Peter Jackson is well known for his great work in bringing to life J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but this past year he introduced audiences to one of the most impressive documentary films of the ages. As November 11th 2018 marked the centennial anniversary of the end of World War I, Peter Jackson released his ambitious documentary film They Shall Not Grow Old. The film’s title is from a line in the famous 1914 poem “For The Fallen” by Laurence Binyon:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
This film’s structure is on the outset strikingly different for a war documentary: the names of those interviewed are never given since there were over 200 veterans interviewed, culminating into over 600 hours of audio. The technical work in this film is truly mind-boggling. With hundreds of hours of black and white footage that was sped up for film, the crew colorized and digitized the film to produce a flawless product. What were once shaky and grainy images now explode with color to show how it really looked in the hellish landscapes of WW1 era France. The film does an amazing job at recreating the audio sounds of deafening artillery and even goes so far as to hire lip readers and voice actors, thereby giving voice to the men of once silent footage.
The narrative of the film begins as the war kicks off and young recruits seek to enlist (many being as young as fifteen even though the required age was nineteen). The veterans explain that their initial thoughts of war included grand adventures filled with patriotic notions of duty and service to the empire. They are quickly trained and set off for France. Their opinions about what war will be like quickly change when faced with the realities and destructive nature of modern war technology.
The vast spider web network of trenches that dominated Western Europe at the time are shown in all their visceral conditions. Living, eating, and sleeping in flooded trenches with such abundant squalor and the filth of latrines, the soldiers must deal with rats and dead men only meters away. The film’s footage truly shows what a nightmare WW1 was. There was a relentless shelling by artillery, sniper fire, and even poison gas in the trenches. In spite of these appalling conditions, the men soldiered on while many yearned for some sense of normalcy in their down time with a cup of tea or a cigarette. When they were relieved off the front for R&R many indulged in alcohol, gambling and even brothels. It was also in these downtimes that you see the true camaraderie the men have with each other.
As the film reaches its climax, the soldiers retell the horrors of going over the top into no man’s land to attack on the German lines. Many are killed, more are wounded, and the survivors lead a bloody attack to take the German trenches and killing or capturing them. They then reflect that the enemy soldiers are not much different than themselves; some of them even become quite friendly. The soldiers, regardless of background or which side the fight, all agree that the war is useless and it should never have happened.
In closing I can’t stress how moving and awe-inspiring They Shall Not Grow Old is. It truly feels as if one is going back in time. I challenge anyone who watches it to not feel the utter heartbreak and sadness when one witnesses what these poor young men went through. I find it nearly impossible to maintain a dry eye while viewing this film. This heartbreaking documentary shows the very best and worst that humans are capable of doing to one another.
*Please note: this film shows actual war footage and can be extremely unsettling. It is not recommended for young audiences.