They Shall Not Grow Old is as deeply humanizing and empathetic as a documentary about World War I can get.
The film is told through the voice over narration of dozens of actual veterans of WWI, most of whom fought for the British Empire. The narration is organized in such a way as to give the audience the full experience of a soldier who served in the war. We start with how they first enlisted, then move on to their time in boot camp, and then to their experiences on the front lines. All of it being accompanied by beautifully updated, restored, and colorized film footage.
The colorization of this hundred-year-old film footage was time-consuming and painstaking, as director Peter Jackson describes both at the beginning and end of the documentary. He also restored all 100 hours of footage he was given to use by the Imperial War Museum and received no payment for it. I’d consider this a passion project for Jackson and his production company, and their effort to restore this footage as a public service for future generations.
We all know about the horrid conditions in WWI, but to physically watch it happen before your eyes is a whole different story. I found many scenes hard to watch as the bodies began to pile up, as mortar rounds violently struck the ground, and the men slept in vile conditions. The most emotional moments were some of the firsthand accounts the men spoke of, namely a gentleman who put a fellow soldier out of misery because gunfire had left him terribly mutilated. Even though many decades had gone by, the man still got choked up talking about it. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.
They Shall Not Grow Old has no agenda, no ulterior motives or contemporary allegories of the political sort. No, the intentions of this documentary are actually quite clear. It exists to bring this monumental event in human history back to the forefront of our thoughts. Capturing in full color the camaraderie, bravery, and heartbreak of warfare.
It asks us to empathize with these men and shows how these crude individuals weren’t much different than young boys today. They questioned why they were fighting the war and were kind to (and often identified with) the German soldiers who they were supposed to hate. These brave souls were willing to risk it all for their country, and many paid the ultimate price.
They Shall Not Grow Old is the ultimate testament to those who those who died fighting in The Great War, and our respectful viewing of the film can help to humanize and rationalize an event previously condemned as part of the past.
The Verdict: A