They Shall Not Grow Old first premiered on the 11th of November, 2018, the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day (Veteran's Day here in the US) and I was immediately drawn to the film when I first saw its advertisements in theaters. I remember that I was working at a movie theater at the time and found myself excited at finding a documentary that actually discussed the experiences of the First World War.
It is a sad reality of American history that the First World War is a rarely discussed subject when compared to its horrifying sequel, the Second World War. For most Americans, the First World War is explained as thus: Franz Ferdinand is shot and everyone in Europe declared war on everyone else, nothing really happened but a whole lot of people dying, then the United States joined the war and it ended. It's a reductive and hypernationalist portrayal of America's involvement that infuriates me so to actually see a renewed interest in the First World War was immensely exciting. The fact that it comes to us through the mind and efforts of Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is just icing on the cake.
The first thing I have to say about this film is that it truly stands out among its peers. Jackson makes several directorial decisions that would normally be quite strange for a war documentary but because of the unique focus of the film, it works out incredibly well. Most World War One documentaries focus on the big picture of the war, the international politics and the reactions of the generals and politicians. Soldiers are largely used to show off the brutality of the conflict and the horrors of war. But They Shall Not Grow Old chooses instead to largely ignore the wider politics of the war to instead focus upon the day-to-day lives of soldiers, on all sides, that fought in it.
This down-to-earth presentation of the war is something that I've only seen attempted in war films like 1917 and World War Two films like Saving Private Ryan, though often widely exaggerated for dramatic effect. They Shall Not Grow Old focuses much more on the overall experiences rather than aiming for the shock and tears and horror.
Peter Jackson accomplishes this view by utilizing groundbreaking digital effects and film enhancement techniques to present a colorized and very modern look at the men and women involved in the wars. Previous efforts of colorizing black and white footage has often resulted in cartoonish or incredibly jarring visuals. But not here. The footage in They Shall Not Grow Old doesn't quite look like it is coming out of a modern digital camera, but more in line with a 1970s Vietnam War documentary, which still makes immersion far easier, especially when sound is added to complete the experience.
We see and hear soldiers laughing and playing with one another, we bear witness to the sounds of shells and bullets, and it all works to make a truly immersive experience into their daily lives. When coupled with the narration, which isn't a single omnipotent narrator like a Ken Burns documentary, but rather a myriad of narrations of private letters from individual soldiers; a truer and more real picture is granted.
In many documentaries and interviews I have watched of the First World War, there was often a mention on the banality of horror in the experience. It is an emotion that one acquires when reading the works of those who lived in the war, such as J.R.R. Tolkien or Erich Maria Remarque (the author of All Quiet on the Western Front). They Shall Not Grow Old highlights this fact as the war progresses. We hear and visually see the fatigue when the men's voices and the images begin to grow much more graphic.
This is an element of the film that must be discussed. The film is rated R in the United States due to violent war imagery. The film absolutely refuses to shy away from the horrors of the First World War, though it doesn't relish in or exploit that horror. And it is in this fact that I think They Shall Not Grow Old earns my respect. It would be so easy for the film to become exploitative of the horrors of the war, to utilize the gore for shock and entertainment value or to evoke cheap emotional reactions in the audience. But Jackson avoids this, granting us a tasteful exploration of the daily realities of the trenches but only to better immerse us in the lives of the soldiers who witnessed such things daily.
It is a fine distinction, but an important one. They Shall Not Grow Old is by far the most tasteful and immersive exploration of not only the First World War but I would go so far as to say any war that has ever been portrayed on screen. The film avoids the pitfalls that often befall war documentaries by focusing not only upon the horrors of war but also upon the joys and camaraderie of the units and the individuals behind them. And perhaps most importantly of all, the film shows us the similarities between the two sides.
The lesson of the First World War has always been a complicated one. The war is widely regarded as meaningless or pointless in that neither side had a greater goal beyond beating their opponent. But the war did teach something which has come to define the 20th century, the horror of war and the futility of seeking glory in war. They Shall Not Grow Old really touches on how similar the two sides of the war really were to one another on a soldier to soldier basis and it focuses on the underlying tragedy of a war fought for honor and glory in the modern age.
Most of the men who are shown or whose letters are read are likely gone now, victims of the passage of time. And with their passing, the day may soon be coming when the lesson these men unveiled to the world regarding the realities of war may soon pass from common parlance, to be me manipulated by forces that seek to exploit conflict for their own interests. It is through immersive documentaries like They Shall Not Grow Old that the stories and lessons of the veterans of the First World War live on to the present day.
You can watch They Shall Not Grow Old on HBO Max or you can download or buy it on Amazon Prime. I cannot recommend this film enough, especially if you are fascinated by military or European history. The First World War is a largely ignored war by most Americans, but in this age of hypernationalism, perhaps it is more important to learn its lesson than ever before.
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