Review – Peter Jackson’s WW1 doc ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ is a poignant achievement of remembrance

Poster for 2018 war documentary They Shall Not Grow Old

Genre: Documentary
Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: 11th November 2018
Runtime: 99 minutes
Director: Peter Jackson
Writer: n/a
Starring: n/a
Synopsis: Peter Jackson leads a restoration and colourisation of WW1 footage from the Imperial Museum, telling the stories of ordinary soldiers on the Western Front during the First World War.

 

 

When you have a big technical challenge ahead of you, one of the first names on your cinematic speed dial will always be Peter Jackson. The man who brought Middle Earth to the big screen with six films of epic length has now been handed access to hours and hours of archive footage from the Imperial War Museum. He was given funds for a 30-minute programme but, true to Jackson’s reputation, he has produced a near two hour movie with the material. It has been cleaned up, had its framerate fixed and some of it has been colourised.

The finished product is They Shall Not Grow Old – a staggering and poignant technical achievement. Jackson foregrounds the voices of those who actually fought in the war, avoiding pre-written narration in favour of interview and radio clips of actual veterans discussing their time on the Western Front. The film’s focus is entirely on that facet of the conflict, rather than the elements of the war outside of the trenches.

It’s a film that spotlights the men behind the “savage war”, bringing their experiences to life with the restored footage. Jackson plays with our expectations of the footage, expanding from letterboxed black and white to widescreen and then subsequently to colour with a bravura transition that sees the images transform into something that looks almost as if it were filmed yesterday. An impressive array of evocative sound effects and the words of actors are used to add sound to the silent video, furthering the notion of travelling back in time.

The stories told by the veterans of They Shall Not Grow Old are important and emotionally resonant, even if they tell us little we didn’t already know about the war. A montage of men admitting they enlisted while underage is potent and there’s a poignant shock value to scenes in which soldiers recount the surprisingly cordial relationship between Brits and German forces whenever the fighting stopped. There’s also immense sadness to the words of soldiers who confess that the Armistice felt a little “like being made redundant” and admit that they didn’t get the heroes’ welcome they expected when they returned to these shores. A little more exploration of that particular sadness would have been an interesting road to walk.

They Shall Not Grow Old is perhaps more impressive as a technical accomplishment than it is as a work of eye-opening documentary. The material in the voiceover is largely a case of retreading old ground, but it is all elevated to the next level by Jackson’s mastery of transforming old footage into something that has the power to make an audience feel as if they are right there in the trenches during some of the worst days mankind has ever faced. During a time of year given over to remembrance, it feels like a must-see.

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

Even fans of Peter Jackson who have followed his entire career will be shocked and amazed by what the Kiwi filmmaker has achieved with They Shall Not Grow Old. It’s a movie that turns the occasionally rather abstract notion of a century-old conflict into a desperately sad tale of ordinary men thrust into circumstances for which no human being could be adequately prepared.

Those well-versed in their WW1 history might find little in the way of new information, but they certainly won’t have seen the war depicted like this – in vivid, shocking colour.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

They Shall Not Grow Old will air on BBC2 tonight at 9:30pm to mark Armistice Day.

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