England’s Imperial War Museum commissioned Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson to make a World War I documentary in honor of the 100th anniversary of the war’s end. The result is the mostly satisfying They Shall Not Grow Old.
The film includes a significant amount of previously unseen footage from the Imperial War Museum. What makes the footage even more remarkable is that Jackson and his team have colorized it. No, the colorization does not have the nightmarishly fake feel of the colorizations Ted Turner used to do for old movies on cable. The color here feels rich, real and alive. It adds something to the experience.
Most of the film’s audio comes from old interviews conducted with WWI vets when they were old men. They tell stories of boys who often lied about their age to enlist, thinking the war would be a fun adventure and over in six months. By the time the war over, millions would be dead and more would be permanently disabled or disfigured.
The interviews provide illuminating insights into the mundane realities of life in the trenches. The film also wisely ends with the men commenting on how alienated they were from everyone around them when they finally returned home from combat. Some were relieved to be finished with the war; others felt as if they had just been laid off from a job.
The film’s one weak spot is that it doesn’t quite convey the sense of how long the war dragged on. It lasted from 1914-18 with very little in the way of advances on either side. The film communicates the boredom and the terror, but it doesn’t give much of a sense of how exhausting it must have been to experience this for that many years in a row.
One final note of caution: They Shall Not Grow Old is R-rated and most definitely not for the weak of stomach. There are many shots of horribly mangled corpses (human and animal), as well as shots of legs destroyed by gangrene.
But for history buffs, They Shall Not Grow Old is an important look at a chapter of world history that is often overshadowed by the war that followed it.