Back in 2001, director Peter Jackson made huge technological advancements with his groundbreaking fantasy trilogy Lord of the Rings. Similarly, his latest film, WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, breaks new ground from a technical aspect, albeit with a very different subject matter.
Fusing previously unseen archive footage from the Imperial War Museum, and interviews recorded by the BBC and IWM, Jackson has lovingly restored and colourised footage of the Great War to present a vivid, immersive and enthralling documentary, unlike anything you will have seen before.
Marking the centenary of the end of the conflict, this film is also a personal passion project for Jackson, dedicated to the memory of his Grandfather, one of the many who perished during World War I. Narrated by the real voices of those who fought in the war, and through technological wizardry, the flickering black and white images are presented in vivid yet grim technicolour to give an honest and unflinching take on life in the trenches. Working with lip-readers, Jackson has also provided voice and sound to the silent footage, and the result is simply breathtaking.
Beyond its unquestionable achievements in film and technology, They Shall Not Grow Old succeeds in bringing to life the stories which run the risk of being forgotten. The ghostly apparitions of the soldiers on screen, the narration of those who lived through it, and the grisly tales of lice, rats, trench foot and death combine to present a “warts and all” telling of history. This film feels important, yet has no sense of self-importance or condescension. The soldier’s accounts are honest, surprising in many ways, and there is the hope that this film will be viewed for many years to come so that their memory lives on.
The film feels vast in scope, yet also candid and intimate. It covers wide ground right from the outbreak of war, recruitment and training, through to Armistice Day, yet it also maintains the deeply personal stories and accounts from the real people who lived through it. It certainly doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war as well and there are some grisly images expertly juxtaposed with the smiling faces of the soldiers. The effect is undeniably harrowing.
Perhaps one of the most harrowing moments occurs towards the end, however, and it is when the soldiers describe what it was like to return home. Many felt relief, but few felt victorious, and indeed the majority felt that their life no longer had purpose now the war was over. It is a sobering and sombre moment and its moments like this that might just change your perspective as the war is remembered going forward.
They Shall Not Grow Old is a triumph of documentary filmmaking, an entirely unique experience and a fitting tribute to the men who served; both the ones who returned and the ones who sadly did not. In the words of the poem by Robert Laurence Binyon from which the film takes its title, “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them”.
Directed by: Peter Jackson