They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) Review

Director: Peter Jackson

Genre(s): Documentary, War

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

They Shall Not Grow Old is, as of right now, my favorite documentary of all time. It takes a micro-scale look at World War I from the perspectives of British veterans of said conflict, with their testimonies, recorded decades after the conflagration, serving as the only narration. This is not an overview of the entire war from all points-of-view, instead it focuses on the experiences of those serving Great Britain on the Western Front.

The amount of effort that was put into this documentary puts the word “meticulous” to shame. Not only was footage from the 1914-1918 time period colorized (something that could’ve been quite controversial), but sound was added. We’re not just talking sound effects for artillery and boots in the mud here, we’re talking professional lip-readers being brought in to try to figure out what the soldiers are saying in the silent film pieces. The restored footage with the voices of the servicemen who survived the nightmare is a powerful combination.

They Shall Not Grow Old details several aspects of the life of a typical British soldier in World War I, including training, the killing of lice, downtime, and the difficulties with finding employment after the conflict ended. However, the most notable moments come from the descriptions of front-line combat. The centerpiece “battle scene,” which is supposedly a collection of anecdotes from several different engagements, is just as ferocious-feeling as anything found in a narrative movie. Sure, there wasn’t much up-close-and-personal camerawork related to close-quarters combat from this historical event, since the bulky, hand-cranked cameras of the time couldn’t easily enter the war zone, but the first-hand accounts of the horror make things quite clear.

Tightly focused, there is never a dull moment here. It’s an absorbing work of filmmaking that should be seen by as many people as possible. It is rated R, though, thanks to some photographs of the dead and of “trench foot,” which may limit its ability to be played in schools, but this documentary is a must-see to remind people of the heroism of the Lost Generation. If there’s anything wrong with They Shall Not Grow Old, it’s that it’s simply not longer.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Untamed Africa (1932) Review

Director: Unknown

Genre(s): Adventure, Documentary

Runtime: 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

This nature documentary comes as a bonus feature on the DVD for Kongo (1932). It follows the Hubbard family on a safari deep into Africa where they will befriend a few animals…and kill or capture the rest. Yeah, this one feels like it should’ve been titled “Let’s Hurt Animals: The Motion Picture” at times. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, and some of the hunting seems justified (like when a crocodile is shot for getting too close to the boats).

Untamed Africa benefits from humorous narration and some incredible animal footage. Some of the creatures encountered are pretty cute and some are apparently pretty vicious. The journey documented seems perilous, with the aforementioned crocodiles lying in waiting, lions on the loose, and a highly destructive grass fire.

The movie’s attitude towards the native peoples of Africa could probably be described as, uh, backwards. It does, however, take an interesting peek into the lives of these folks. It can sometimes be difficult to tell what’s genuinely real and what, if anything, has been staged for the camera in this documentary. It’s quite well-edited in that regard.

Untamed Africa is agreeably short (only 56 minutes long), and, if you can get past the animal violence (which includes a lion-on-hyena fight over some food), it’s makes for decent entertainment. I can see audiences in the Great Depression-era United States eating this stuff up at the time of its release (this Pre-Code documentary was released in 1933 in the States, but, apparently, Denmark beat the U.S. to the punch, sending it to theaters in late 1932…hence the release date used for this review). If you have a DVD copy of Kongo, you might as well watch this one, too.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991) Review

Directors: Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, and Eleanor Coppola

Genre(s): Documentary

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Making a movie, especially one as epic in scale as Apocalypse Now (1979), can’t be easy, and this documentary sheds some light on a time when it seemed like everything that could go wrong did. Yes, this is Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, the famous behind-the-scenes look at the aforementioned 1979 Vietnam War film. Featuring interviews, making-of footage, and recordings of Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola that were originally intended to be private, this is a must-see picture for fans of the feature it covers (well, if you can handle some animal-related violence, that is).

Coppola actually prevented this documentary’s release on DVD for a while thanks to what he considered to be a less-than-flattering depiction of himself. He doesn’t come across as a monster here, but I can see why he didn’t want this side of him to be seen more widely. He was really stressed-out and probably in over his head during the long, chaotic, and arduous shooting of the movie.

The thesis of Hearts of Darkness seems to be that the filming of Apocalypse Now mirrors the experiences of the characters in the motion picture and of the United States in the Vietnam War. It was a desperate undertaking that felt like a slip into insanity. In the end, the Hellish shoot paid off for Coppola and the filmmakers, but the same cannot be said for the Americans and their allies in the war. Apocalypse Now was a case of directorial hubris gone horribly…right.

I think I actually enjoyed watching Hearts of Darkness more than the picture that it’s centered around (though the 1979 flick is still good). Watching it, it’s hard to believe that the final movie turned out as a well as it did (though I won’t spoil the tribulations faced by the cast and crew, in case you’re out of the loop). This is probably one of the better feature-length behind-the-scenes film documentaries out there.

My rating is 7 outta 10.