Movie Review: They Shall Not Grow Old

When I heard Peter Jackson was working on a WWI film, I was highly intrigued. The pitch sounded great: in order to show present day audiences what the first World War was really like, he had taken original footage and digitally enhanced it so that it looks more comparable to the kind of film we see today. You know the difficulty with old newsreels. The motion is jerky (due to variance of frame rates and other nuances). The lighting is often so poor that it’s hard to tell what’s happening in the black and white scale. The focus isn’t quite there. So it all looks more than a little Keystone Kops.

Peter Jackson wanted to fix that and show modern audiences what exactly that war was like, taking real life accounts from veterans of the war and placing it over the footage. Denisa and I watched it (it’s on HBO at the moment), and I have to say Jackson did a remarkable job. (There’s a reason the film has a perfect 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.)

He tied the footage and the stories into an overarching whole. It begins with unedited film, as veterans describe how they found out about the war and how they signed up to go fight in it. As the film progresses, the footage is enhanced bit by bit until you get to the war itself. Suddenly, it’s all so good that you think it must have been a recreation. Once you study it a bit more, you see the details that show you it’s all a bit off. The faces and the hands look too digitized. But it’s worth it. The colors are amazing. Seeing it all through this new lens makes it so much more visceral. Jackson doesn’t flinch back from showing all of it: the wounded soldiers. The dead. The hellacious battlefields. All of it real and deeply moving.

It proceeds to follow the troops into the trenches, adding enemy fire, and eventually going with them as they crossed No Man’s Land to attack the opposite side. Then it looks at the aftermath and finishes with showing what the soldiers came home to.

I’ve always been interested in World War II. Fascinated by the stories that came out of it and the way the war progressed and was fought. World War I was always just a bit too far back in history, it seemed. But after watching this, I think it might have been more that the footage was just not real enough. It seemed more like a story than an event. Even the films I watched that tried to recreate it never managed to connect with me the same way movies like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers did.

This is the first film that bridged the gap, and I’m very grateful for Jackson’s efforts and skill in creating it. Is it perfect? Not completely. It does the best it can with what it has to work with, but in the end it’s a series of audio tracks over a series of old footage. As a documentary, it’s not quite the level of Ken Burns, but it works anyway. I gave it an 8.5, and I highly recommend anyone and everyone watch it. (I’d suggest people be at least in high school, and I’d warn anyone that there are very gruesome scenes. But at the same time, I get so frustrated watching movies like this, where grown men in politics essentially ship off boys to go fight a war none of the boys understand or really care about. I don’t see a way to avoid wars like that if no one’s willing to look at what it actually consists of. The veterans of WWI talked about how excited they were to go to war, and how clueless they were about what it would be like. How (even worse) no one cared to hear about what they’d experienced when they came home. How they couldn’t really talk about it with anyone. That should change.

In any case, if you have a chance to see it, check it out.

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