DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: They Shall Not Grow Old
THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD— 4 STARS
One of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definitions for the term “monument” reads “a lasting evidence, reminder, or example of someone or something notable or great.” The key adjective of that statement is “lasting.” Our wishes and intentions for monuments are for permanence, but even the strongest portions of evidence disappear with enough time. Earlier this year, The Atlantic showcased an excellent photojournalism piece by Alan Taylor on the fading battlefields and markers of World War I on the century mark of its conclusion. The article’s collected pictures showed scarred trenches, covered graves, and reclaimed natural spaces. Their imagery is fascinating.
Elements that last tremendously shorter than the geographic monuments are the human ones. The last living World War I survivor, Britain’s Florence Green, died nearly seven years ago at the age of 110, meaning the only first-hand history left is archival, which we all hope lasts longer than the the wrath of Mother Nature. That’s where Oscar-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson and the creative miracles of technology have stepped in with the striking documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. Palpable and prodigious in accomplishment, this film can become a monument all its own.
Jackson and his filmmaking team examined 700 combined hours of interviews and film footage from annals of the BBC and the Imperial War Museum to assemble a uniquely mesmerizing experience. Free of labels and talking heads and clean in ambiguous anonymity, They Shall Not Grow Old is entirely composed of footage and voiceovers restored and transformed by current production technology. The documentary takes viewers through the enlisted man’s journey through the Great War from sign-up to homecoming in vibrant color and 3D, a theatrical event (presented by good people at Fathom Events) like no other you will find this year.
LESSON #1: WHY THEY JOINED — The procession of veteran voices begins with sharing their reasons for joining the war effort. You hear sentiments about lying about their ages and the draws of job, service, duty, and worldviews. Like revealed windows, their sentiments back black-and-white images framed by overlays of propaganda posters and military advertisements.
LESSON #2: HOW THEY BECAME SOLDIERS — The documentary expands to reminisce on the scope of a soldier’s lifestyle once that uniform was issued. The details of basic training, spanning the gamut from food and clothes to discipline and brotherhood, range from the mundane to the exasperating. Little did they know, they were marching into destruction.
The moment the boots of this odyssey finally hit the ground on the French and Belgian battlefields, They Shall Not Grow Old takes the enveloping details and launches them to another surreal level. Like Dorothy opening the sepia door from Kansas to the rainbow landscape of Oz, Peter Jackson turns the knobs on his presentation. The newly colorized footage brings vibrancy to the darkest aspects of World War I’s trench warfare. The portraits animate and the men’s voices enliven with more harrowing and haunting details. None consider themselves heroes, rather survivors wondering how they made it because many friends and peers never came home.
LESSON #3: THE POWER OF TESTIMONY — It is jarring to hear recollections of deplorable things like lice, sanitation, rats, wounds, and the stench of gas and death with such matter-of-fact strength, composure, frank honesty, and sobering tones. We are hearing the men talk about things, namely intimate fears and challenges, that just do not get talked about. One could call all of this unspoken PTSD before it even became a diagnosed term. To a man, the narrators consider what they went through character-building experiences and devoid of the romantic ideals of war.
When you think about it, these men are the fathers of the “Greatest Generation,” even they they came home drained, exhausted, and unemployed. The certainty and strength of their convictions they will pass on ring loud in the vocal courage. Well, the character-building they share is passed on to the viewer. Compared to that opening Atlantic piece, the moving pictures and actual words hit harder than post-war still shots. Jackson’s film, a tribute to his own grandfather, and its gorgeous restorations make the unbelievable believable through screen magic. Other more sterile documentaries convey sympathy without understanding. We always hear how war is horrible. In They Shall Not Grow Old we see it in memorable digital poetry that aims to last a centuries longer than the first that has passed.