“They Shall Not Grow Old” is the acclaimed Peter Jackson documentary on WWI British soldiers. Jackson was inspired by the fact that his grandfather served in the war and he wanted people to investigate if they had family members who also served. The title comes from the 1914 poem by Laurence Binyon. “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.” Jackson examined over 100 hours of archived footage and restored large amounts for use in the film. He had to overcome the age and deterioration of the film plus the varying speeds the films were shot in. Jackson made the semi-controversial decision to colorize some of the footage. His reason was that he wanted the viewer to see the war as the soldiers had. He also combed through 600 hours of interviews of veterans conducted by the BBC and Imperial War Museum in the 1960s and 1970s. The interviews were edited into a narration that accompanies the films images. The movie features the memories of over forty soldiers. It won the BAFTA for Best Documentary.
The movie opens with the veterans talking about their feelings about the war. Some of them mention that they enjoyed the experience, they were enthusiastic soldiers, they had no regrets for having served, they treated the war like a job, etc. Surprisingly, Jackson did not include any negative views of the war. The movie moves on to cover the soldier experience from enlistment to return after the war. The enlistment section includes vintage posters with footage superimposed. One vet tells the story of a young lady shoving a white feather in his face to shame him into enlisting. We learn about their uniforms (size doesn’t matter), the meals, and training (the rifle range and marching with over 100 pounds of gear). Then its off to France. At the 25-minute mark, the film suddenly shifts into color mode and it is eye-popping. If you have seen any WWI documentaries, the contrast is eye-popping To add to the stunning visuals, Jackson has added sound and vocal effects. These sync up perfectly with the footage. He used lip readers to figure out what the soldiers were saying and then hired vocal actors to add the dialogue. The narrators describe life in the trenches. This is the first WWI documentary that I have seen that covers defecation. You better pray the plank does not break. Rats and lice get their on-screen recognition. Other problems that get coverage include the smell from dead bodies (the movie shows a lot of dead bodies!), the mud and water, frostbite and trench feet, and poison gas. Did you know that if you did not have a gas mask you could pee on a handkerchief and put it over your nose and mouth? It’s not all hellish. The soldiers manage to entertain themselves in various ways when they are away from the frontline. Some of the vets wax nostalgic about visits to brothels.
The movie covers a generic battle. Jackson did not want anything specific and the movie not only does not identify the narrators, but it has no references to time and place. Anyone well-versed in WWI battles will be able to figure out that the battle that is featured has to be one from the latter part of the war. A large number of tanks are involved and there are several mentions of the exhaustion and demoralization of the German soldiers. Some of the most amazing effects involve artillery bombardments. Jackson was able to use sound from a New Zealand artillery exercise. Jackson’s challenge was the lack of footage of combat given the constraints on cameramen in no man’s land. His solutions were to intercut stills of dead bodies with footage of live soldiers in noncombat situations. That smiling face you’re looking at could be the corpse you just saw. He also made use of illustrations from “The War Illustrated”, a magazine published in London through the war. The drawings are lurid, but fit the narration well.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes which means not a single critic has given it a bad review. I am not going to be the first, but I do feel it is not as good as it could have been. Visually, it is awesome and much credit should go to the effort Jackson and his crew put in to make it. It is very informative and teaches in an entertaining way. It does not play like a history documentary your high school teacher forced you to watch. Jackson has stated that the film was “made by a non-historian for non-historians.” You will learn most of what you should know about soldiers in WWI. Jackson does not cover every aspect of soldier life. He only deals with the infantry. There is nothing on the air war, the naval war, or the home front. Although he covers some aspects that made the war less than enjoyable, he omits shell shock and diseases. Which leads me to my main problem with the movie. I feel it sugarcoats the war a bit. WWI is quite possibly the worst war to have fought in and yet you do not get that impression from the film because the narrators do not feel that way. Jackson went through 600 hours of interviews and used none where the interviewee broke down over the death of a comrade or regretted having participated in such a horrible war. There is no balance to the narration. You don’t finish the movie wondering how the men could have survived the visuals because they don’t wonder. It’s still a must-see, but pair it with “All Quiet on the Western Front”. It’s okay to watch the 1979 color version.
GRADE = A-