“THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD” is a documentary produced and directed by Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) that gives audiences an unprecedented look inside World War I. To create this film Jackson took roughly 100-hours of video footage from the Imperial War Museum archives that until this point had gone relatively unseen. Jackson and his team restored and remastered this footage bringing it to life in an incredibly fascinating way. But this documentary was unlike many we have seen covering past wars, specifically WWI. This film was not draped over with narrations, names, or endless strings of dates and locations. What Jackson created here was a memoir of a soldier’s experience during the first World War.
Merged with the video footage are excerpts from over 600-hours worth of interviews from soldiers as they reflected on their memories of the war. This was an engrossing aspect of the documentary, and one that I think makes it rise above many others that have covered similar subject-matter. The timing of the interviews with the visual footage was able to tell the story of the film on its own. It created the feeling of stepping back in time to relive the conditions and emotional hardships these young soldiers were up against. The added insight from the men who served provided a depth that could not be created through simple narration, and this dynamic is what successfully made this the memoir Jackson wanted it to be.
Prior to the film Jackson gives a brief account to his making of this documentary. He talked about the focus being on the British Infantry so that he could provide as much detail as possible about one aspect of WWI. As opposed to bouncing around to different areas of it and the result possibly feeling more surface level. I appreciated this intent because the in-depth look at this group truly delivered the full spectrum. From the early days of enlistment, to boot-camp, to the inevitable violence of war, and the not so warm welcome they received when they got home, this documentary covers the full journey. The timing of the context in the interviews paired with the visual footage was incredible. The spoken accounts from the veterans infuse what we see on-screen with a genuine human perspective. Giving us experiences, not historian based opinions.
The emotions, the mental processing of various hardships, the optimism in the face of inhospitable conditions are all subtly captured and it builds a connection to these men. Unlike most documentaries, this one provides information as well as immersion into the time-period. I routinely was able to vividly put myself into to the positions of these young soldiers and it created an even stronger emotional investment. It grabbed my attention and never let go and with the amount of raw material they had to work with, the seamless result is impressive. We are introduced to these young soldiers prior to enlistment and stick with them until the fortunate ones get to come home, and it was an emotionally touching exploration. Nothing felt theatrical or embellished. It was down-to-earth, and very matter of fact which I felt was absolutely compelling.
Visually this documentary is ground-breaking. Taking 100-year-old footage and colorizing it, smoothing out the motion of it, and adding sound-effects created an eerie peek back in time. The emotion on these soldiers’ faces was captured like I have never seen. It was heartwarming at times, and haunting during many others. It felt like their faces each told a story of their own. While watching it felt like these men were coming back to life and it resulted in as immersive of a WWI documentary as you will ever see. I think the remastering Jackson’s company was able to accomplish was commendable. It managed to pull the dated footage into this era, but still was able to maintain its vintage feel. In the end, this was a fantastic WWI documentary and despite probably thinking you have seen many before. I can guarantee you haven’t seen one like this before and I recommend checking it out as soon as you can, preferably on the big-screen.