Review: They Shall Not Grow Old

Cy Burchenal, Staff Reporter

New Zealand director Peter Jackson is no stranger to global audiences. His adaptation of The Lord of the Rings became both a commercial and cultural phenomenon. In his new documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, Jackson employs his considerable talents in a similar, but more humanitarian, direction. His new film shows both his impressive ability to convey both unimaginable scale and adversity, while also rooting his film in a personal narrative. As a child of a family profoundly affected by World War I, Jackson’s efforts are on full display. The result is tragic, barbaric, and beautiful.

Illustration by Elie Flanagan

Jackson’s intent in the film is simple enough; Jackson seeks only to humanize the small segment of the war within his view. Discarding any tactical, strategic, or political focus, Jackson’s film is concerned only with conveying the experience of the common British soldier in the trenches of WW1. While this goal sacrifices the sweeping war narrative some may expect, the film offers a disturbingly intimate look at the long dead soldiers Jackson so carefully resurrects.

They Shall Not Grow Old is the product of Jackson’s experimentation with archival footage from the British Imperial War Museum. New techniques created for this film take what would otherwise be improperly saturated, grainy, and damaged film and transforms it into a complex, visually stunning, restoration. The reconstructed film doesn’t look like standard high definition film, but instead looks partway between a painting and a dream; The frames reconstructed are both vividly real and mesmerizing. The recoloration process undertaken breathes new life into the long dead subjects of the film.

In the absence of historians presenting sterile narration on tactics and political context, audio from interviews with First World War veterans conducted in the 1960s and 70s. The only time secondary sources are heard on screen are the voice actors tasked with reading the lips of the men filmed without sound over a hundred years ago.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking. The techniques developed to craft it are incredible, and the film itself will immediately set a new standard against which other popular war documentaries will be judged.

The beautiful rendering of a barbaric event is compelling enough on its own, but the care taken by the director to abscond political bias is equally admirable. Focusing on the experiences of man in the face of absolute barbarity, They Shall Not Grow Old sacrifices academia for humanism. The disturbing reality that the men on screen and the people watching them are not so different is made vividly clear, as the faces and experiences of a million men are made live again.