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They Shall Not Grow Old: The Horror of War and the Magic of Cinema

They Shall Not Grow Old: The Horror of War and the Magic of Cinema

The documentary “consists entirely of restored war footage from the British trenches with exposition taken from hundreds of hours of recordings of actual war veterans”

They Shall Not Grow Old is a documentary collaboration between the acclaimed director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the British Imperial War Museum and consists entirely of restored World War I footage from the British trenches with exposition taken from hundreds of hours of recordings of actual war veterans talking about their experiences in the trenches. They Shall Not Grow Old is a rare technical achievement that applies the best of modern post-production.

The bookends to Jackson’s documentary are presented in the style of a classic zoetrope in smaller dimensions than the rest of the film. This is important because these two segments represent two vital themes presented of the Great War:  naïveté and denial.

The young soldiers marching off to war to the beat of nationalist impulsiveness had no idea of the real world of hatred and violence that awaited them. For the soldiers that survived and returned home, their experience was that of a dream.

Nobody talked about the war. The experiences that defined the conflict were bottled up and ignored. It’s only in the middle does the film come into focus. Here, the full breadth of reality comes into focus in beautiful high definition color and sound. Here, we get to see the sights and sounds of the lives of young soldiers living on the front lines in the trenches of humanity’s most pointless and destructive war.  Here, the gulf in our understanding of the Great War comes into focus.

November 11, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, wherein the countries that fought the war agreed to end hostilities. It was a war whose consequences were not truly grappled with. The horrors that Europe inflicted upon itself and on all the men and women who were drawn into it were swiftly swept under the rug and left to gestate for decades until the consequences arose in the form of a much more violent and horrific war with Nazi Germany. Everything from the rise of the Soviet Union and the Cold War to the conflicts in the Middle East can be traced back to the failures of the First World War.

Contemporary Culture and The Great War

Despite the effects of such a conflict, one can look out onto the entertainment landscape and only rarely stumble upon films or novels that grapple with the conflict.  Johnny Got His Gun, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Guns of August are infrequently read, and there are movies like Paths of Glory, War Horse, and Wonder Woman that people are aware of. Most young people are probably familiar with the conflict from it being portrayed in the video game Battlefield One.  Most aren’t aware of the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Jutland, or the Christmas Truce.

We look at culture, and there are few World War I stories in the way that there are World War II stories. People didn’t want to relive the war or indulge in the glory of conquest the way World War II veterans turned the victory against the Nazis into a romantic quest for freedom on the world stage. Most modern meditation on the horror of war is entirely dedicated to recent memory in the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

Peter Jackson’s Documentary

While there have been efforts to colorize war footage before, the work that went into Jackson’s documentary is the next level of technical achievement. The careful effort that was taken to restore the footage to color and high definition adds depth and clarity to the war. It has the same surreal effect you get from seeing colorized black and white photos.

With the context of just how brutal and painful the war was it has a new effect. The film forces you to look at the devastation of no-man’s land, the decaying bodies on the battlefield, and the wet, rat-infested conditions these young boys were sent off to die in. As Jackson himself said in an interview, the footage you see of all these young men was likely taken in the last half hour of any of their lives.

The experience of watching the film is sickening. It’s not as visceral or brutal at Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, but without the air of fiction surrounding it, there is nothing standing between you and this real footage of a young dead man left to rot on a battlefield far from home.

The post-production and Hollywood sound design that went into it only serves to put you there in Belgium in the muck and cold. The slow rumble of shells in the distance never stops. The painstaking process of resetting the frame rates, color correcting, colorizing the film, and adding voiceover to ancient decrepit footage that had been decaying in vaults makes the footage seem visceral in a way that watching the archival footage never can be.

The Value of Peace

In an age when conflict seems predetermined, there has never been a better time for this movie. Modern people speak so casually of war and violence. We live in a time when people talk about wars but don’t experience them. We hear about vast unending wars in the Middle East, veiled threats from North Korea, and the much ballyhooed impending Second American Civil War.

Those of us who haven’t seen conflict are just as ignorant as the young boys marching off to war with valor and excitement. They Shall Not Grow Old is a stark reminder that the end of war is death and eternal regret. Those few who survive are left to grapple with the horrors they witnessed. It’s a reminder that civility and peace are desperately worth defending.

