New movie uses WWI footage to bring doughboys and Tommies back to life

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I can’t remember the last time I paid to see one movie twice. (Serious movie fans are perhaps laughing.) But in the last few weeks I bought tickets to “They Shall Not Grow Old,” film director Peter Jackson’s documentary commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I.

Comparing Jackson’s movie to Richard Rubin’s 2014 book, “The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War,” is somewhat unfair. The two are different media: book vs film. But it is exactly the media difference that enabled Jackson’s movie to go deep in a way that was impossible for Mr. Rubin’s book.

Eileen and I attended Mr. Rubin’s “Doughboys” book lecture at Auburn Public Library in 2014. Later, Rubin called me at the Maine Corrections Department — I don’t remember why — but it did give me an opportunity to ask him questions about how he prepared for his book, and about his interviewing style.

From my work researching and interviewing musicians, primarily drummers, I know how it feels to run up against dead ends, incomplete stories, legendary musicians no one interviewed, and great musicians who never made recordings. I also have great respect for Rubin, Jackson, and everyone preserving history, no matter the form, for present and future generations.

Rubin, according to his book promo, “set out to see if he could still find and talk to someone who had actually served in the American Expeditionary Forces” during WWI. Rubin “found dozens, aged 101 to 113…who shared with him at the last possible moment their stories….”

As expected, the centenarian doughboys’ memories of 85-year-old events varies. Yet, Rubin’s is still an important, welcome history.

Peter Jackson was able to tackle a similar subject: British WWI military vets or Tommies, with more source material and digital technology.

England’s Imperial War Museum, founded at the end of WWI (1917) “to record the civil and military war effort and sacrifice of Britain and its Empire during the First World War,” invited Peter Jackson to produce a WWI Centennial movie with one stipulation: Jackson had to use only Imperial War Museum film footage.

Jackson said his first question was: how do I present WWI film, seen hundreds of times, in a new way? Jackson’s answer? Bring the young Tommies in his film, long dead, back to life.

After reviewing hundreds of hours of film, and interviews of British WWI veterans recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, when the vets were in their 50s, 60s or younger, Jackson narrowed his focus away from the air and sea wars, and the sacrifices of the families back home. He tells us the story of “Tommies” in the front line trenches near No Man’s Land.

“[Peter Jackson] has digitized, colorized and reframed existing wartime footage.., adding an omnipresent chorus of surviving WWI veterans’ voices, [and] layers in an extremely dense sound design, adding 21st-century-crisp sound effects of roaring cannon booms, buzzing flies, galloping horses and, always, the under-the-breath chatter of battle-weary British infantrymen,” wrote a Lincoln Journal Star reviewer.

Jackson’s attention to detail is even more profound. For example, forensic lip readers are used, for the first time, to tell us what the silent film soldiers are saying. The soldiers’ hometowns are identified, and Jackson uses artists from the hometown areas for the voiceover.

Instead of herky-jerky black-and-white, poor quality film, Jackson’s use of digital restoration brings his British infantrymen to life. Now we can hear them, see their eyes, their facial expressions (joy, terror, exhaustion), their real movements, their blood and wounds — all of it.

Peter Jackson raised the bar on documentary films. In so doing, he helps ensure that neither the WWI British “Tommies,” nor the American “Doughboys” will be forgotten. To the contrary, it’s likely Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old” is a new way of teaching old history.

Go see the movie.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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