Review: They Shall Not Grow Old


The First World War: It was going to be an adventure. Englishmen – English boys, really – as young as fifteen enlisting in the military to fight Germans, that’s what they thought. They figured it would be an exciting experience; a story to tell their children and grandchildren some day.

Then came the harsh realities of the Western Front. Fixed into dug-out trenches for weeks, staring across into No Man’s Land, fighting bouts of malaria, dysentery, and the putrid smell of decayed flesh. The war has been covered in great detail by historians and scholars. So why did Peter Jackson of all people devote time to make a documentary to honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice?

Because he was asked.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a meticulous assemblage of hundreds of hours of footage from the Imperial War Museum into a ninety-minute documentary featuring anonymous British soldiers, marching bold and brave, only to come home battered and bloodied. If they made it home at all. The world had never before witnessed such carnage, such atrocity. A cataclysm of international proportions the First World War would famously be called The War to End All Wars. (Spoiler Alert: It wasn’t.)

Advances in special effects and technology have made us believe that the impossible was possible. Staring agape at dinosaurs a la Sam Neil. You bet. Recreating the sinking of the Titanic? No problem. Believing there’s a place called Middle-earth inhabited by hobbits, orcs, wizards, and Viggo Mortensen? Absolutely.

Peter Jackson takes the same technology that made The Lord of the Rings a visual treat and applies it to century-old film footage, of varied speeds, to make a relational drama where departed men are seemingly brought back to life. Jackson’s personal connection to the war – his grandfather served with the 2nd South Wales Borderers – spurred his interest in World War I, going as far to collect wartime weaponry, uniforms, and memorabilia, all of which were used in production.

The story behind They Shall Not Grow Old is just as fascinating as the documentary presented. Before the assemblage could commence, New Zealand’s Park Road Post Production company cleaned the film up, removing dust, scratches, tears and other blemishes. Then came timing the footage to have it synced to the 24-frames-per-second industry standard. Once that was complete, next was the colorization. This wasn’t a Ted Turner colorizing black-and-white film type of process. Jackson was going for the most accurate representation, utilizing thousands of reference photos taken from a trip to eastern Europe to get the colors just right. From the colors of a uniform button to a blade of grass, no detail was too small.

For immersion the audio effects artists created sound of weapons and rations being transferred by horse wagon, plopping sounds of soldiers walking through mud and slop, the clank of one solider hitting another’s helmet with a shovel. That’s just for starters. Lip readers were brought in to read what soldiers on camera were saying, the hardest being a shot of a commanding officer reading instructions to a small division.

The British soldiers of They Shall Not Grow Old may have long passed but Jackson and his team have them guide us through the Western Front. The BBC recorded hundreds of hours of WWI veterans recounting their experiences about the war. More than 100 men are heard in the documentary, all of whom are identified in the closing credits.

Told in chronological fashion, editor Jabez Olssen begins with young, eager enlistees and ending with older, wiser veterans. Such enthusiasm to start, gloom sets in with each passing day in the trenches. Attention is given to the day to day life of a soldier; how they ate; slept. Their attitudes toward the war. Downtime away from the trenches. French brothels. Swapping smokes for bottles of wine.

When the armistice occurs and the gunshots stop, the men look lost. Trudging back home the disconnect the civilians have to those who served is sad but not surprising. The disembodied voices of WWI veterans echoes the sentiments felt by U.S. soldiers returning home from the Vietnam War. Valor and service have no place in a modern society, away from brutal conflict, it would seem.

Thankfully, Peter Jackson finds a new way to honor those who gave all and those who gave some. They Shall Not Grow Old is assurance that the hopes and fears of veterans, and the humility and humanity that is to be found during wartime, is not lost on future generations.

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