For Armistice Day 2018, which marked 100 years since the end of World War I, the Imperial War Museum and 14-18 NOW commissioned “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson to create a documentary using the Imperial War Museum’s archived historical footage in a “unique and creative fashion.” In response, Jackson transformed the original film into stunningly modern video that breathes life into the haunting faces of the past.
The greatest achievement of “They Shall Not Grow Old” is its ability to humanize and create empathy for the people of the First World War. At some point, everyone has seen the old, black-and-white, blurry video of the 1910s; when this was our best look at the past, it was easy to distance ourselves from history. In reality, the events of World War I are quite recent in the grand scheme of things. Watching these young men go through unimaginably harrowing experiences is gut-wrenching, not just because the horrors of war are no longer a grey-scale, but because you realize that the boys fighting the war were no different than the youth of today. Not only is the documentary entirely composed of historical footage, but is wholly narrated by soldiers who fought in the war, which adds a level of sincerity to the visceral imagery. It’s a strikingly human experience, and perhaps the most interesting parts weren’t even the horrors of war, but the mundane and day to day lives of these men.
While the stories of the soldiers are interesting, pushing the limits of what is possible with historical footage is what the film will be remembered for. Extensive work was done to correct the speed of the footage, colorize it, sharpen it and add historically accurate sounds and voices. It’s truly a spectacle, although it’s a spectacle that doesn’t quite last long enough for the movie to rest its laurels on.
Unfortunately, “They Shall Not Grow Old” doesn’t tell a particularly new story. The documentary takes a deep dive into the war experiences of British infantrymen, and their lives in the trenches. It’s the standard WWI tale that is read about in the textbooks, and while it is certainly a worthwhile journey to experience in color, it wasn’t WW1 from a new angle. However, this decision makes sense, and Peter Jackson explains it alongside many other details behind the creation of the film, in one of the most interesting parts of the documentary.
During my showing, there was a 30-minute behind-the-scenes segment where Jackson discussed the process of making the documentary. I found this part particularly fascinating, as it shed light on both what went into the film, and it gave insights into many of the decisions made during its creation. For example, they had over 100 hours of historical footage to work with, covering a wide range of elements from the First World War. From the women on the home-front to the navy, airplanes and colonial troops, Jackson was disappointed he couldn’t tell more of these stories but decided that telling the story with the widest appeal would be best. Knowing what went into the film-making ended up making the final product that much more admirable.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” is one of the most important films released in the last few years. It’s certainly not an edge-of-your-seat action flick—it’s a documentary. It has its slow moments. But the faces of past are important to see, and hearing their stories is moving. This film had a very limited theatrical run, but the next time this movie is available for viewing, I encourage everyone to give it a watch.
The Parkway West Pathfinder gives “They Shall Not Grow Old” a 9/10.