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.