They Shall Not Grow Old is a remarkable documentary on the experiences of trench soldiers during World War I. It takes no stance on the causes of the war, the running of the war, or its closure. It is focused, laser like, on what the individual soldier went through from the run up to the war to going home.
Directed by Peter Jackson, who has a particular interest in the war based on his family’s history (his grandfather served in an English regiment) that had extended to collecting paraphernalia of the war from uniforms to infantry weapons to actual artillery. When the Imperial War Museum reached out to him about doing something for the armistice’s 100th anniversary, Jackson jumped in with both feet. Using footage solely from the IWM’s archives, he had his team of special effects technicians clean up the 100 year old images, colorize them, and provide a third dimension. The technical effects really are remarkable. Clear, bright images of a world long lost to time, the soldiers look as present today as they must have in newsreels back then. Over all of these images lay the voices of actual soldiers recounting their stories in snippets (recorded in the 50s).
The movie’s story follows a generic path through the war. It’s really the story of every English infantryman from the heady days of excitement that lead to war breaking out, through the early days of movement, to settling into trench life, a battle (which is accomplished visually through contemporary illustrated images), and the wind-down of war and going home. We never learn a single soldier’s name, and we rarely see the same soldier’s face twice. This, to me, had the makings of creating distance between audience and subject. It’s my problem with Battleship Potemkin. However, in They Shall Not Grow Old, the use of the voices of the soldiers themselves is what bridges that gap. We begin to recognize voices, and hear the pain, joy, elation, and reflections on the mundane from the men who experienced it themselves. Matched with that is the extremely respectful tone that the movie takes.
One scene has stayed with me more than any other in the months since I’ve seen the movie. We see some soldiers hiding down a slope from a raging battle above. They are waiting for the call to move up and contribute. As they wait, they talk, they smoke, and they look directly at the camera. In some of them, it seems as though they know they are about to die, which, we know, they are.
Jackson did a great thing by bringing this film to screen. They Shall Not Grow Old is a great achievement in special effects, but also in making a century old war immediate and emotional in a way that I’ve never seen before. There are World War I movies that I love (Paths of Glory in particular), but none of what I’ve seen has made the experiences of the individual soldier so understandable in such vivid terms as what Jackson has accomplished.
The movie is available to stream now, and I highly recommend it.