They Shall Not Grow Old: There has never been a more vivid representation of Ebert's 'empathy machine'


I am very fond of Roger Ebert's quote about films being empathy machines (I used it just the other day in fact). So much so that it's worth posting here with a bit more of the context.

Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else's life for a while. I can walk in somebody else's shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.

Peter Jackson's revolutionary They Shall Not Grow Old is a film made for that quote. Taking archival footage from the First World War, Jackson and his team have stitched together a compelling Documentary artifact, a technical marvel and maybe the best example yet of an empathy machine.

Another quote, this time from Batman: 'People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy'. This is what They Shall Not Grow Old provides. It is a dramatic depiction of war, perhaps the most dramatic available. Jackson presents the grainy, almost experimental, footage of World War One, but corrects the timing and frame rate so that the participants move smoothly across the screen. He goes further by adding colour and sound. The sound is incredible. Sometimes it is merely contextual and other times these people - ghosts from history; your father or grandfather or his father - speak to you. Their lips read by experts and their lines delivered by actors, the effect is the emotional apex of war on film.

Whilst the technical skill of what's involved here is unquestionable, Jackson's choices of what to include, from the BBC's archive, also bear mention. There is a deliberate attempt here to both unearth the reality of war in colour, moving pictures and also to show scenes which typify it as well. We see jovial training and arriving at the front, before that gives way to rat-infested pits, the latrines and the remains of the dead. Jackson doesn't flinch, as he might; colour and sound is reserved not only for camaraderie and shared mealtimes, but for death and explosions.

It has been easy to knock Jackson over the last few years, but history is written by a series of people who looked at something accepted as 'how things are' and questioned whether that was really true. Jackson has done nothing less than change the image in our heads of the First World War. In doing so he has recreated empathy with people who could previously perhaps best have been seen in the inside of a text book and are now, once again, as human as you or I. A nagging feeling says to me that They Shall Not Grow Old is not eligible for many year end awards, because most of its footage was not shot specially for the documentary. Don't be fooled by the results of such ceremonies. There is unlikely to be a more important film this year.





By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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