Approximately a century after the WWI armistice was signed on 11 Nov 1918, Peter Jackson directs a documentary masterpiece that commemorates the lives of the often forgotten soldiers who fought on those front lines. They Shall Not Grow Old is composed entirely of film clips provided by the Imperial War Museums depicting British servicemen fighting in the trenches during the Great War. With innovative modern technology, Jackson was able to improve the degree of detail on the film, which had suffered damage over the years. Most strikingly, vivid and accurate color was added to the previously grayscale footage, bringing the images of the war to life.
The film is narrated with the voices of real WWI veterans’ past interviews, which brought authentic first-person perspectives alongside the visuals. At times, the silent footage is dubbed over, giving real voices to the people on screen. This was made possible by lip reading experts who closely studied the footage to accurately recreate the words spoken by the young men on the screen. Overall, the film was relatively devoid of frills and unnecessary editing, placing the focus solely on the visuals and the soldiers’ harrowing experiences.
They Shall Not Grow Old is edited together as a documentary which tells of the experiences of British fighters, from enlistment to post-armistice. It opens with raw, unedited footage explaining war propaganda and the efforts on the home front. The audience watches the men undergo training, and the edited footage and color kick in once coverage of the fighting begins. The film goes over topics pertaining to life in the trenches on the western front. It covers everything from how the soldiers went about eating to avoiding mustard gas to getting rid of corpses to operating tanks. As the film began to cover the armistice, it switched back to raw black and white footage, ending with a description of how veterans were treated with negative regard upon returning home.
Jackson made the intentional directorial decision to avoid identifying the men on the screen or putting names to the voices. He also avoided any mention of specific locations or dates. The purpose behind this choice was to draw audience’s focus away, rather stating, “I wanted it to be what it ended up being: 120 men telling a single story. Which is: what was it like to be a British soldier on the western front?”
Jackson wanted the modern audience to see and experience the war and the living conditions like those men saw it, with full color and sound.
The film seemed to carry an underlying message about the futility of war and the tragic loss of life it brings. Thousands upon thousands of men around the world enthusiastically accepted the call to fight simply because that was what one did at that time, only for them to be used as fodder. WWI was meant to be “the war to end all wars”, but clearly it wasn’t. We tend to remember the war but not the raw fighting done there. We remember the large scale history, but not the ordinary individuals that drove that history forward. These men were brave beyond words and acknowledged a cause larger than themselves for which they were willing to lay down their lives, and that deserves recognition.
The events of WWI occurred just over a hundred years ago. The last living World War I veteran passed away at age 110 on 4 February, 2012. Her name was Florence Green, and she served in the Women’s Royal Air Force. The soldiers of WWI are long gone from this earth. This movie brings these veterans back to life in their prime and acts as a reminder that wars are not fought by countries, they are fought by people. The movie is a call for remembrance for those who created history for us living today; it is important to honor that call and commemorate those who fought for what was right not so very long ago.