Okay, I admit it: I love documentaries. So when I saw the coming attraction for They Shall Not Grow Old, I was immediately intrigued. That was at least a month ago. Well, I finally got around to seeing this new film from director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings, etc.) and am I ever glad I did. This is a remarkable documentary. Not only does it address the horrors of World War I (“the war to end all wars”—which it didn’t!), it does so in a totally unique way for an event that occurred one hundred years ago.
Ken Burns has done wonderful work with old footage and stills in recreating his award winning documentaries about the Civil War, the West, and baseball, but most of the images are either static, or compromised in some fashion. Not so with Mr. Jackson’s work. If you’ve ever seen film footage of the late 1900s or early 20th Century, you, no doubt, recall the erratic, jumpy images that marched across the screen in a kind of syncopation. The movements are so stiff and out of time that they are laughable. They Shall Not Grow Old manages to eliminate all the negatives generally associated with old moving pictures.
What struck me most about the film, which focuses entirely on the United Kingdom’s participation in the war, is the age of the participants. Most are in their very early 20s, but a goodly number are teenagers. Their stories are narrated by the recorded voices of actual veterans of the First World War, which ads a good deal of authenticity. Also, there is no score. Their are a few musical overtones: a chord here, a dissonant note there, but no actual score. One thing should be noted: there is a great deal of gore shown, not the make believe stuff we see in the everyday shoot ‘em up, but true blood and guts. After a while, because of the large amount shown, there is a tendency to look past it as if it doesn’t exist. But exist it did.
The beginning of the film has director Jackson introducing it with some very meaningful insights as to why he chose to make the film. After the credits roll, viewers are invited to hang around for about thirty minutes, while Jackson shows us exactly how he and his team managed to make the footage look so good, or, more to the point, almost current in its appearance. Overall, this is one of the most amazing and touching documentaries ever made. I urge you go and see it while it is still on the big screen. I dare you to watch it without shedding a tear.