Before the film began, They Shall Not Grow Old director Peter Jackson gave some background about how the documentary came to life. The request was very open to interpretation; the Imperial War Museum simply asked the Lord of the Rings director to take their archived footage and do something for the centennial of the War. Instead of just polishing old silent reels, Jackson brought the archives to life in an unprecedented way, and it was incredible to watch from beginning to end.
The two World Wars have fascinated me throughout my life (which being given the middle name Winston for Mr. Churchill will do to you; it’s like how Tim Duncan was obviously meant to play basketball). I have read countless books and watched plenty of documentaries about WWI (and put hours into Battlefield 1), so it’s always interesting to see what new information they have. With World War I being such a large-scale event in almost every way, it would be easy to try to make a documentary that tries to show a little bit of everything, but doesn’t teach the audience anything new.
Instead of a survey of the War, They Shall Not Grow Old took a unique approach that focuses on just one small group of British soldiers who gave interviews decades after the War. The narrative does go from pre-War England to coming home, but by only showing what the men telling the story saw, the film feels much more personal and intimate than most World War I documentaries. The War and the soldiers were not glorified either. Much of the archival footage showed how being a soldier could be mundane, with a lot of waiting, loading munitions, and some time for posing for the cameras too.
One of the interviewees noted that they never knew where they were going or where they were, and were not just bloodthirsty men trying to find any chance to kill. They Shall Not Grow Old is sequenced to give that feeling to the audience as well. The soldiers are nameless. Their locations are usually nameless. Even the climactic battle is not given a name. The gruesome scenes of the dead soldiers were somber and contemplative. Interviewees showed remorse for having to kill, while the footage displayed moments of camaraderie between the German prisoners and their British captors.
This approach to a WWI documentary could have gone so wrong, and Jackson and his team managed to avoid every pitfall. He didn’t obsess over showing off the technical marvel that the film is; I was able to become engaged in the narrative that the men were weaving instead of just being impressed by the 3D and color. Adding voice acting to silent film could have appeared cheesy, but only made the men on screen appear more real. The sound effects were astonishing, and never felt disjointed or overbearing. The soldiers and the interviews were the centerpiece, but the surrounding pieces were what made it worth the price of admission.
This is the same Peter Jackson who turned a children’s book into a 9-hour mess of a trilogy. They Shall Not Grow Old could have been a sweeping, multi-film experience that tried to utilize as much film as possible packed with action. But by creating a succinct two-hour journey, Jackson proved he was capable of making an epic film without the epic runtime.
As scenes of post-War England passed by, a veteran noted that World War I started with men on horses and ended with tank warfare. New technology led to more efficient killing. The men speaking were the lucky ones to survive a War that took the lives of around 20 million. Only a few decades later, warfare technology became so murderous that World War II saw the deaths of quadruple that amount.
Technology has not only been a bad force, of course. The title of the documentary is a promise that new technology has managed to fulfill. When I was in the theater, World War I wasn’t just a 100-year-old event, but it was actually happening in front of me. The men who have long passed were speaking to me, reminding us all of the great sacrifice they made even though many insisted they were just doing their duty. They also wanted us to remember how deadly war can be, and the fact that nothing is worth that loss of life. They Shall Not Grow Old proved there is still so much to learn from even the most analyzed historical events when we listen to the men and women who experienced them firsthand.