Review: They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

Peter Jackson has put together a World War I documentary consisting purely of archival footage and other media from the era, reconstructed and colorized with modern film technology. It is both a testament to what can be done in the name of film preservation (and beyond) and a richly visceral dive into the Great War.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a sensory experience; it doesn’t cover new ground as much as it attempts to make you feel. In a way, it is a fantasy upon itself – so much is crafted through guesswork. Improvements upon the clarity of the image are always welcome, and I feel like that’s the place a lot of preservationists would stop. Peter Jackson goes several steps further – adding color, mixing in imagined sound. It creates a more immediate resonance, but also adds a layer of artifice – the addition of people voicing the soldiers in the footage felt especially jarring to me.

The most effective moments of the film come from a more simple element; it’s the way in which Jackson mixes the footage with post-war interviews. Soldiers recount tales of their experience, Jackson jumping between unrelated interviews until he crafts a more general view of the war experience – this is a glimpse of the war from the ground level, the daily lives of those who fought in it. The overall narrative design is sometimes simplistic but always carries such incredible force.

Even with the rather wide scope of the film, the best moments come down to specificity. A rather gross yet memorable sequence discusses the lack of toilets and the simplistic systems used in their place – one soldier recounts a time where a group of soldiers fell off the pole they were sitting on into the pit below. A more disturbing moment comes not from the combat directly but the state of the trenches – a soldier describes watching a young man slowly drown in the mud, no one really able to reach out and help.

They Shall Not Grow Old exists in this weird state of contradiction. As a documentary it seeks to expose the truth, but then it modifies the truth it has to be more presentable to a modern audience. It is likewise composed of individual memories, strung together until the voices of these individual soldiers become lost in the crowd – in a way, this film shares a lot with the collectivist storytelling of early Soviet cinema.

The question I keep returning to is, what is the purpose? Is it simply to give World War I a wider reach? It’s certainly a harrowing topic, but even with all the modernized footage, it’s the voices of the soldiers that leave the most impact. Were their words not enough to convey the horror?

They Shall Not Grow Old is an impressive technical feat, a journey into how far cinematic technology has come – but it also comes off more as a document than a great work of art. Pieces that already existed are cast in a new light; its mere existence has value, but it is also limited by its goal. The version I saw had an introduction by Peter Jackson, where he discusses being approached for the project; a hundred years later, what new meaning could be brought out of this old footage?

I don’t think anything particularly new was found – however, Jackson has constructed the perfect entry point for people unfamiliar with the war, the type of film I can see serving an honorable purpose in classrooms across the world. With the materials provided and the intended goal of the project, I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job than Jackson did here.

4 Stars Out of 5

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