakers of beer. Some brought their wives but few could induce their children along. Across the auditorium there was an air of quiet reverence long before the lights went down.
Before the main feature there was a short intro to 1418now.org, the Lottery-funded council of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport that has presided over the centennial arts programme since 2014 and commissioned Jackson’s film. We were treated to an abundance of make-believe Tommies with one’s eye being drawn to the smattering of Afro-Caribbean faces placed rather ham-fistedly in their midst, whilst women in brightly-coloured hijabs looked on in wonder.
Mercifully, this festival of inclusiveness and reversed cultural appropriation only lasted for a few minutes. That’s not to say that the archive footage in Jackson’s film was lacking in colour of any kind – battalions of Sikh infantry, Chinese labourers and West African supply troops were all present and correct. But when youngsters do come to watch the film, they will doubtless wonder why the token black soldiers are not there among the Sussex Yeomanry and Lancashire Pals, as they are whenever Doctor Who visits the Western Front.
The colour palette of the restored footage will be familiar to anyone who has seen the great battles of Middle Earth that Jackson has conjured on screen. The Tommies’ waterproof capes melt into the earth like Frodo and Sam’s Elven robes. The mud, blood and rain have been recreated so well in the movie-maker’s most celebrated trilogies… mainly because J.R.R. Tolkein himself lived as a soldier on the Western Front.
There were moments of beautiful humanity when German and British soldiers met after battle; belly-laughs at the soldiers’ absurd sense of humour and always the threat of the raw violence and fleshy carnage that they created. When it was all over and the credits rolled, some in the audience applauded – but not many. It was too stark and powerful for that.
After the film came a Q&A with Sir Peter Jackson, hosted by Mark Kermode. He described They Shall Not Grow Old as probably the most personal film that he has ever made, inspired by the awe in which he held his own veteran grandfather who served from 1910 to 1919, and the lifetime Jackson himself has spent learning as much as he can about the war.
Quite rightly, he lamented the fictional movies that persist in imposing a sense of victimhood upon the soldiers of the Western Front that we have bestowed upon them. He had much more to say as well although at our screening there was an interruption by a young woman who stood with a clenched fist and barked out some slogan or other (it sounded like ‘object and you rule’), until she eventually ran out of the theatre, while we all looked at each other and said ‘what?’
Probably a Cambridge under-graduate, they seem to go in for that sort of thing these days. There will be a second screening and Q&A tomorrow purely for schools and colleges. We wish them all the luck in the world.
The film will now go on a limited cinematic run and will then be screened by the BBC on 11 November. If you can, go to the cinema and drink it in at full size. No matter what, please take the time out to sit and watch it on TV. It is only a snapshot of a very limited part of the war but it is real and heartfelt and, for that, it is truly astounding.