Directed by Peter Jackson
They Shall Not Grow Old is a fascinating documentary consisting entirely of archival footage on the Western Front and accompanying voice over from unseen survivors of the war. Their words bring to life the sometimes mundane, certainly horrifying reality of daily life in the trenches, where between the bombs and gunfire the problems were “trench foot” and rats.
What’s so spectacular about the film is the restoration of this old footage, made cinematic due to a team of colorists and foley artists. They turn the type of footage we’re used to seeing (often sped up a hare too fast and jumpy) into something breathtaking and modern. With the effect of 3D (which I didn’t realize was part of the experience), it’s mind-blowing to see just how textured and present this world onscreen feels. To put it frankly, the film is quite haunting.
We’re not used to seeing the contours of these soldiers’ faces. They are normally just silhouettes who move at a strange pace (due to the frame rate of such old film) and whose power typically only comes when we can see how small they are in the environment. The casualties of the Great War are known to us through statistics. Even their stories, told by the survivors, were surely dwarfed by the events of the second World War only two decades later.
So in a way this might just be a forgotten war, but Peter Jackson’s film brings it right back into focus. It feels surreal to see such sharp images of the breakfasts they ate in the trenches or of a soldier’s face as he laughs while interacting with the cameraman. In some scenes Jackson’s team identifies what the soldiers are saying and recreates their dialogue, and hearing them speak and laugh is both awe-inspiring and, in a sense, disturbing.
In some ways it feels like all of this never happened. It’s now a hundred years in the past, and the destruction and carnage is so overwhelming that it’s hard to grapple with just how unjust and apathetic war is as a whole. Many of these soldiers were 18 or younger, having lied their way into the army, and many were shot down ruthlessly in their first taste of action. This was not a gentlemanly war, if such a thing ever existed. Men were killed by almost inhuman bursts of machine gunfire and bombs, killed in some cases by people who couldn’t even see them. They were shot down as if they never existed in the first place.
After watching the movie there was a brief ‘making of’ featurette with Peter Jackson. He explains the process of bringing this footage to life, which is wildly informative, but the thing that sticks with me is when he explains the context of a shot featuring a group of wide-eyed, haunted soldiers in a trench. Having identified where and when they were, Jackson tells us that many, if not all, of those soldiers were recorded in the last thirty minutes of their life.
Up Next: Amadeus (1984), The Two Escobars (2010), Minding the Gap (2018)