Released to commemorate the centenary of World War I, They Shall Not Grow Old is perhaps one of the most incredible feats of filmmaking ever. Directed by Peter Jackson, it is wholly original regarding its presentation and Jackson’s keen attention to detail. The film exclusively relies on archive footage for the entirety of its runtime. However, the hundred-year-old footage has now been fully restored and colored, making for quite the surreal experience.
They Shall Not Grow Old is bookended by unrestored footage. The actual film has clearly suffered through the years, and serves purely as a reminder to the audience. It truly highlights the painstaking detail Jackson and his crew went through to create this film. We are treated to countless impressions on the war itself and the general outlook of society. As all documentaries need a particular angle, this one becomes evident fairly quickly. The film is a general outlook on the war itself in the most specific way imaginable, exclusively from the veterans who were there. It engrains itself in the British viewpoint, yet Jackson makes a point that he assumes most soldiers had similar experiences, just on different sides.
Every single veteran interviewed had nothing but excitement to sign up for the war. Some would lie about their age to fight. They would be as young as 16 leaving home. These archive interviews are the crux of the documentary and provide an interesting dynamic about war not commonly touched upon. Yes, there are depictions of violent aftermaths. Some images are incredibly graphic, and the details described by veterans is enough to make you recoil in your seat. Through it all, the soldiers remained humorous however they could. There is plenty of footage of the soldiers goofing off and simply living to the best of their abilities. These moments in the film are perhaps when it is at its best. In such a harsh reality, it warms your heart at times to know these soldiers coped by remaining close-knit and comical.
When the restored footage finally arrives, it’s absolutely breathtaking. The image expands to take up the entire screen, and suddenly the footage comes to life. There are certain moments that genuinely feel unreal due to how incredible it both looks and sounds. There is a fantastic behind the scenes look after the credits at just how particular Jackson and the team made sure to be. From hiring professional lip readers to doing extensive ADR for every tiny detail, it amasses into something beyond great. They Shall Not Grow Old can only truly be described as an experience and one that is singular in many ways. It took four years to create this film, and it’s obvious that it paid off tenfold.
Jackson describes this film as being his most personal, due to his grandfather serving in the first World War. And that’s another incredible feat that this documentary pulls off. With archive footage, there is a very distinct barrier between the past and the present. However, this restoration blurs that line immensely. We are able to look at these soldiers in the eyes, and see the world as they saw it. They are able to look into the camera and make jokes or mess around during an irregular break in the action. This is a film that is extremely personable and really puts the veterans on full display. Even 100 years ago, if a camera were rolling, people would act differently, and comedic gold would pour out of whoever was in the frame.
All in all, They Shall Not Grow Old is an achievement in its own right. It seems difficult to give it a proper rating due to the nature of it. Nevertheless, this documentary looks like it should be required for anyone that has a remote interest in history. Never before has the past felt so close, and one can only imagine this technology 20 years from now. If anything is clear by the end of this documentary, it is that Jackson once again proves why he is such a visionary filmmaker. More importantly, it demonstrates the undeniable truth about war itself, and the incredibly brave soldiers who faced it head-on, and for that, we must be eternally grateful.
What are your thoughts on the documentary? Would you want to see more of this work from Jackson in the future? Let us know in the comments below!
They Shall Not Grow Old is currently playing in select theaters on a limited run.