After spending a great deal of his post-millennium career in Middle Earth, acclaimed filmmaker Peter Jackson’s latest is something of a passion project and an extraordinary one at that. Just as the world gathers to remember the centenary of ‘The Great War’, his new documentary They Shall Not Grow Old (a misquote of Laurence Binyon’s poem “For The Fallen”) is the ultimate act of commemoration. Using some never before seen archive footage and backed by the recorded testimonies of veterans, They Shall Not Grow Old takes audiences into the deadly trenches of WWI centering on the human faces of this brutal conflict that changed the world.
The footage we see was shot a century ago but through dedicatedly intricate work on the footage, Jackson and his team have not only put colour to these images but have immortalised them further. One needlessly dismissive review of this film recently stated “how does making this footage HD in any way pay respect”? Well, this piece of work is far more than a simple restoration; it is an incredible document of a devastating, frightening and desperate point in human history. Through ground-breaking work, this film not only relays old footage with a coat of high definition coloured frames but has the voices of the fallen narrate you through time and, thanks to the work of forensic lip readers, occasionally gives a voice to those long since lost who speak on film for the first time ever.
Starting in black and white before exploding into colour as we arrive at the area of conflict, this film immediately wows you. Even before the full extent of Jackson’s achievement sets in, the scenes of thousands of men training and rushing to enrol transfix you. The narration further anchors the extent of this, with many of the interviewed veterans recalling their reasons for joining, how many of them were under age and the routine of a soldier’s life, and it makes for a fascinating dive into the human heart of this era. A dive that plunges even further when we are thrust into warzone, no mans land and the trenches.
This transition from black and white to colour stuns you and is an absolutely remarkable cinematic moment but thereafter the film becomes more and more impressive and emotional. How this overwhelming imagery blends with the powerful words of the men who were there is astonishing to witness and we see the war play out viciously before our eyes. Many scenes of dead men, horses and the walking wounded increasingly populate the screen and the longer the film goes on, the more we see the true gruesome face of war presented more emphatically than ever before. This event changed everybody involved and nobody that lived through it was ever going to emerge the same and nor did they, as countless families well know.
Jackson’s film is touching and powerful but has dottings of humour too, as the friendships formed and antics of the men punctuate moments of the film offering warm glimmers between the bloodshed. Never does this film lose sight of its true intention, remembering the lives lost and those people onscreen and off that emerged changed, or never emerged at all. They Shall Not Grow Old is a humbling, breathtaking and passionate technical marvel and a fascinating, alarming and affecting document of humanity. Jackson’s film is made personal to the director himself by a final dedication but it is a picture that many viewers all over the globe will find a connection to (and have, as recent news of a lady finding her grandfather onscreen while watching the film denotes).
Such tales, experiences and horrors should never be forgotten and ought not have ever been repeated, let alone as many times as they have since. If ever there was a film that should be preserved and cherished for the education of future generations, They Shall Not Grow Old is it. On this evidence the future ability to ensure the remembrance of the past is more possible than ever. I only hope it inspires further restorationary work of archives of the past.
An unforgettable cinema experience.