Director Peter Jackson has always been a bit more of a technician and master craftsman than a yarn-spinning storyteller. They Shall Not Grow Old is an enrapturing reminder of just what he is capable of when he picks a project that suits his strength.
The documentary, timed to release in the centennial year of the end of the First World War, is an immersive restoration and colorization of extensive original footage shot during the course of the conflict. Overlaying the haunting images are audio recordings of numerous interviews with veterans, pieced together in such a way that they pair with what you’re seeing and provide a narrative throughline for the visuals.
This is at its core a tour of the battlefield on the Western Front from the perspective of an everyday British soldier. It covers the mundanity of soldiering during World War I - where they slept and what they ate - the terror of the actual fighting - going “over the top” and coping with constant artillery fire - and brings to life the appalling conditions - the mud and death and disease all around.
In that context, it is an absolutely essential piece of history and of film because it accomplishes two things I’ve not seen before: making the First World War real and tangible in a way photography or fictional depictions could not and approaching it head on without being overly precious about the nature of the conflict or the toll it took on its combatants.
These are truly momentous achievements. Film has a distinct power for making things real in a way other forms of media can not, and so there’s something important about seeing real faces and trenches and artillery fire in full color.
I wonder now how much of that previously unfilled gap is related to the American lack of appreciation for the significance of this conflict. Sure, we are a self-centered nation, as most are. We entered the war late and did not bear the cost that Britain, France or Germany did (though we still bore an enormous cost). But we also did not have reels showing in movie theaters for this war as we did for World War II.
Whatever it is, World War I shaped the world we’re still living in more than any other event in the 20th century, and Jackson has done a tremendous service in making it more visually accessible.
They Shall Not Grow Old was a passion project for Jackson, whose grandfather served on the Western Front at great physical cost, and it is executed with the according care you might expect. Just as remarkable, especially for this director, it is not indulgent or bloated in the least, a surprise not just because of what we know about Jackson but because of the sprawling nature of the conflict itself.
Jackson, a good soldier here, seems to have approached this project with an outsized sense of duty, and he serves his both his audience and his subjects admirably.