They Shall Not Grow Old
Updated: Feb 7, 2020
World War I ended over one-hundred years ago. Footage was shot during the war, but a lot of it is now damaged in some way. It is available to be viewed by the public yet, unless you are a historian, the generally poor quality of the material just goes to emphasize how much time has passed. It can be difficult to relate to something that looks so old. In his documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, director/producer Peter Jackson found a way for this century old footage to feel surprisingly contemporary. It is a pretty remarkable achievement. Taken purely as a movie, it is interesting. Taken as a document of an event none of us were around for (as well as the wonders of cinematic restoration), it is incredible.
They Shall Not Grow Old (93 minutes without the end credits) is structured like a record of the experience of an average British soldier on the western front from 1914-1918. It is not a traditional narrative because it does not follow one specific soldier or even one unit. The material is pieced together to simulate what it must have been like. It combines footage from that time with the reminiscences of various soldiers recorded post-war. The audio matches up with the video in terms of the types of images shown. The effect makes it seem like the men we see onscreen are actually speaking to us, even though it is doubtful it is their voices we are hearing.
Jackson was looking for an approach that was unique and special. It starts with the restored video. It is astounding how good They Shall Not Grow Old looks. The job Jackson’s team did cleaning up this footage is amazing. You may have seen this stuff before, but never this beautiful. The story they sort-of compiled is not always compelling. Some of the anecdotes are fascinating, still the lack of precise footage to go with it hurts a little bit. Considering what they had to work with, as well as what they had to do to make it usable, that is easily forgiven.
The choice to combine the archive footage with the archive audio was a smart one. The far riskier decision was to colorize it and add sound. While both are well done, I wonder if they were necessary. Jackson has said he believes the camera operators would have wanted to use color if given the option. That is certainly possible. It is also quite possible modern audiences will have an easier time relating to the men onscreen this way than if they were in black and white. To their credit, adding in sound effects did make the action feel more immediate. But colorization tends to come off as false to me. Though they have done it better than most, demonstrating a very impressive attention to detail, it still has an unnatural quality to it that is occasionally distracting.
My couple of complaints aside, They Shall Not Grow Old is extremely valuable. It shows the capabilities of the medium to move, enlighten and enrich. It is historical and educational, while making it easy to empathize with the plight of its subjects. Scared young men, too young to understand what they are fighting for, captured on camera moments before they risk (and possibly give) their lives. I may not remember specific stories from the movie, but those faces will stick with me.
4 out of 5
Directed by Peter Jackson