Big Screen Review: They Shall Not Grow Old

Perhaps nothing shows the monumental shift of how much our world has changed than to remember that it was only a century ago that the world engaged in a brutal and pointless global conflict in which horses, flesh, and steel mounted up against canons, machine guns, and mustard gas. The conflict resulted in such a huge loss of life and created so much collective trauma in those that fought that they were referred to as “the Lost Generation.”

The problem for most of us 100 years later however is that our modern connection to that hellish past is so distantly removed as to be nearly forgotten. While we have countless movies about World War II that provide the full range from escapist entertainment (The Dirty Dozen) to realist profiles (Saving Private Ryan) while every conflict since has been well documented in the age of television. All we have of World War I is a small handful of great classic movies (with 1936’s All Quiet on the Western Front somehow being the last truly great fictional movie to depict the conflict), a ton of historical and academic study (most of which seek to show how absolutely pointless the war was), and silent archival footage which provides us plenty of data but offers little in terms of emotional connection.

This is precisely what Peter Jackson in his groundbreaking documentary They Shall Not Grow Old seeks to rectify. Commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to create a documentary to commemorate the centennial and spurred on by the memory of his grandfather who fought in the War, Jackson took almost 600 hours of archival footage to craft a powerful portrait of the brave soldiers who fought in the War even if his methods for doing so might be slightly questionable.

Given the personal nature of Jackson’s connection to World War I, it is not surprising that this documentary of World War I is also an intimate one. Discarding most of the historical study about the war and why it happened, Jackson focuses on the life of the soldier, specifically of British soldiers who fought in the Western Front, from the moment they were recruited, to basic training, through their life on the front, until those that remained came home and suffered in silence. There is no narrator here but instead the movie employs the enormous cache of BBC interviews of World War I veterans made during the 1970s to tell the soldiers’ story.

Above anything else, They Shall Not Grow Old is an exercise in pushing technical advancements to their limits. Ever since his Lord of the Rings movies, Jackson has busied himself with utilizing and developing new film technology so that by extension he can tell stories in a new way. His experiment with shooting (and showing) The Hobbit in 48 frames per second (versus the industry standard 24 frames per second) turned out to be his high-profile failure but thankfully his many experiments in this movie are mostly successful. By slowing down the jerky frame-rate of the archival footage to a standard 24 fps, cleaning up most of the film damage, and engaging in the most extensive film colorization project ever made, They Will Not Grow Old bring a contemporary immediacy to this old footage. More controversially, Jackson finds period accurate weaponry to recreate the soundscape of war, while he also employed professional lip-readers to try and ascertain what the soldiers in the silent footage were saying and found voice actors from the region to provide incidental dialogue. He also converts the footage into 3D, which when combined with all his other enhancements brings the footage to life.

The movie is an immersive experience and sometimes uncomfortably so. When we first encounter the soldiers, it is a shock to see how incredibly young most of them are as the enthusiasm for the war caused men as young as 15 to lie their way into passing for the minimum age of 18. The contrast between their youthful joy and the hellish reality of the front is one of the many jarring realities we are forced to face. The movie does not shy away from showing death in its many forms, with the colorization process rendering a much more visceral viewing experience. In one heartbreaking scene, we are shown a group of soldiers huddled in a trench and awaiting orders to charge into “no-man’s-land”. The sheer terror in most of their faces is apparent as they almost all stare desperately into the camera. The fact that most of them will probably be dead a half-hour after the footage is taken simply adds to our horror. Jackson’s goal is to embed us into the life of a soldier, and in that goal he succeeds.

However though They Shall Not Grow Old gives us as complete a portrait of the soldier’s experience, it lacks in one crucial area, and that is the combat footage itself. While there is some footage of canon fire (and of people dying in it) and of gas warfare, due to the limitations of the archival footage (they were not going to send cameramen into the heart of danger) we do not have any real idea of the savagery of trench warfare. In order to compensate, Jackson employs at this period-accurate drawn illustrations of trench warfare which, along with the interviews, provide some semblance of what it could have been like. But left to our own imaginations we are still painfully removed from this area of the soldiers’ life and thus shielded from what would be their greatest area of trauma. Of course, this is not Jackson’s fault but it is unfortunate nonetheless.

The larger question of whether Jackson’s enhancements to the footage counts as historical revisionism is however a more complicated issue. As evidenced by the multitudes of soldiers who look in marvel at the camera pointed their way, it is clear that the chasm between 1918 and 2018 is vast. Film was such a new medium that most people during World War I had no direct experience with it which is why the soldiers don’t know how to act naturally in it’s presence. At some level every inch of footage that is not candid is artificial – the presence of the camera clearly changes the behavior of the people onscreen. While this is hardly problematic in the context of the original purpose of the footage, which was to serve mostly an archival purpose, They Shall Not Grow Old has a strong narrative bent. It is thus fair to ask if by manipulating the footage to fit modern viewing sensibilities, compiling the footage in such a way as to fit our modern language of film, and reconstructing sound and dialogue from silent footage constitutes an act of revision. Granted Peter Jackson seems to have gone into the project with as much care towards these ethical issues as can be expected and if there is any manipulation in the film, its effects are minor. But I can only wonder, especially in our age where deepfake technology is able to manipulate video with ease, if less scrupulous individuals can use the lessons learned in They Shall Not Grow Old for more insidious purposes.

They Shall Not Grow Old is certainly a groundbreaking spectacle, both from a technological and historical standpoint. The plethora of techniques Peter Jackson used to bring this archival footage to life is both effective and stunning – if it is at all eligible for a visual effect award it should certainly be in consideration. But more than a technical marvel, this movie importantly illuminates the lives of the brave men and women who fought through a pointless and brutal War, finally giving this famously silent “Lost” generation its voice and allowing us a century later to walk a little bit of their journey together with them. For that reason alone it is a good movie.

Rating: ★★★★

Runtime: 99 minutes
Director: Peter Jackson
Note: When I saw this in the theatre, there was a thirty-minute “Making-of” documentary for the movie after the credits (I imagine any home video release would include it). If you have ever gone through Peter Jackson’s extensive behind-the-scenes appendices for his Lord of The Rings or The Hobbit movies, you will know that staying for this little extra will be worth your time.

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