If you wish to see it in theaters, there will be an encore presentation on Thursday, December 27th through Fathom Events.


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Once again, a democrat got America into a foreign war that he promised to keep us out of. It’s almost like democrats are warmongers or something…

The sacrifice of WW I is lost on my on most Americans, because it was not in color, and worse, footage of the war projected in primitive fast motion.

Hopefully, this film helps America’s institutional memory of the War.

Until we take back our schools from the likes of the freaks running harvard, I doubt it.

Having seen snippets of this documentary, I can’t wait to see it. Some of the images take on a 3-D look. This was a massive loss of life… for nothing… a “test of strength” amongst nations that did not see the disaster ahead. The American Civil War’s ending with trench warfare just before Appomattox, the major strides in technology including the Maxim machine gun were warning signs unheeded. The world was really different before the war…. thinking of the War List in “Chariots of Fire”. It set the stage for WWII, the Cold War and the Middle East. Now we can take the war and in a small part see those that fought the battles and gave so much.

This is modern technology that brings the past alive…they are gone from us now but they will never grow old.

Morning Sunshine | December 25, 2018 at 6:47 pm

I finally read All Quiet on the Western Front about 2 years ago. It was one of the most powerful books I have ever read. Would I read it again? no. Do I recommend it just for fun? no. But I do recommend it.

buckeyeminuteman | December 25, 2018 at 10:11 pm

I saw this with my dad at a Regal theater on 17 Dec. It was really good. Not sure why only 3 companies are showing it in theaters on only 2 days. Everybody should watch it. Didn’t realize it until watching the ending that all the audio you hear, besides the veterans narrating, was made in a studio and added in. There wasn’t audio recordings with video back then.

Saw this and was impressed and disappointed. Overall I liked it. But there was no narrative. You got a decent look at what it was like to be a common man in the army but there was no other perspective. One day the war began and then 99 minutes later, you’re at the day it ended. That kinda bugged me.

    War for the soldier boils down to the platoon and personal level which is one of survival. In that meat-grinder… in the trenches… was there a broader discussion other than getting back after “going over the top”?

      Colonel Travis in reply to alaskabob. | December 26, 2018 at 2:56 pm

      Right, that’s a good way to put it. First off – I think it’s definitely worth seeing. It’s hard to get info. on that war for us here in the U.S. because we weren’t involved very long. You go to a bookstore and see tons of books on WWII, Civil War, revolution, etc. The WWI section has always been tiny – if it even exists – as long as I can remember.

      I’m a history nut, so there was no overview about what was going on with the war. Everything was voiced by soldiers in interviews long after it was over, they talked about what they did in general and told stories. In one sense, I can understand that, because by taking the common soldier’s POV, they’re not going to understand what’s going on outside their own sphere, either. It reminded me of something like the Civil War books The Life of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, I don’t know if you’ve read those but they are definitely worth the time if you’re into that stuff.

      Of all the aspects of WWI, the movie was focused pretty much on general trench life in the Western Front and that’s about it. Nothing about the air war or the Southern or Eastern lines, nothing about any specific, major battles, etc.

      Eh, whatever. My disappointment was mild. In fact, I am going to see it again tomorrow, but in 3D this time, which I didn’t do the first time. I’m usually not into that kind of thing but was made with that in mind. Not like they show dumb things bayonets in your face every 5 minutes, but just as an enhancement.

        alaskabob in reply to Colonel Travis. | December 26, 2018 at 5:50 pm

        True…we did come in late but did put a lot of men into the grinder. My father faked his age to join the Army in late 1917 and trained at Fort Zachery Taylor but missed the fighting. In ’41 he went into the Marines. He had little to say about WWI but a little more about WWII. Wish I had asked more.

        alaskabob in reply to Colonel Travis. | December 27, 2018 at 7:52 pm

        Just came back from movie….. in a separate post-credit segment Jackson discussed why the film was limited to trenches… showing great film of naval and aviation arenas and film of Commonwealth and US forces. Have to draw the line.. for now… somewhere.

        The film is superb… the after credit segment is as good if not better in some regards than the main film. This is hopefully coming out in BluRay and 4K. It is a must for history buffs.

