Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old is an extraordinary documentary that deserves the largest audience possible. I try here to explain its brilliance.
This is a two-part review of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, a centenary look at WWI. Part 1 is the short version; Part 2 is the long version.
Part 1: They Shall Not Grow Old is an amazing, astounding, gorgeous, incredible masterpiece. It is a tour de force of the filmmaker’s and the historian’s art. If there were even a scintilla of justice and decency remaining in the Academy Awards, this movie would not be relegated (as I’m sure it will be) solely to the “Best Documentary” category. Instead, it should win Best Director, Best Writer, Best Cinematographer, and Best whatever else it can be slotted into. Everyone should see it.
The above is, as I said, the short version.
Part 2: The following long version contains some spoilers. You can stop with the short version and you’ll still know everything you need to know. Or you can keep reading. I’ll let you know when the spoilers are coming up.
My desire to see They Shall Not Grow Old began several years ago, when I read online that Peter Jackson was working on a project by which he hoped to sharpen and colorize original footage from World War I. Because I am a history buff, because one of my favorite books ever is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, and because I love the way old footage allows us to peer through time into the past, I was excited.
Given my long-term interest in Jackson’s project, I was thrilled to learn that They Shall Not Grow Old was finally in theaters and that Jackson had managed, not only sharpened and colorized the footage, but also to standardize the speed, getting rid of the choppiness that makes everything look silly, add sound effects, and make the movie 3D. To be honest, I was a little worried about that last factor. I’ve always found 3D movies hard on the eyes and not worth the effort. Still, I was willing to give this one a try.
Perhaps worried about what size audience would be attracted to a documentary about WWI, Warner Brothers opted for a discrete, limited opening in America. Rather than opening for an extended run, the movie was to be screened just twice: December 17 and December 27.
I couldn’t attend the showing on the 17th but planned to see it on the 27th. By the 18th, the day after the first screening, I began to hear rumors that the previous day’s screening had sold out all over America. I therefore decided to “go large” and spend the extra couple of dollars to pre-buy a ticket online for the showing on the 27th. I kept my purchase quiet because I was afraid that my family would laugh at me for being so neurotic. (They’re out of town today, so there was no question of getting tickets for them.)
As it was, when I arrived a half-hour early for the showing today, the parking lot was already half full, as was the theater itself. On the doors were signs saying, “Sold Out — Special Additional Showing At 4:00.” I could only smugly say to myself “Who’s neurotic now?”
While we waited for the movie to begin, the theater didn’t show the usual advertisements. Instead, it had multiple choice quizzes. A few were questions about Peter Jackson, who both produced and directed the movie. The remainder were quizzes about WWI, including a question about the number of war casualties.
Although records in faraway places were often inaccurate, the best guesses are that, between August 1914 and November 1918, approximately 15 to 19 million troops died (almost 1 million from England and her colonies and Commonwealth) and about 23 million military personnel were wounded. In addition, over 2 million civilians are estimated to have died.
If one is paying close attention to the havoc WWI wreaked, one must also remember that troop movements all over the world were the perfect vector for the Spanish Influenza. The Spanish Influenza hit hard in 1918 and, by the time it finished its run in 1920, had killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people around the world.
Think of that: Over a five-year period, as many as 121 million people could have died (or, alternatively, as “few” as around 70 million). WWI was a cataclysmic war.
Indeed, those of us waiting for the movie were reminded that, for America, WWI was, proportionately, the most cataclysmic American war in the 20th century. That bit of knowledge came from the only advertisement that ran before the movie began:
WARNING: The following four paragraphs and the accompanying video are SPOILERS. If you don’t want spoilers, please skip to the text below the video. To help you, I’ve bracketed the spoilers with yellow “thinking” emojis (three before and three after the spoiler material). If you scroll quickly past the sixth emoji, you can start reading without risk.
The movie began with the voices of old men remembering how the war started, how they enlisted, and how they trained to go overseas. The footage was the usual, somewhat scratchy, herky-jerky, black-and-white footage one sees in WWI documentaries. I wondered why I was balancing 3D glasses on top of my own glasses. Still, it was interesting stuff, so I thought to myself, “I guess I just misunderstood the hype about the movie.”
For several more minutes, I listened to the veteran’s very interesting reminiscences about heading to France and heading to the front, all illustrated with that black-and-white footage. And then came the magic moment.
As the narrative moved the trench warfare at the Western Front, suddenly the images tightened, the color popped, and everything went 3D. The whole audience audibly gasped. The only thing I can compare that moment to is the first time I saw the Wizard of Oz in color. I’d watched it on TV once or twice, but the whole thing was in black-and-white because this was the early 1960s and we didn’t have a color TV.
Then, when I was about 5 or 6, my grandmother bought a color TV. Not long after, the Wizard of Oz was going to be televised again. So, off we went to grandmother’s house. I can still remember the overwhelming moment when Dorothy saw Oz. It was probably as exciting a moment for me as it was for audiences in 1939. And that’s what I felt when They Shall Not Grow Old suddenly switched over to the newly digitized footage:
Okay, I’m back, and there are no more spoilers here, other than raves about what Jackson accomplished.
