Un-reputedly the best documentary of 2018, hands down, THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD arrives right between Remembrance Day and Christmas, an appropriate time for good cheer to celebrate the heroism of man, less we forget. The setting are the front lines, as the closing credits proudly declare – shot on location on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918 during the First World War WWI.
The film was created using original footage of World War I from the Imperial War Museums’ archives, most of it previously unseen, alongside audio from BBC and IWM interviews of British servicemen who fought in the conflict. The first 30 minutes of the film is black and white, turning then into colour, with most of the footage colourised and transformed with modern production techniques, with the addition of sound effects and voice acting to be more evocative and feel closer to the soldiers’ actual experiences. The film is in 3-D.
But the film is clearly not a recounting of events. The film reveals the unforgettable riveting experiences of the common soldier as seen from the eye of the common soldier, many not old enough to be recruited to fight but were passed through the enlistment lines anyway, as the British had a duty to perform. Jackson’s crew reviewed 600 hours of interviews from 200 veterans, and 100 hours of original film footage to make the film. The title was inspired by the line “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old” from the 1914 poem “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon, famous for being used in the Ode of Remembrance.
The documentary captures a capsule of the great or disastrous war, depending on how one sees it, as fought in the trenches. The last British war film set in WWI trenches was JOURNEY’S END last year, that film based on a famous British play. I admired that film for reminding the world what fighting did to men but a fellow critic complained that, that film did not reveal anything new. The same argument might be applied to Peter Jackson’s labour of love and duty, but the effort is a worthy cause, for human beings need to be reminded both the horrors of war and the heroism of men.
But it is not one man’s or a few men’s stories. It is the story of all the men as the footage covers the all the infantrymen in the front lines of the Western Front. The footage follows the young men, mostly from recruitment to training to fighting to return after the war. After the war, these heroes had their feel of redundancy as human beings being out of work in unemployment. Job signs would shamefully read: “Servicemen need not apply’. Civilians had no clue what the war was all about.
These are the words that are heard on the soundtrack at the film’s beginning before the soldiers went to fight – a variety of words that emotionally describe all aspects of emotions on the war!
job that needed to be done
take it in stride
rough but did not complain
nothing really exciting
like a boy going out to play
good and bad days
I was only a kid
like a game
going to be over in a few days
Jackson then puts the viewer into the training and then right into the war. Reality sets in. The film contains vivid scenes with rats and corpses lying around. The horrid yellow colour of mustard gas can almost be tasted. The sight of young German soldiers, when they were captured, look no different that the British lads. The segment of one German soldier speaking English to his English captor, saying “I used to work as a waiter at the Savoy’, moved me to tears.
The film ends with black and white credits listing all the soldiers who lent their voices to this doc. The famous WWI song “Mademoiselle from Armentieres,” often sung by WWI-era soldiers is heard on he soundtrack to complete the viewer’s total experience.
If there is only one film you see this year THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD should be it. The film opens December the 17th and widely on December the 27th in Toronto!