"They Shall Not Grow Old" Review - (Non-Spoiler)
For the first 10 minutes of “They Shall Not Grow Old,” Peter Jackson’s remarkable documentary about British frontline soldiers in World War I, all the footage is in its original black and white. It’s cleaned up so that we can better see the faces, and the film is slowed down so that the movements aren’t jerky. Yet, still, we feel the distance of history, of the more than 100 intervening years.
Then the moment comes. The camera seems to move deeper into the frame, as the footage turns to color and transforms into three dimensions. The faces become vivid — entirely, strangely normal and wonderfully human — not faces lost to time, but faces you could see on the street or in the mirror. The effect is jaw-dropping and staggering and revelatory.
What’s the revelation? It sounds too obvious to say it, that the people in history, the people from a hundred years ago, were just like us. We know that already, don’t we? Of course, we do. But the experience of “They Shall Not Grow Old” shows that actually seeing something is different from knowing it intellectually, or even from imagining it. The effect of this is moving and profound.
The genesis of the film dates to 2014, when the British Imperial War Museum invited Jackson, who helmed the “Lord of the Rings” franchise, to make a World War I documentary using the footage in its collection. As an experiment, Jackson had a few minutes of film digitized, cleaned, slowed down and colorized, and when he saw the footage, he experienced what his audiences are now experiencing.
Somehow, with the footage restored and augmented by modern means, the faces of these men leaped off the screen. They were no longer heroes, nor victims, but just people walking around on a particular day, going about their business or mugging for the camera.
Jackson’s next inspiration was to have the film narrated by the voices of the veterans themselves, using archival audio recordings of them remembering their exploits from 40 or 50 years earlier. Hence, the voices are not that of very old men, but rather of men in their 60s and early 70s reflecting on their past.
The director arranges the film in chronological order. We see the social climate that caused men and even underage teens to enlist. We see basic training, the journey to France and life in the trenches. Then we see what encompassed a battle, and what corpses looked like. It’s all the more real in color, which accounts for the film’s R rating.
We also see the aftermath of battle — not just the deaths, but the sight of British soldiers clowning around with German prisoners of war. An hour earlier they were trying to kill each other. Now they’re laughing and trying on each other’s hats.
Along the way, Jackson does a number of extraordinary things. At times, for example, he provides voices for the men we see talking in the silent footage. This would seem presumptuous, except that, in every case, it appears that he has employed lip readers to get the dialogue exactly right so that we actually hear what the people were saying.
Throughout the film, his matching of voice to the image is awe-inspiring. A veteran will say something about dead bodies getting stuck on barbed wire, and Jackson will cut to precisely such a picture.
There are things to learn here that you won’t necessarily find in history books. For example, the teeth. People did not floss back in 1915, and it shows. Even among young men, a nice set of teeth was more the exception than the rule. Also, as miserable as the war was, these soldiers were young guys, and they enjoyed themselves when they could. They laughed a lot, and all the veterans presented here have something good to say about their wartime experience.
Finally, according to the movie, the soldiers knew the war was going to end before the public did: “We as frontline soldiers knew (the Germans) were giving up.”
But it would be a mistake to leave the impression that the rewards of “They Shall Not Grow Old” are in any way akin to that of the usual BBC historical documentary. There is some overlap, to be sure, but by and large, this Peter Jackson film does not offer a historical encounter, so much as an encounter of humanity, a psychic linking of hands across time. I'm going to give "They Shall Not Grow Old" a 10 out of 10.