They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old
They Shall Not Grow Old
Directed by Peter Jackson
In UK Cinemas November 9th, 2018

by Alex Plant

Peter Jackson’s fascination with military history is well documented. From the tactical depictions of warfare in The Lord of the Rings to his long-gestating Dambusters remake, war, it would seem is his favourite topic, if favourite is even the appropriate word. With that in mind, the First World War seems like the perfect subject for his first proper documentary (Forgotten Silver, unfortunately, doesn’t count). His passion for the subject matter is overwhelmingly abundant and it’s made They Shall Not Grow Old one of the definitive documents pertaining to a soldier’s life during the great war, as well as a perfect way to observe the armistice day centennial.

Dehumanisation tends to be the overriding theme of most creative output based on WW1; boys turned into men, men turned into killing machines and the like. They Shall Not Grow Old‘s greatest achievement is how it does the opposite. It is a wonderful piece of humanist cinema. There are no talking heads, no historians and no politics. All you see are images from the war and all you hear are individual soldiers’ stories, as told by the men themselves, chronicling the war from its announcement to the survivors’ return to British shores. Yes, there are accounts of men witnessing their best friend’s limbs being blown off and their heads caved-in, but there are also humorous stories of pranks, lavatory malfunctions and Scottish soldiers required to carry a note politely informing others that they had not been issued anything to wear beneath their kilts. The balance between the horrors of war and of day-to-day absurdity have never felt more poignant. It’s an emotional celebration of the human spirit.

The other great achievement here is the technical wizardry that Jackson is so often synonymous with. The restoration of 100-year-old footage and bringing it up the to standard 24 frames per second is impressive enough (much of which was shot at 14 and 15 frames per second). The colourisation, however, is something else. The slight pastel hue is a little jarring when it first kicks in, but by the time it’s gone again towards the film’s close, the weight of just how remarkable it is truly sinks in. Coupled with the sterling sound work, it elevates the images onscreen from pictures in a textbook to footage of real, relatable people. This, of course, makes everything so much more vivid; from the different coloured uniforms the soldiers on each side wear, to the same shade of red that they all bleed. Perhaps the most moving moments come when the soldiers talk of their respect and compassion for their German adversaries. Seeing both sides playfully interact with each other in colour for the first time really hammers home the true folly of war.

It deserves to be seen and heard on the big screen, but if you can’t catch it in a cinema (due to a sadly limited release) then make to sure to catch it on the BBC. This a film that should be seen by everyone.


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