Dec 8, 2019

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Warner Bros.

Directed by: Peter Jackson

The different worlds films can take us to are one of the greatest beauties of the medium. Whether it’s the realm of Middle-earth, the snows of Hoth, or even the wedding of a Mafia don’s daughter, film allows us to take an inside glimpse of a world we have never experienced. But it isn’t just exotic locales and mysterious worlds that film lets us take part in. Sometimes, the best films provide us with a snapshot of the past. To observe a world we were not alive to see. In his documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson uses cinema to take us into the trenches of World War I.

Jackson’s crew collaborated with the BBC and the Imperial War Museum to comb through 600 hours of interviews and 100 hours of footage to find enough raw materials to create a narrative for the film. From there, the footage was restored and colorized, and dubbed over with studio voice acting and sound effects. The result is just about one of the most immersive documentary experiences possible.

There are no celebrity narrators to guide us through the battles of They Shall Not Grow Old, just the testimony of the men who fought there. The sober recollections of men whose boyhoods were spent at war are equal parts amusing and unflinching. The anonymous soldiers recount with humor the lack of good alcohol, the filthy public latrines (a big hole with a board laid across it), and the numerous ways they had fun while on leave. The greatest thing about war, it seems, is the camaraderie one develops with one’s fellow soldier. In interviewee’s recounting, being on the frontlines was rather fun when the war wasn’t active.

When it is active, however, the misery of those trenches feels palpable. The quarters are cramped, susceptible to flooding, and the sounds of artillery shells are never ending. If nothing else, They Shall Not Grow Old allows the audience to see why one of the nicknames for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is “shellshock.”

When the soldiers are lined up behind the trenches, they wait for the signal of the whistle blow, and head over the trenches into No Man’s Land. What occurs are battles of inches that last for ten minutes between boys who know and care nothing about who or why they are fighting. One soldier says he heard of the phenomenon when, as you believe you are going to die, your life flashes before your eyes. But at 19, one doesn’t have much of a life yet. All he could think was “God, I don’t want to die today!” And when we hear the gunfire, the shouting, and the explosions, it is about as close to the Great War one can experience today.

For many reasons, World War I is not a setting usually lends itself well to film. Tales of heroism are few and far between, and the muddy nature of the conflict lends great difficulty in choosing a “side” to root for. But with They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson creates a film that gives a human voice and face that endures that chaos. There are no more veterans left to attest to its accuracy. But the experience is harrowing all the same.