It’ll likely surprise fans of Peter Jackson — director of The Lord of the Rings franchise, The Hobbit franchise, and the 2005 King Kong — to hear that the New Zealand-based filmmaker has directed and co-produced a new documentary about The First World War (or WII) titled They Shall Not Grow Old, which adds a unique visual effects twist that proves more fascinating than the subject matter on display.
WWI is often overshadowed in pop culture depictions because it’s hard to deny how much more pivotal and grand in scale WWII was, just 30 years years later. Also, we simply have more dynamic footage of these events due to the technological limitations of the 1910s. Cinematically, there are a host of standard WWI documentaries that have just about fully covered this history in full, including the BBC’s excellent The Great War and a few TV series and mini-series that have been released over recent decades like The First World War. But you’ve never seen a documentary like They Shall Not Grow Old, which adds what Jackson himself calls “computer firepower” to the footage preserved by the Imperial War Museums and the BBC.
The film is correctly advertised as a documentary that allows viewers to “travel back in time” in ways that were unheard of just a few years ago. The opening act settles you into a closed square of typical black-and-white footage from this era, which is completely silent and has an erratic frame rate that doesn’t feel natural. There are some 3D tricks employed here, like footage imposed over posters, but this isn’t where the film ultimately wants to take us.
Eventually, the aspect ratio of the film expands and fills the entire screen. The black-and-white footage colorizes with uncanny accuracy and the movement speed normalizes. You’ve just stepped into the trenches of WWI thanks to some seriously impressive technology, and it’s an immersive wizardry that never wears off its shock value.
The subject of the documentary covers the daily lives of British soldiers surviving trench warfare by sleeping in holes, fending off vermin, and using humor to cope with the never-ending booms and echoes of artillery fire. These stories are told only by veterans who were really there, with audio interviews compiled by the BBC in the 1960s and 70s. This means there is no central narrator, so it really is like listening to a roundtable of first-hand accounts meandering from topic to topic, edited to match the footage onscreen, usually to good effect.
Most of these narrative choices serve the film’s purpose well. Jackson has successfully created a documentary that changes the expectation for how film restoration can captivate even the most effects-weary audiences. But They Shall Not Grow Old lacks the sort of insight and perspective audiences will demand on top of these visually wonderful details.
It’s a documentary that adds nothing new to the knowledge we already have of this era, unless it’s being shown to a high school class still in the midst of this education. There’s also no message or story Jackson allows the footage to fully explore, beyond a general sense of how war mangles the potential of everyday people. Though we shouldn’t take these messages for granted, it’s jarring to see a film so comfortable in retreading such old ground.
Worse, the film is yet another erasure of soldiers of color who are nowhere to be found in what is otherwise a postmodern take on documentary filmmaking. It’s not just a missed opportunity for They Shall Not Grow Old to “diversify” the past in more ways than one, it’s also an inexcusable offense against those British soldiers who continue to be ignored despite their sacrifices.
They Shall Not Grow Old is an important stepping stone to how filmmakers can resurrect historical events. It’s just a shame that it portrays WWI as a somewhat brief, inconsequential stepping stone of its own on the way to WWII. There are bright spots of new context, like the rarely depicted friendship between British and German soldiers, that the film barely addresses until the very end. There are also some creative choices made to make up for lack of footage showing hand-to-hand combat that gets the horrors of violence across with still frames of death matched to moving pictures of life. It’s as haunting as it is effective.
For historians and professors, They Shall Not Grow Old is a documentary that will stand the test of time and prove useful as an accompaniment to a more robust course about the time period. And for film nerds, it’s certainly an exciting achievement worth digging into for years to come. But for everyone else, it may only be a blip in the radar.