The RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself attended the screening of Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old today. If you have not seen the movie and get the chance to do so on the big screen, DO NOT HESITATE.
The movie is getting lots of praise for its technical achievements. Taking 100 year old archival film and restoring and colorizing it is certainly notable. The use of WWI veteran interviews for the narration instead of a voiceover narrator or historian is also different. The hiring of lip readers to figure out what the soldiers are saying on the film is a true step beyond the norm. All this is impressive; but not as impressive as the story Mr. Jackson tells.
In the behind-the-scenes commentary, Mr. Jackson says he tried to make a historical documentary for the non-historian. In reality, They Shall Not Grow Old is an incredible example of letting history tell its own story. In the film, the audience comes along for the entire experience of war, from enlistment to training to mundane days to combat to going home. One sees (and hears) the soldiers go from innocence to boredom to terror to dismay. It is an incredibly powerful journey told by the people who were there and seen much like they actually saw it.
If I have one beef with the film it is that it focuses exclusively on the British Army on the Western Front. In the commentary, Mr. Jackson shows us unused footage from the war in the air, the war at sea, the homefront, and other nations that participated in the war. I tend to agree that the movie needed to be tight and focusing on one experience makes for powerful storytelling; at the same time, I feel that an opportunity was missed.
As a military veteran, I can identify with so much of what I was seeing and heard. As a historian I am delighted in the way Mr. Jackson used modern film techniques to bring the old footage to life and the attention to historical details. I think everyone should see the film and decide for themselves what it means to them. One thing I am sure of, it will be a long time, if ever, before I grow weary of They Shall Not Grow Old.
Feature image courtesy moviestruckers.com