There have been plenty of attempts in the past to make history come alive beyond the old photos and low-quality footage, but none of have done it quite like They Shall Not Grow Old. Keeping things engaging and heard, director Peter Jackson has given top treatment to the stories of World War I. He cobbles together video footage, illustrations, photos, and archived audio interviews to bring this event from over a hundred years ago to life so that the war, soldiers, and experience won’t become just another chapter of the history books. Jackson’s not the first to try such methods of restoring war stories, but he has certainly done one of the best jobs of livstaging the experiences with little more than what history has provided him.
I can just imagine the students who will eventually be watching this documentary in history class, and they’re in for a treat. At first, the film begins with footage that is set so small it occupies only a portion of the screen with its jittery speed and black-and-white contrast. World War I British soldiers walk us through the process of entering the military and the historical and political context of the time. It’s interesting stuff, but you can just hear the kids sighing about how this is going to be the whole film.
But then the war starts, and something unique happens. The screen widens, atmospheric sounds inhabit the battlefield, color seamlessly transitions inward, and the 3D kicks in fully. The archival interviews continue to push us through the conflict, but we now see and hear more. These are true and human moments of the war, given the freshest coat of paint and grandest of presentations. We’re locked into its box as the soldiers deliver an onslaught of details that set the tone when the footage cannot. Little things like the celebration of a new jam in the trenches or the gross follies of digging a communal bathroom in a ditch are given clarity and color, as are the grander thoughts about connecting with German prisoners and the unquestioning motives of young men lying their way into the army.
Jackson’s direction is spot-on and never too overbearing with the footage, editing, or music. One of the strongest choices that really brings a great deal of humanity to the picture is the cutting between images of then-living soldiers and those of their dead bodies on the battlefield when mentioning the combat. Chilling, but it’s also interesting hearing the words of soldiers over this footage as they describe death as just a part of the battle. Many of them are very young, under the age of 20, and sound as though they don’t fully comprehend the loss of life, more concerned with not getting hit than who else may be hit. After all, many soldiers were just going along with what they were told because it made them feel they were a part of something grander.
There are many interesting stories to tell, from the encounters with German flamethrowers to men being granted access to beer and smokes. Deeper politics are not fully addressed as we maintain a constant focus on the mindset of a soldier, considering many of them didn’t question the politics of their fight too much. When all was said and done, the British soldiers and their German prisoners both seemed to connect in the stories told and footage displayed over the fact that war was foolish and they’d rather not die if they didn’t have to. This is especially true once the war ends, the footage pulls back to black and white, and we learn about the great indifference among civilians about the war effort.
Jackson made the film in personal tribute to his grandfather and two other men who served, but They Shall Not Grow Old is ultimately a tribute to dozens upon dozens who were part of the conflict. They get to tell their stories. They get to be on the big screen. And though many considered their service an afterthought when they came home, we won’t forget them, especially with Jackson’s determined devotion to making sure we understand World War I in a whole new light. His sifting through what must have been scores of audio, film, and photo records has stitched together to quilt one of the greatest films on a subject that rarely receives such attention. And with a big-screen presentation and good balance of 3D, it’s one worth seeing in the theater for the lasting impression.