June 1, 2020

Review: They Shall Not Grow Old

While public broadcasting and streaming services are overflowing with documentary content about World War II and more recent conflicts such as the Vietnam War and the ongoing wars in the Middle East, much less work of any great length has been done about World War I.

Thankfully, the release of They Shall Not Grow Old has changed this.

This documentary film is the brainchild of Peter Jackson, famous for The Lord of the Rings movies among others.

The film follows the trail of British soldiers during World War I, from their experiences in basic training to the trenches of war-torn France, finally culminating in the destructive Battle of the Somme. It then follows the survivors home.

The story told is that of the common soldier, the dangers, inconveniences, quirks, and joys of life on the frontlines of the Great War.

The technical cinematography of They Shall Not Grow Old is nothing short of amazing. It consists almost entirely of footage from the Imperial War Museum and the BBC Archives. The audio consists largely of firsthand accounts told by soldiers of Great Britain and other British Empire nations taken from the same sources. Put together with a small amount of period-specific music, this creates a stunning combination.

What sets this film apart is the editing of the original footage.

Hundreds of hours of original footage were not only recovered from the previously mentioned sources, but rendered in 3D and colorized to give new life to this previously unseen footage.

Modern movie making technology is used to slow down jumpy old film reel footage, brighten it or darken it as needed, and assign accurate colors to the scenes to let the viewers see the war in color.

Realistic sound effects and voice overs were added by Jackson’s team to create a more accurate soundscape, and there is a portion of the film after the feature is over that digs deeper into how the documentary was made.

Jackson and his team did well to stick to the participation of British soldiers, and a departure from the American war experience was actually rather refreshing. Though there was a hefty amount of American lives lost in World War I, the reality is that the United States was only directly involved in the war for just over a year.

Comparatively, Great Britain was involved from the beginning and lost almost five times as many soldiers. A clearer focus on British soldiers also gave the writing team more direction when searching for material from their various primary sources.

Overall, They Shall Not Grow Old was phenomenal. The attention to detail when colorizing and editing the original war footage for the big screen was amazing, and the mere fact that most of the footage and audio utilized was previously unused should blow the mind of the viewer.

Completely original footage making up the great majority of the film also gave it a personal touch that many other documentaries tend to lack. This made the shots of everyday soldiering life more relatable, and definitely made the bloody images of battlefield carnage more shocking.

The fact that World War I is not as popular of a documentary subject as other wars combined with the uniqueness with which it was made makes They Shall Not Grow Old a heavyweight of the modern documentary world, a worthy peer of any Ken Burns series.

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