It was an excellent production and experience. As a student of the war (MA and PhD), it was refreshing to see individual experiences used “unfiltered.” The war was horrific–but it was NOT pointless. German militarism unchecked would have been a disaster for Europe and the world–one need only do some contextual reading to get some idea of what it might have been like. The disillusionment came afterward, when Lloyd George’s “Land fit for Heroes” did not materialize and economies struggled. Worst of all, Germany was never forced to acknowledge its role in starting the war and there was denial on a grand, governmental and educational scale post 1918 that only laid the foundations for WW2.

My Great Grandfather served in the war in the 9th Lancers and Royal Horse Artillery. The documentary was a most fitting tribute to Grandpa Joe and his comrades.

    alaskabob in reply to Virginia42. | December 26, 2018 at 12:54 pm

    If the issue had remained only in the Balkans (and Serbia) …. how much further would German expansion have occurred? Considering how much was later tossed Hitler’s way to avoid war, I wonder what the world would look like if it had remained a regional issue?

      Virginia42 in reply to alaskabob. | December 27, 2018 at 9:08 am

      The tragedy was that Germany was VERY aware of the likelihood of the war spreading–they were counting on it. They were worried that if Russia was allowed to complete its modernization program (slated for completion by 1917), Germany would be at a military disadvantage. They already were, they just didn’t know it. Added to that, Germany’s war plan envisaged war with Russia and France at the outset. By recklessly backing Austria, they knew full well that they were running a high risk of triggering a wider war. As I’ve said (and it’s out there in the history books), the Imperial cabinet didn’t care–they were willing to risk it. They were not answerable to the Reichstag.

      The rest, they say, is history.

    Walker Evans in reply to Virginia42. | December 26, 2018 at 3:30 pm

    One Serb shoots a man to death. A man who was important in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Then, in revenge, that empire declares war on that man’s country, as if the entire country had collectively fired the shot … and a sheaf of mutual defense treaties come into play, starting with the Dual Alliance and ending with the Triple Entente. “Defense” treaties; an oxymoron that lead to the largest conflict in human history up to that time.

    In my opinion, the First World War was a cluster f**k caused by a handful of papers negotiated by a bunch of well-meaning fools who never bothered to consider the daisy-chain-like consequences of what they were creating. It could have been avoided if even one of those dominoes had refused to fall. But that would have been a blot on that country’s honor, not to be borne. So millions died, nothing was truly settled, and the seeds for another, even more horrific was, were planted.

Jackson is an amazing cinematic craftsman, on a level with James Cameron, Ridley Scott and Spielberg, as far as his technical skill and pure storytelling ability. He and his team have really done something laudable and special, here, with their work on this documentary.

100 years really is not so distant, historically-speaking, but, there is no doubt that the evens of WWI have receded far from the consciousness of most people. What people have forgotten is how technologically advanced this conflict was — featuring chemical weapons, submarines, airplanes, tanks, etc.; technologies that were refined and expanded in the run-up to WWII, and, which emerged from that later war to set the stage for all of the major technological achievements of the 20th century, e.g., rocketry, atomic power, jet engines, the microprocessor, etc.

The limited, two-day release window is booked solid, as far as my searches have revealed. I guess I’ll have to wait for a rental release.

    tom_swift in reply to guyjones. | December 26, 2018 at 3:19 pm

    What people have forgotten is how technologically advanced this conflict was

    I got a hot tip from a veteran who’d survived the first day of the Somme Offensive, the Second Battle of Ypres, and Passchendaele—you couldn’t rely on your bayonet, because it would break (he was talking about the 1907 bayonet for the Lee-Enfield rifle, with a 16″ blade). That’s why they sharpened the edges of their entrenching shovels.

    Twentieth goddamn century, and they had thousands of men hacking at each other with improvised hatchets. I mean, jeezuz kee-rist . . .

    This gentleman (now deceased, of course) had some other interesting memories, like watching returning British scout planes dive low over his trench, to pick up airspeed and escape from the pursuing German fighters. I don’t think that one ever got into the history books.

A good read about the origins of WW I is ‘The Fall of the Dynasties’ by Edmond Taylor.