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Review: They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

Directed by: Peter Jackson

Premise: A documentary about British soldiers serving in World War I. The film consists of footage shot at the time of the conflict and audio testimonies of British war veterans.

What Works: World War I has been largely ignored by filmmakers in favor of World War II and Vietnam. Part of the reason for that is timing; the movie-exhibition industry as we know it today didn’t really exist until World War II in which cinema played a major propaganda role and the New Hollywood movement occurred simultaneously with the conflict in Vietnam. But World War I is also more difficult to dramatize because its conflicts were morally ambiguous and the narrative of the war lacks the kind of satisfying stakes and payoffs that are appealing to drama. But filmmaking technology did exist during World War I and the conflict was heavily documented at the time. Filmmaker Peter Jackson, who is best known for his Lord of the Rings pictures, was commissioned by the UK’s 14-18 NOW program and the Imperial War Museum to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the war’s end by assembling that footage into a documentary. The audio and visuals of They Shall Not Grow Old were culled from hundreds of hours of film and audio recordings documenting life on the western front. The film footage was restored, including colorization and frame rate adjustments that revealed new levels of detail, and the images and sounds were polished with digital tools and contemporary sound mixing techniques. The result is an extraordinary technical achievement. They Shall Not Grow Old makes history come alive; the defects of old footage like grainy black and white film stock and under-cranked frame rates have the effect of making the past look unreal. The rehabilitation of that footage of for They Shall Not Grow Old suddenly makes the past a real and accessible place. The visuals are matched by testimonies of British soldiers who served in the war and the commentary explains what we’re seeing while also imbuing the images with personality and context. This documentary provides a visceral impression of what serving on the western front was like while also educating the audience about the historical particulars. 

What Doesn’t: They Shall Not Grow Old had a limited theatrical release and it is now widely available for home viewing. But this film really deserves to be seen theatrically. The scope and detail of the images really pop when the film is projected on a theater screen and even large televisions won’t quite do the material justice. They Shall Not Grow Old is a collage of images and narration but it isn’t telling a story of a particular person or an identifiable group. That’s a perfectly adequate approach for this material but the film’s treatment of its subject in a mile-wide and an inch-deep; it is a vivid portrait of the British World War I experience but the implications, repercussions, and meanings of the war fall outside the purview of this film.

DVD extras: Featurette.

Bottom Line: They Shall Not Grow Old is an outstanding technical achievement. The movie brings the western front of World War I to life in ways that even dramatizations of that conflict haven’t quite achieved. It may not go into details about why World War I happened but it does serve as a valuable historical document of what happened and what it was like.

Episode: #775 (November 10, 2019)