Film Critic Alex Green recommends They Shall Not Grow Old, a stunning feat of technology and a fitting way to remember on the centenary of the Armistice
A hundred years after the end of one of the bloodiest periods in our history, World War I still serves as a harrowing reminder of how far we come. The Great War was also a revolutionary moment in the sense that it was one of the first times war had been documented on camera. To commemorate the centenary of the Armistice that would end the four years of bloodshed, the Imperial War Museum originally commissioned a short documentary to be directed by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. Of course, being Peter Jackson, he turned it into a one hour, forty minute documentary. Old habits die hard for Jackson. But here we are, and a hundred years on, Jackson in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum has created They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary providing the voices of veterans who served in the war along with archived footage that has been coloured and voiced in full.
One interesting thing is the screening of this film in schools as an educational tool. This makes a ton of sense as it is not a documentary that pinpoints any one aspect. And it is in this way that this documentary succeeds so much. They Shall Not Grow Old is a fascinating, fresh look at a huge event that highlights the war from the common soldier’s view. The veterans here are heard but not shown, providing this great sense that they do not just represent themselves but also those they served with. All their voices carry incredible stories and some funny sources of wit that offer relief to the gravity of the situation. Their input gives the film this amazing sense of credibility and honesty. They discuss some elements of the war with a nostalgic wistfulness, loving their pride of the country and remembering the ‘companionship’ that war gave them with each other. There is even a deep respect for their superior sergeants who gave them direction despite the discipline. It is here where the film shows a unique perspective, highlighting the skills and friendships that were given to these people in the face of something they were not all entirely aware of.
Jackson’s direction is on point here, constructing a linear pathway to guide the audience, from recruitment to training. From trench life to battle, the film has a solid pace throughout, never straying and sloppily losing sight of the tragic nature of war. It is here where the film shines, as it contrasts the horror with the humorous, the dark with the light. The film does not shy away from showing war’s grisly nature. The sections showing the battles are utterly heart-wrenching, but Jackson deftly switches to the camaraderie of platoons and the common shared qualities of the British and captured Germans. It is both utterly sobering and also, at times, somewhat funny. Jackson provides a real rollercoaster of emotions with a level of class and exquisite touch that I did not expect in the slightest.
The technical achievements here are stunning. The footage provided is coloured perfectly, whilst keeping a slightly grainy feeling to maintain its authenticity. What we end up with is some amazing footage lending credence to the words. The range of footage engages easily, going from shelling to rigorous training schemes. There is even audio added in by using lip-sync experts to decipher speech in the footage. If there is one small criticism, occasionally the sound mixing seems to be a bit muddled, making the veterans hard to hear over the footage. Despite this, what we are presented with is a technical marvel and an exemplary look at how far filmmaking technology has come. The sound department deserve all the plaudits for their work on this film.
Additionally, capturing key themes that we all understand is a big part of They Shall Not Grow Old. Displaying maturity, the film glides from theme to theme, discussing death, the animalistic nature of war and the accompanying isolation from home and even strongly displays a heartbreaking look at the alienation from society these warriors felt when coming home having been ‘drained of all emotion’, and even fits in a timely look at the loyalty of youth.
In the end, with the centenary of the Armistice coming up, They Shall Not Grow Old excels and delivers on its promise. The film’s release is very limited in the cinema but go and seek it out. At the very least, we can peer back through time at those days, in memory of the fallen.
VERDICT: A fantastic documentary that supremely captures The Great War like no one has ever seen, bringing together the backbone of incredible footage, first-hand accounts and great direction.