Making Old Things New

Michelle Graves

Filmmaker Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings fame, has a “new” movie out called They Shall Not Grow Old. The movie is made out of footage from World War I, brought back to life after a century of storage in the Imperial War Museum’s archives.

If you stay in your theater seat past the credits, you will see a clip of Jackson talking about the challenges he faced in making the movie, dedicated to the memory of his grandfather William who fought in the Great War alongside J.R.R. Tolkien.

The original strips of film had shrunk, for example, so that the square holes dotting the edges no longer fit the sprockets of the first hand-cranked projectors. The footage had originally been filmed at several different frame rates, so that a man even strolling appeared to frenetically goose-step. All the grainy images were filmed in black and white, of course, and no sound was recorded with the pictures. The original cameras were too bulky to be carried into battle, so no combat footage survives.

Teams of computer wizards digitized, smoothed, and colorized these images. The frame rates were adjusted, by eye, so that the soldiers appeared to move gracefully, again, like living men. Much of the footage shows soldiers staring fascinated at or mugging for the new-fangled camera. They sing ribald songs, play musical instruments, complain about the food, and deride their officers. Many a grin shows the rotten teeth common in that day.

Forensic lip readers—one deaf herself—scrutinized scenes over and over to resurrect what those long-dead, silent speakers were saying. Often it was something like, “Hi, Mum!” But silent footage of a junior officer reading aloud a letter to his sombre troops, on the night before the first battle of the Somme, was able to be matched up with the surviving historical document sent by the commander of the 55th Infantry Brigade. For some reason, the most rousing part of this letter, “Success or failure depend on the individual efforts and fighting spirit of every single man,” was omitted in Jackson’s version.

A downplaying of heroics is typical of the movie. Jackson said he wished to show the human side of the war, as it was experienced by the ordinary “Tommy.” Though many young men—some as young as fifteen, though they claimed to be older—joined up hoping for adventure, the reality fell short of the glorious cavalry charges and single combats of their dreams. The film does convey, nevertheless, the nobility of these warriors. They kept their humanity even in the nightmarish life of the trenches.

Though the film, of necessity, shows no scenes of combat, the awful costs of war are not kept out of sight. Twenty million died in World War I, and Jackson showed hundreds of their corpses, piled high, with sleek rats scuttling among them. (The film is rated R, parents.) The men staring grimly at the camera in one scene, the filmmaker says later, would have been dead within minutes in the disastrous battle that followed. These are the ones who shall not grow old.

These are not the ones who lived to give the often rueful reminiscences selected for this movie’s soundtrack. There are detailed recollections of the warlike business of wounding and being wounded. This is where I make the connection to that early Great War, the Trojan War.

Homeric battle scenes depicted how each tender body part of a warrior yielded to the pitiless bronze, in scene after scene. Homer also pointed to the fate of Greek corpses left unburied on the battlefield, because of Achilles’ anger:

Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds.

Like the veteran narrators of Jackson’s film, the old men of Troy are divided on whether the war was worth the grief:

And catching sight of Helen moving along the ramparts,
they murmured one to another, gentle, winged words:
“Who on earth could blame them? Ah, no wonder
the men of Troy and Argives under arms have suffered
years of agony all for her, for such a woman…But still,
ravishing as she is, let her go home in the long ships
and not be left behind—for us and our children
down the years an irresistible sorrow.”

The Homeric rhapsodes, like Jackson, were keeping alive a tradition from the archaic past through their artistic striving after beauty, authenticity, and immortality. Jackson’s efforts to colorize the different khakis accurately by careful comparison with surviving uniforms—from his own collection of WWI relics—is comparable to Homer’s exquisite descriptions of the hero’s homelands or armor or loving cups. To capture authentic audio for scenes of howitzers being loaded and shot, Jackson recorded the appropriate vintage cannon from his own stash.

Although Jackson’s focus is on the Tommy rather than Homer’s elite lovers of honor, Achilles is also a warrior who shall not grow old. He ultimately chooses heroic death over long life and a return home. Achilles does achieve the glory he craved, in part through the poem we know as Homer’s Iliad. And Jackson’s heroes, however laconic, are honored in his film.

We should not forget there is another kind of epic hero than the mighty warrior Achilles, another “Best of the Achaeans.” Odysseus has his own claim to fame that doesn’t involve dying young. Odysseus, after a massive struggle, makes it home safe after the Trojan War, unlike Achilles, unlike Agamemnon. Odysseus is the hero of disguise, persuasion, trickery, the community.

In his video postscript Jackson marvels that his own existence is due to his grandfather’s having been wounded by a German early on in the war. The result was that he sat out the rest and survived to marry and father the filmmaker’s own father. J. R. R. Tolkien also, “invalided” because of a war wound and chronically in poor health, survived the Great War, although all but one of his friends died. Both of these artists, like Homer, resurrect the memory of heroes whose sacrifices give life, images of our Savior.