They Shall Not Grow Old

World War I ended just over 100 years ago.  There are some people who were living during the years of the Great War who remain alive today.  Somehow, though, World War I seems to belong to a much more distant past.  A war in which the primary modes of transportation were horses and steam engines, between countries governed by kings, kaisers, czars, and sultans, seems to belong in the 19th century, not the 20th.  The existence of only scratched, herky-jerky footage of men marching in strange uniforms doesn’t help to give the war any more modern immediacy, either.

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLDThey Shall Not Grow Old takes dead aim at the last point.  It brings the men who fought in the Great War for Great Britain into closer focus — and puts them in a light that the people of the 21st century can understand.

Filmmaker Peter Jackson was given access to more than 100 hours of film shot by the British that has been gathering dust in the British War Museum and, as he explains in his introduction to the film, was told that his assignment was to do something different with it.  He looked at hours of scratched, often overexposed or underexposed film, shot at different speeds by hand-cranked cameras, and initially was at a loss about how to approach the assignment.  But he decided to apply modern technology, computer imaging, and careful colorizing techniques, and the results are jaw-dropping.  Forget the scratchy, blurred, quick-stepping soldiers you remember, and be prepared for a movie that brings those soldiers to life.  (If you go to see the film this weekend, you’ll also have a chance to watch a very interesting 30-minute film after the credits have run, in which Jackson explains how the refurbishing of the film was done and also shows that he has an amazing collection of World War I uniforms, weapons, and other memorabilia.)

The technology employed isn’t the only thing that distinguishes They Shall Not Grow Old from other documentaries.  If you’re expecting any kind of narrative arc that explains the causes of World War I, the alliances, the kings and czars and assassinated archdukes that triggered a senseless global conflict — or, for that matter, attempts to establish any kind of broader historical context — you’ll be disappointed.  The film’s focus is on the soldiers, period, and is narrated using clips of BBC interviews of Great War veterans that were conducted decades ago.  We see, and hear, why they enlisted, how they were trained, what they ate, how they performed other bodily functions, and what it was like when they went home — but mostly, about life in the front lines in one of the most brutal, deadly wars ever fought.  Be prepared to learn about the horrors of rats, and lice, and trench foot, and frostbite, and mustard gas, and brace yourself for footage of insects crawling on the bodies of dead humans and horses alike.  (And Americans should also get ready for some close-up exposure to human teeth the likes of which you’ve never seen before.)

Not surprisingly, many of the images are immensely powerful.  I won’t soon forget the hopelessly terrified, blank face face of one young soldier, eyes bulging with intense fear, moments before a big battle that he knew he wasn’t likely to survive, or a soldier in the aftermath of a battle clutching a small dog to his chest and possessively stroking its fur, or a battle-scarred veteran walking away from the front lines, right hand shaking uncontrollably.  And the footage of soldiers passing the time, and mugging for cameras that were a novelty in those days — such as the soldiers who gave the impromptu concert pictured above, in which one of them strummed a beer bottle — will change your view of these young men, so that you never again think of them as ancient, herky-jerky marchers from a forgotten earlier day.

The title of the film comes from a line in the poem For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon, which was written in 1914 in the early days of the war.  The particular verse reads:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.
They Shall Not Grow Old helps to bring that sentiment to reality.  It’s well worth the price of a movie ticket.
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Get Back

Yesterday, filmmaker Peter Jackson — the guy who made those lavish, but incredibly long, Lord of the Rings movies — announced his next project, and it’s pretty intriguing.  Jackson has been given access to more than 50 hours of never before seen footage shot by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg during the Beatles’ recording sessions that ultimately were used to produce the album Let It Be.  Jackson will be using the footage to produce what is, in effect, a remake of the documentary that was released in 1970.

maxresdefaultBeatles fans know the prevailing story:  the band went into the studio to record a new album that was originally going to be called Get Back, because the idea was for the band to get back to its rock ‘n roll roots, with Billy Preston playing along on keyboards.  After some initial highlights — including an impromptu concert on the rooftop of Apple Corps that happened 50 years ago yesterday, and was the last time the Beatles performed live in public — the album effort supposedly ground down in a maze of acrimony and dissension that presaged a group on the edge of a final break-up.  The effort was shelved, and months Phil Spector was enlisted to produce something out of the recordings.  Let It Be then emerged in 1970 — a combination of some great, quasi-live recordings, classics like the song Let It Be, and awful, overproduced Spector versions of songs like The Long and Winding Road.  Let It Be would be the last original Beatles’ album to be released (with Abbey Road being the last album the Beatles recorded);

That’s the story we’ve heard, and it was largely framed by the 1970 film that emphasized the tension and dissension, but Jackson suggests that it’s not the true story.  He’s watched the unseen footage, and listened to more than a hundred hours of the audio tapes from the recording sessions, and he says:   “It’s like a time machine transports us back to 1969, and we get to sit in the studio watching these four friends make great music together.”  He added:  “Sure, there are moments of drama, but none of the discord this project has long been associated with. Watching John, Paul, George and Ringo work together, creating now-classic songs from scratch, is not only fascinating – it’s funny, uplifting and surprisingly intimate.”

It’s hard to imagine that there is much new to be learned about the Beatles — they are clearly among the most loved, photographed, analyzed, and psychoanalyzed musical and cultural figures in history — but this unreleased footage may help to alter the storyline.  I’ll be heading to the theater to watch the result.  These days, how often do you have the opportunity to watch musical legends at work, in their prime?

The Hobbit

The Hobbit is an entertaining movie.

I say this not as a Lord Of The Rings trilogy nerd. I couldn’t get into the movies, just as I couldn’t get into the books when I was in college and every sci fi and fantasy fan was raving about them. Even after watching The Hobbit — and watching it, and watching it, and watching it some more, because it is overlong as every Peter Jackson film seems to be — I’m still not sure I fully grasp the distinctions between dwarves, elves, trolls, hobbits, and orcs. And there may even be gnomes in there too, for all I can remember. It helps, I think, not to get too caught up in the unending back story, and all of the weird details of Middle Earth. The important thing is that it’s a good adventure yarn.

Stripped of creature distinctions and deep metaphysical analysis, the movie is about a quest, and an unlikely hero. The quest involves helping dwarves who have been displaced from their home by an evil, gold-loving dragon, and the unlikely hero is a hobbit Everyman who would rather be in his comfortable burrow with his books and his pantry than camping out and fighting evil orcs, but who rises to the occasion when he needs to. There is a journey, which helps because it gives everyone a chance to see some stunning on location scenery. And, because it’s apparently a law that you cannot make a self-contained Middle Earth movie, this is only part one, with part two yet to come.

This movie is’t perfect by any means. It’s too long, and requires the viewer to have a cast-iron keister and a bladder the size of Lake Superior.  Couldn’t the scenes of the forest wizard with bird droppings on the side of his face, or the fighting rock beings, have hit the cutting room floor? I could have done without most of the shots of evil wolf beings bounding across the screen, too. Although this movie didn’t scrimp on computer-based special effects — the scenes with Gollum are as good as any special effects you’re likely to see this year — computer-generated animals always look fake to me. The fight scenes, too, were overdone. At some point, whether the hardy band of warriors slaughters a hundred orcs and trolls or a thousand, what difference does it make? The important thing is that they emerge without a scratch.

All of those issues, though, don’t detract from the enjoyment of the movie. It’s a top-notch tale, capably told, with likeable characters to boot. If you like adventure movies, with a bit of magic and fantasy mixed in, The Hobbit is worth your while.