They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
— Laurence Binyon
Yesterday we made the trek to one of those garish shopping meccas amid the sprawl of Louisville’s eastern suburbs (as they’re all equally depressing, I’m never able to remember the exact name of the particular atrocity) to view They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s incredible World War I documentary film.
I managed to avoid shedding a tear until the very last bit of the closing credits, where it was written “Filmed on location on the Western Front, 1914-1918.” I’m not sure why this simple phrase made me cry, but it did. It may have been the cumulative effect of the voices and visuals; it was so long ago, and they’re all ghosts now.
Perhaps Jackson’s greatest achievement with this innovative documentary film is to let the restored images and voice-overs tell the story, uncluttered by maps and grand strategies. For instance, have you ever wondered how latrines worked on the front lines? It was elegantly simple, in fact.
To me, the film humanizes the experience of soldiers who we’ve come to view with some justification as little more than cannon fodder.
It covers the four years in one story arc with the voice-over anecdotes telling of the initial excitement of signing up, the harsh realities of training, shipping out, then finding yourself in a muddy hole combating lice, rats, gas, dysentery, trench-foot, trench-fever, frostbite, the stench of death and, occasionally, the enemy a rifle shot away. The film doesn’t flinch from showing the carnage.
At the end, an added segment finds Jackson explaining how his team managed to do what they did, and for many reviewers, the wizardry involved must be examined; colorization is only a small part of this critique, which I feel is completely justified. You can follow the links below to indulge in it.
However, the historian in me sees They Shall Not Grow Old as an invaluable teaching tool, full stop. A century later, the imperative is people understanding how the far-off Great War continues to impact our lives. As one small example, consider the way boundary lines in the Middle East were drawn at war’s end.
By all means, let’s revel in the arguments of authenticity implicit in Jackson’s directorial decision-making. But let’s not take our eyes off the prize.
‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ Review: World War I, in Living Color, by Ben Kenigsberg (NYT)
Peter Jackson’s WWI film is a portal into the past, by Russell Baillie (New Zealand Listener)
A Few Thoughts on the Authenticity of Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old” by Adam Gopnik (The New Yorker)
They Shall Not Grow Old review – Peter Jackson’s electrifying journey into the first world war trenches, by Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian)