Film Review: They Shall Not Grow Old

I had the privilege to attend the world premiere of Peter Jackson’s newest film, They Shall Not Grow Old, at the British Film Institute in London.

Originally commissioned by 14-18 NOW as a half hour documentary to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, this piece grew and developed into a fully fledged feature-length film, all I can say is, thank God that they agreed to give Peter Jackson a higher budget, because this was one of the most powerful documentaries I have ever seen.

We all know about the First World War, of course, but all of the footage we have seen of it can easily create a disconnect; it’s all poor black and white, grainy, it just doesn’t seem real to us, it is notably engrained and locked in history, this format is all we have ever known, if someone mentions this war to you, that format is what you will probably picture in your mind.

I am so happy to say, that this is no more, the heroes that fought for us one hundred years ago have been freed from the confines of early 20th-century technology, and they have now been brought to life in this modern age.

Hundreds of hours of archival footage from the Imperial War Museum have been taken by Jackson and his team, and meticulously edited so that the footage looks like something that could have been shot yesterday. (The subject matter of this film mainly focuses on the British Infantry.)

The film begins with the same, grainy footage that we are all used to, in the same aspect ratio. This is what we see for a good 10/15 minutes, not dissimilar to any other World War One documentary that you may have seen on TV over the years. But then, there is a moment, a moment that overwhelmed me with an emotion I still can’t fully describe… The aspect ratio changes, it grows into full screen and suddenly, this grainy footage is reinvigorated with an abundance of sharp, brilliant colour. In an instant, this footage has aged 104 years and we are staring at something that just doesn’t seem real. You would be forgiven if you believed that at this point, the footage we were watching has been filmed specifically for this documentary by actors, but it wasn’t, this was the real thing. You could hear the gasps around the theatre, it was utterly breathtaking.

This is where the film really hits its stride because now, all of these soldiers have become humanized to the audience. They’re no longer indistinguishable pixels on a grainy archival film, they are more noticeable, they’ve been given their individuality again, you really start to notice how young some of these “men” were, some couldn’t have been any older than 15, this isn’t new knowledge at all, but this new technology makes our reaction to it more profound. If that wasn’t enough, Peter Jackson and his team have worked with oral historians and professional lip-readers, to work out exactly what these soldiers are saying in the silent archival footage, and through this process, they have been given a voice once again. (Thanks to a large roster of soldiers in the same regiments as those shown on film, who lent their voices to the film, to help capture the most authentic dialect possible.)

It is a fantastic tool and it is so immersive, not only do these soldiers look more real to us, we are now getting a deeper sense of their personalities… The camaraderie, the banter, you watch these men and you can immediately identify them as someone you’ve known in your life… You’ve got the loudmouth jocks, you’ve got the comedians, the introverts, all are on display here, and suddenly this horrific war is becoming more relatable. It’s powerful stuff watching these men laugh, joke and play together, the film genuinely has amusing, funny moments, which Peter Jackson himself said was very important to highlight, because this film is primarily about the people, not the war. We all know that the war was indescribably horrific, we know that narrative. But here we see a different perspective from those that lived it, and it is moving to see that even in the face of extreme adversity, there are some truly heart-warming moments as well.

There is a moment in the film when one of the narrators (all of these narrations were taken from direct accounts from the soldiers themselves.) says that the man next to you would be your best friend, your brother, but you may never have met him before. These men were all well aware that they could be dead within the next few minutes, they faced their own mortality on a constant basis and the brotherhood between these men, the laughter, the jokes, that’s what kept them sane. The disconnect that many audiences may have experienced is no longer there, these are real men which you can identify with, it was deeply inspiring, but equally, it was hugely emotional.

Everything in this film was authentic, every sound effect of each and every gun, artillery shell etc is a recording of the real tool that would have been used 100 years ago. The attention to detail in this documentary is mindblowing, and it should be commended. This is the closest we will ever get to experience what the First World War was like.

Which made it all the harder to watch, because we become attached to these men we are watching, and then we are exposed to the true horrors of the war. Terrifying, visceral images of corpses and injuries, raw footage of the broken men shell-shocked and inconsolable. A lot of these moments are things that one may have already seen in a school-book, on the internet or on the TV… But when they look like they could have been shot on a state of the art camera yesterday, there’s something disturbing about that, even the familiar comes across as brand new.

This unsettled me, and it also made me feel angry at modern day society. Let’s be honest, we live in an environment where people have tendencies to be offended by menial topics, we are obsessed with political correctness, we see uproar every day on a multitude of topics… After watching this film, I just felt angry, because we honestly do not have a clue, we do not know how lucky we are. Even after watching the most immersive documentary I have ever seen, I can’t even begin to comprehend the terrors that these men faced, and do you know what the most powerful part of all was? When they came home, they didn’t want attention, they didn’t want to be praised, they didn’t want to be vilified, they just wanted to live a normal life. I do wonder how they would feel if they could look upon an attention-seeking society that will quite literally make mountains out of molehills… Because it annoys the hell out of me. We very much seem to live in a bubble these days and I think we too often forget the past that shaped us, and I truly hope that certain people do watch this documentary, because it might give them a bit of perspective.

I believe They Shall Not Grow Old is due to be screened on a BBC channel at some point during November, I urge you to watch this film. It truly is a masterpiece, and as well as that, it’s culturally significant. I do not think I have ever been moved so much by a documentary and it would take something inconceivably special to move me more. Peter Jackson has created something that he hopes will inspire others to do the same thing, bring archival footage into the modern age for the modern audience, let’s free these people from the confines of history, and in a sense, bring them back to life. The benefits of this technology are immense, and I feel it is our duty to recreate these events into a medium that specifically younger generations can appreciate. The film is aptly named, because with this sort of technology, we can ensure that these heroes really will never grow old, they will have a voice again, in fact, they will be more real to us than ever before.

But, of course, as Peter Jackson himself noted in his Q & A after the film, it is important that we do not forget those that will never have their voice brought back, and we must never forget to honour those that gave their lives.

I felt the closest I will ever feel to the First World War, and I left the film with one thing on my mind… After everything that happened, I can’t believe it happened again.

I give They Shall Not Grow Old a 9.5/10.

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