Released in 2018, Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old recalls the events of the war through soldiers’ personal accounts. Employing what Bill Nichols calls the expository mode of documentary, the film utilizes ambiguous audio interviews along with stock footage and Army advertisements to paint a picture of what the war looked like from the soldiers’ perspectives. TSNGO also includes restored and colorized stock footage to help immerse viewers even further.
Although it did not receive a 2019 Academy Award nomination (it was released after the submission cutoff), They Shall Not Grow Old provides a deep, personal portrayal of WWI through its use of soldiers’ personal reactions, humorous anecdotes, and firsthand battle descriptions. The film employs various filmmaking techniques such as restoring wrongly-timed film stock, colorizing old footage, and adding historically accurate sound effects–all to create a hyper-realistic portrayal of WWI. Through Jackson and his crew’s organization and placement of restored footage, TSNGO emphasizes the experiences during the war, creating a blunt contrast from pre-war and post-war. Overall, Jackson portrays the war in an especially humane manner, in the process telling an exciting and entertaining story along the way.
A historic event like WWI is traditionally taught pretty broadly, covering the purpose of the war, the major battles and the total outcome. This structured coverage is designed to help audiences understand WWI as a historical event, but does little to portray those who lived through it. TSNGO’s structure is the exact opposite, leaving out all details of names, dates, and even specific battles. The film is simply the war, as told by the soldiers who experienced it. The film begins just following the announcement of the war. Many soldiers state they were excited to enlist and went to sign up the very next day. A majority of the soldiers confess they were too young to fight (the age limit being 19), and their eagerness to join the serve England caused them to fabricate their age while enlisting.
Also noticeable is the sense of humor British soldiers possess, as they discuss the various pranks on one another. In one section they talk about tampering with the bathroom bench, causing soldiers to fall into a trench, waist deep in human waste. Anecdotes containing this foul content are nowhere to be found in history books, but they show the realistic side of the war. Most of the film is more sober, however: the soldiers describe horrific battle scenes in great detail, one soldier even stating a moment he was joking with his comrade, and in seconds a sniper had killed him. Highlighting the hardships of the battlefield, another soldier describes how under threat of mustard gas and without gas mask, was forced to plunge his head into the latrine bucket to save his eyesight. Another account describes having very little food and eating biscuits left by French troops that were likely two or three years old. The war told through soldier’s firsthand accounts, give depth to the hilarities and horrors faced by soldiers in WWI.
Along with the personal anecdotes, the film contains an hour of restored, colored, and re-timed footage that is arguably the main attraction of the film. Jackson and his team were faced with the challenge of creating a realistic portrayal of WWI using hundred-year old black-and-white footage. This led them to utilize all available technology and transform the aged film into stunning full color accompanied with ambient sound. They first began by re-timing the available clips. Cameras in the early twentieth centrury were crank operated and imperfect resulting in incorrect frame rate when played back at normal speed. Incorrect speed also created choppy footage where frames are missing, which was mitigated by utilizing existing frames to fill in the blanks (imagine frames two and three are missing, they simply tell the computer to use frames one and four for reference and create an artificial photo that fills in the gap).
To maintain historical accuracy, the production team collaborated with historians and used artifactual memorabilia as reference to insert color into each scene. Even with computer assistance, each frame of footage had to be tediously colored by a team of artists.
Sound effects further the feeling of reality. Foley artists added footsteps, soldiers yelling, and various ambient sounds to build a soundscape reflective of the period. Historic tanks, guns, and even boots were used to recreate and record these sounds, for later insertion. The combination of color, smooth video, and sound help to immerse the audience into the experiences of WWI soldiers.
The plot of They Shall Not Grow Old recreates the overall experiences soldiers lived through, yet Jackson creates a visual divide between events to highlight the theme. The first thirty minutes of film include soldiers speaking about pre-war experiences and their reactions, using unaltered footage. The aspect ratio is also smaller, using the original 35mm size with rounded edges. In its original form the footage contains inconsistent speeds, no sound, and black-and-white images. This contrasts immensely with the enhanced scenes that follow, which have been restored with sound, color, and correct timing. The last twenty minutes of film revert again to unaltered footage, creating a definite emphasis on the scenes during the war, and reinforcing the theme of soldiers firsthand perspectives.
They Shall Not Grow Old serves to give a deeply humane and sometimes lighthearted at the Great War through firsthand anecdotes and stories. TSNGO is a milestone in filmmaking, through its effective use of restored footage to immerse the audience. The particular use of restored film also plays an important role in furthering the theme of the film. The film’s title They Shall Not Grow Old comes from the poem “For The Fallen” stating “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old”. Essentially stating those that are dead do not get to live out their lives, only those who have survived do. Peter Jackson was inspired to create a film about experiences of soldiers due to his grandfather’s service in WWI. Audiences have heard about WWI, read about it, and watched documentaries on the subject. They Shall Not Grow Old gives them a chance to experience it.
They Shall Not Grow Old is currently showing in select theaters and on several streaming services.