What Jackson did with this movie was to whittle down 100 hours of original WWI footage and 600 hours of living history that the BBC (when it still did good things) acquired during the 1960s and 1970s from men who served. As Jackson explained in the must-see “making of” video shown after the movie, he had many choices to make when it came to deciding upon the film’s focus.
Jackson could have tried to cram in little bits of everything, but he felt that would do a disservice to the many stories. The footage and interviews yielded stories about the nascent air force, about the Navy, about the nurses, about the women working on the home front, about the fighters from the colonies and the Commonwealth, about America’s arrival, about the Eastern Front, about the German war experience, and about the medical corps, to name but a few.
Eventually, though, Jackson decided to create a tightly focused movie that looked at the British infantryman’s experience on the Western Front, complete with trench warfare and over-the-top assaults into No Man’s Land. (The phrase “over the top” originated with WWI as did the word “lousy,” a reference to the fact that the men were perpetually infested with lice, something that Jackson addresses in the movie.) The movie would also give us a look at the day-to-day minutiae of life, everything from the food they ate to the way in which they handled excreting that food from their bodies.
Jackson also made the decision that the only voices would be those of the men who experienced life — and death, so much death — on the Western front. There is no narration other than these men’s reminiscences.
What was especially delightful about Jackson’s decision to limit the voice overs to actual WWI veterans is that these men grew up in a time when the United Kingdom had strong regional accents. There are so many accents to be heard, from the tip-top of Scotland down it its southernmost shores. Indeed, some of the men have accents so thick that even I, who became very good at understanding British accents when I lived in England, struggled a few times to “translate” what they said. For the most part, though, it’s perfectly clear what these veterans are saying, especially because the footage so perfectly illustrates the words.
And the footage — Oh. My. Gosh! What Jackson did with that footage. It doesn’t feel as if you’re watching images from 100 and more years ago. The footage has the clarity and color of films from the Vietnam War or even the First Gulf War. The herky-jerky movement of hand-cranked videos is also gone. Add to that the 3D “pop” and you feel as if are immersed in these men’s actual experiences.
Then, Jackson takes it a step further. In footage in which the cameras caught men speaking, Jackson had lip readers decipher what the men were saying — or, more accurately, probably saying, because we know from Bad Lip Reading videos that mischievous people can make hay with lip reading. To lend even more verisimilitude to the voice overs added to the videos, Jackson and his team carefully researched which units were being filmed. If the unit came from Yorkshire, the voice actor had a Yorkshire accent; if it came from Scotland, even if that long-ago soldier was caught saying only two words, the voice actor had a Cockney intonation. And if it was an officer, the accent was posh.
Every sound — every squish of mud, every jingle of horse harnesses, every bullet or mortar fired — was the result of careful research and replication. Moreover, all the sounds are subtly done. This is not a Disney cartoon with over the top sound effects. Instead, Jackson managed to create a completely immersive modern documentary using footage that is more than 100 years old, and interviews that go back 40 to 60 years.
At the end of his 30 minute “making of” video, Jackson explained why he’d made this documentary: He made it because, not only are the soldiers of that war gone, their children are gone or going. Even their grandchildren — the very last people who might have heard first- or second-hand memories — are dying. He pointed out that, for those people around the world who have family members with some connection to WWI, however attenuated, we are fast approaching the last chance to gather those memories.
I know that’s true. Both my grandfathers served in WWI. But my Dad never knew his father, and therefore had no history to tell. And while my mother was raised by her father, and knew him well, he died in 1954 without ever telling her a lot about his war. I know only that he was that very rare creature, a Jewish cavalry officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army. And now that my Mom and Aunt have both passed away, I have no way of expanding on that tiny piece of information.
I’m not the only family member who has lost touch with the past. A second cousin of mine has been cleaning out his house. Knowing that I love history, he sent me the old photographs he found. Sadly, these photographs, which I’ve sprinkled through this post in honor of Jackson’s request that we reach out to the past, are mysteries to me.
I know that my Great Uncle Walther (who married my grandfather’s sister) was a Jewish officer in the Austro-Hungarian military, although not a cavalry officer. But that’s all I know. The photographs my cousin sent me have no helpful labels either. I don’t know where they were taken, when they were taken, or the identities of the men in the photographs. I don’t even know which man is Great Uncle Walther.
Do what you can to see They Shall Not Grow Old. I recommend seeing it in a theater if possible because the 3D experience is so profound. However, if that’s not possible — if the limited theatrical runs are over — get the DVD or try to see it online. And if you can buy the DVD along with complimentary 3D glasses, do that!
I’ll end by repeating the way in which I began: They Shall Not Grow Old is an amazing, astounding, gorgeous, incredible masterpiece. It is a tour de force of the filmmaker’s and the historian’s art. If there was even a scintilla of justice and decency remaining in the Academy Awards, this movie would not be relegated (as I’m sure it will be) solely to the “Best Documentary” category. Instead, it should win Best Director, Best Writer, Best Cinematographer, and Best whatever else it can be slotted into. Everyone should see it.