Working from footage supplied by the Imperial British War Museum, director Peter Jackson demonstrates that he understands the delusions and sorrow that have accumulated around the so-called War to End All Wars. And he does it in a novel way, not by looking back but by trying to make the past feel shockingly immediate.
Jackson, of Lord of the Rings Fame, has assembled an extraordinary documentary that brings us close to the soldiers who fought on the war’s bloody Western Front.
Before we go any further, it's necessary to talk about the technical achievements of Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old. Britain's Imperial War Museum asked Jackson to look at 100 hours of vintage footage and do something to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war's end. Jackson colorized some footage, added 3D, and altered the speed of footage that -- in its original form -- had a jerky Keystone Kops quality that resulted from cameras that were cranked by hand.
These may sound like gimmicks of a digital age, but Jackson achieves what he set out to do: He liberates the war from its historical prison and makes it feel contemporary. You definitely should stick around for the epilogue that follows the film so that you can hear Jackson explain how the movie was made.
Aside from the technical challenges, Jackson had to find ways to narrow the film's focus. He decided to bring us close to trench warfare and tell the story through interviews recorded in the 1960s and 70s with British soldiers who had fought on many of the locations we see. Jackson used actors to recite dialogue that was obtained by employing skilled lip readers when soldiers in the restored footage speak.
To put it mildly, trench warfare was no picnic: Even some of the most vivid World War I films don't show the vast number of rats that scurried through the trenches nor do they explain how the soldiers improvised bathrooms. The soldier’s life was one of misery. They got lice. They smoked cigarettes and pipes. Many of them died. They wore the single uniform they had been issued until it was rendered threadbare.
Yet when the cameras rolled, soldiers did what people tend to do when cameras roll: They smiled. The put on a good face.
The emotional arc of the film should feel familiar. The buoyant optimism of going off to war quickly gives way to the tedium and terror of the trenches. Young and naive, enlistees thought they'd make quick work of a conflict they only dimly understood.
They Shall Not Grow Old pays tribute to those young men by showing us the fear and hardship they experienced, as well as the intense connections they developed with one another. When you're finished watching They Shall Not Grow Old, we feel as if we've seen an invaluable slice of history, a war story told by those who fought it.