‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ Review: A Thrilling Illusion

Written by Chirine Aboussaad, 14 May 2019


Peter Jackson’s latest work brings the Great War to life for generations to come in a visually stunning documentary.

They Shall Not Grow Old opens on a pitch-black screen, enhanced by only the sound of someone whistling an unspecified tune in the background. Then the first of many voices you’ll hear throughout the documentary starts reminiscing on his experiences with the Great War. A small frame appears on the screen showing nameless soldiers in black and white, marching on a sunny day more than a hundred years ago. Continuously changing narrators recall the beginning of the Great War, one of history’s most defining moments, in a large variety of British accents.

On screen we see their stories illustrated by archival footage that’s over a hundred years old, although some scenes are so beautifully restored that they could pass for 21stcentury quality. Whilst the snippets of stories are all impactful in their own way, the true magic of the documentary happens like a crescendo as the frame of footage widens and suddenly appears in colour.

The transition from black and white to colour happens parallel to the newly recruited soldiers moving from their combat training to the torn-up wasteland that was mainland Europe. All are eager to fight the German troops, often referred to as Jerries in the voiceover, but none of them know what they truly signed up for. The colourization brings the soldiers to life, but the true illusion comes from voice-overs that mimic the soldiers’ conversations. Jokes and laughter, nudges and winks and the awareness of the camera in its subjects sometimes make the documentary balance on the line of uncanny valley, but it never surpasses it.

The narrators talk so casually and fondly about life in the French trenches that it almost feels like a secret society the viewer can never be a part of. They speak of contracting dysentery from drinking corpse contaminated water as if it’s nothing whilst the viewer is confronted by the image of a soldier with half his face blown to shreds lying, already bloated, in a muddy puddle. The documentary rapidly moves from light-hearted to heavy when wintertime comes, and the trenches become flooded. The narrators tell stories of their comrades getting stuck in the mud, desperately crying out for help whilst already irreparable at death’s doorstep. One of the most harrowing stories comes from a man who recalls seeing one of his fellow soldiers with an arm and a leg torn of and having to kill him out of mercy, the man recalls this moment with a striking sadness in his voice.

Whether you’re a history buff or not is completely irrelevant when it comes to this documentary. It is the closest we have ever gotten to have a taste of the Great War, because that’s what this documentary is; a taste that clings to the roof of your mouth and doesn’t leave you for days to pass. Peter Jackson manages to revive a generation that has passed on in a way that pulls the viewer in as if the events are happening in real time. The emotions the documentary invokes are almost visceral, you feel your heart racing as the British soldiers crouch together before battle and it feels like a punch to the gut when you see some of them blown half apart on the battlegrounds. If there is one documentary you’re going to watch this year, let it be They Shall Not Grow Old.

Peter Jackson (born October 31st, 1961) is a world-renowned film director, producer and screenwriter, perhaps best known for his movie adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies. His most recent work is the Great War documentary ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ which is completely composed of archival footage from the war with added voice-overs. The documentary is partially colourized, Peter Jackson shot pictures of the battle grounds for reference and accuracy. The voice-overs were developed by showing war footage to forensic lip readers whose work was turned into a script for the voice-actors to bring the soldiers conversations to life.