It’s difficult, in some ways, to review They Shall Not Grow Old like any other documentary, or for that matter film in general. Wildly popular upon its release, I’m sure it will get shown in history classes the world over as some lazy lecture fill in during the unit on World War 1. It’s unfortunate that these screenings by and large will be driven by a detached neglect rather than an intentional utilization of the what the film has to offer. Because despite what you may have read They Shall Not Grow Old is not, in the traditional sense, a documentary on World War 1. It makes no effort to put the war in context and pushes no historical arguments of its own; nor does it delve into any sort of history lesson on the politics and military campaigns that will make up the majority of any book or encyclopedia article you might read. Instead, it is a memory. A living, breathing recollection of just what this war entailed for those who fought it, brought magically to life from the graves of long dead soldier.
Born from the passion of its creator, Peter Jackson, and his uber-talented team, They Shall Not Grow Old achieved this magic by restoring countless hours of nearly unwatchable WW1 footage from the British War Museum before editing it down into the finished project. The results are truly a sight to behold, with shaky and grimy footage from WW1 transformed into a fully colored spectacle that looks as if it was shot in HD. Narrated exclusively by old interviews with British soldiers, the film walks us in a dream-like trance from soldiers’ enlistments in the war through their training, free-time, and life and death in the squalor of the trenches. It is not a revelation, and clocking in with a run-time of just over an hour and a half, They Shall Not Grow Old has neither the time nor the inclination to say anything revolutionary in its profundity about the most inexplicable war know to man. But this vivid ode to an all-too mis-remembered group of kids serves them better than anyone has before: it makes their stories and their plights real.
The movie that rails on the horrors of war has become an unfortunate cliche in recent times, but in an era where we move farther and farther from the brutal reality of war for most people movies like They Shall Not Grow Old that dare to remember the truth are still an absolute necessity. So while the film may not feel epic in scope and its lack of narrative and contextual details –barely more than a passing mention is given to the likes of Archduke Ferdinand or what the war is about– may render it decidedly claustrophobic, this is simply because it’s a reflection of a soldier’s reality. A reality that cares more about the lives of friends than the death of a German. A reality that cares more about day to day survival than the conflicting political motivations of a meaningless war. A reality that could be deeply tragic and funny and boring and confusing and often all of the above at the same time.
And it is because of this that I find the film so difficult to review. The video is stunning, and is worth every penny to see on the biggest screen possible. But as a film, as a documentary on WW1, it is stubbornly grounded and while that means it delivers an honest and important restoration of what life was like on the front lines of WW1, it doesn’t come close to reaching any farther. It’s useful from both a historical and cultural point of view, yes, but for those who watch it, go in with the knowledge that it is not so much a movie as it is an experience.