A thoroughly detailed, powerfully haunting & surprisingly immersive account of the British soldiers’ harrowing time during the First World War that also doubles as an astounding work of restoration, They Shall Not Grow Old is unlike any war documentary, for it manages to transport the viewers back to that timeline and puts them right into the soldiers’ shoes to make them witness the carnage from an unsettling close range.
Taking the original never-before-seen footage of World War I, applying colours & sound to those archived images, carefully arranging it with soldiers’ oral excerpts of their first-hand experience and employing a few cinematic touches to give those frames a lifelike quality, They Shall Not Grow Old delivers an emotional impact so profound & affecting that the veteran’s faces become etched in the mind and those deafening artillery shelling reverberate long after the credits have rolled.
Directed by Peter Jackson (best known for The Lord of the Rings), this is his first stint with documentary filmmaking but the Kiwi filmmaker & his crew treat these archival footages with care. The events that led to a warfare of unprecedented scale, the socio-political factors that contributed to it and its aftermath is deliberately excluded as the director here aims to bring the viewers closer to the soldiers’ experience unlike any war documentary before and for the most part, he succeeds.
Also eliminated are the dates, locations & names of all the soldiers whose first-hand accounts we keep hearing from the first frame to the last, and their impression of the war brings some interesting details to surface, things like them being excited at first about the opportunity to serve their nation, many not even being aware of why exactly they are fighting the Germans, the everyday difficulties of living in the trenches, and the trauma of watching their peers blown to bits in front of their eyes. It’s all powerful stuff.
I’m not exactly a proponent of adding colours to black-n-white images whether it’s historical footage or cinematic piece so colour me surprised, because I didn’t expect myself to be as dazzled by this film as I am. The colour & sound, coupled with some really clever editing, create a surreal environment that brims with tension & sense of immediacy. You can actually feel the historical footage coming to life as the film slowly transitions from monochrome & silent to hues & sound. And the effect is instantly bracing & unforgettable.
While the decision to leave out the specifics and streamline the documentary in the style of feature storytelling does make sense, as it makes the experience all the more personal for the audience, the film still only offers a one-sided account of World War I and doesn’t have a single oral interview of soldiers who fought from the opposite side. Now one may argue that the hardships faced by comrades is same on the human level, no matter what side they are on but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt to include a few excerpts from their impressions of the war too.
On an overall scale, They Shall Not Grow Old is a technical achievement of a staggering scale, for it employs sound & colour to black n white real-life footage as a storytelling device instead of a gimmick, and delivers a cinematic experience that’s as unique as it is unforgettable. Infusing life into century old visages and holding nothing back when detailing the devastation & horror that warfare leaves in its wake, Peter Jackson’s restoration project adds aptly synced & expertly edited visual & aural elements into images of historic relevance, evoking admiration, empathy & better understanding of the enormous sacrifices made by servicemen in the process, and is by all means an essential viewing.