They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Scout Tafoya, rogerebert.com
December 14, 2018
An impressive technical achievement with a walloping
emotional impact, They Shall Not Grow Old pays brilliant cinematic tribute to
the sacrifice of a generation. --Rotton Tomatoes
In this profound documentary event, Peter Jackson creates digital
miracles-in 3D yet-to revitalize archival footage of World War I until faded
history comes to vivid, vital life. You won't believe your eyes.
A documentary about World War I with never-before-seen
footage to commemorate the centennial of the end of the war.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” begins with black and white footage of soldiers preparing to leave
for battle, a haunting 4:3 square of arrested motion, small in the center of the
frame, as men march to what was likely most of their deaths. "I gave
every part of my youth to do a job," says the first phantom
The film is filled with voices,
credited at the end, that speak over faces whose identity we'll never learn. The
anonymity is part of the point. The governments responsible for orchestrating
the conflict viewed them as chess pieces. "It was like a great big
game," says another voice a moment later.
Indeed, that was how Kaiser Wilhelm, his cousin
Tsar Nicholas II, French president Raymond
Poincaré, British prime minister David Lloyd George
and President Woodrow Wilson saw it, throwing hordes of young
men into the meat grinders on the German front lines and making millions, in
Wilson's case, playing the war powers against each other and staying out of the
conflict until it made financial sense.
It can be easy to lose track of mammoth scope of
World War I, which is why it makes sense that a New Zealander
would want to make a film about the men who fought it. New
Zealand's population was just over a million people and about ten percent of
that number (nurses and fighting men of myriad ethnic extractions) went to fight
in the war. Roughly 17,000 men from that colossal fighting force were
killed and another 41,000 wounded. The deaths tend to be harder to ignore in a
smaller place and it's quite obvious that the scars of the conflict made their
way down to Jackson and Walsh.
impetus for the project was both the anniversary of the armistice that ended the
war and advancements made in digital manipulation of antique footage. Jackson and Walsh have done something special bringing all this
old footage to new life, complete with newly looped voice recordings to fill in
the action, booming sound effects to match cannon fire, and adding color.
Once again, he's translated something that's growing
ancient into a series of images and ideas a modern audience will be able to
grasp. And if we can make sense of the image, we can hopefully make sense of the
horror it portends.
The narrative begins on a slightly absurdist note as
some of the British are playing a German team in a football match when the news
of the war reaches them. They decide to finish their end-of-match festivities,
and then go home and prepare to kill each other. The voices are British, which
means it is their outlook with which we are presented.
Jackson had already given us one version of the war
when he made "The Lord of the Rings"
movies and especially when he filmed the battle of Helm's Deep, in which his
version of the slaughter on the western front and/or the
Gallipoli campaign is depicted. “They Shall Not Grow Old” is not about the
mindlessness of combat and murder, but of the identities lost and forged by
gunfire, of the many thousands of selves offered up to the god of
When the combat begins, the footage turns from black and white to
color, and a peculiar thing happens. The digitally touched images of combat look
wrong, like the whole thing has been created from a misfiring memory, which does
eventually help the film. Initially it calls to mind landmarks of digital cinema
like Eric Rohmer's “The Lady and the Duke” and Lech
Majewski's “The Mill And The Cross,”
where the past is dreamt up through computer-generated recreations of antique
paintings; an early version of the conjuring act Jackson performed in his
"Hobbit" movies, which recreate the
texture of silent movies like Fritz
Lang's “Das Rheingold” and Abel Gance's “Napoleon”
on his enormous canvas. If the updated footage is strange, there's a
The sky is the key to the whole thing, really.
World War I is depicted in the popular imagination as a maelstrom of mud and
smoke, of a perpetually gray nightmare. And it was, men drowned in mud and lived
in puddles of their own waste. When Jackson's footage expands and turns to
color, it's so bright. The greenery in the background of most of the images
practically sing, the uniforms are variantly colored and the sky is luminescent,
sometimes even blue.
It's a simple thing but if it's not the first film
to show World War I taking place under heavenly blue skies it certainly feels
like it is. The odd clarity is a horrible but absolutely necessary gift from
Jackson and Walsh to these men. Their faces are so alive
when they smile, the sky practically smiles at them from above, and still they
marched to their death. They shaved with tea, they drank water from gasoline
cans, and they died in broad daylight.
The unnatural, digitally
augmented movement of long dead faces has a peculiar, uncanny quality but the
film is meant to unseat us. The disembodied voices of the living veterans,
recorded many years ago and stored in an archive, describe moments between
combat as a darkly comic parade of bodily fluids, moldy food, corpse-eating rats
and lice. When the explosions and gunfire start, it's hell on earth.
Decaying corpses, bullet-riddled men covered in
flies and horses lying in the dirt, red with blood, unblinking eyes fixed
forever on the lens of the camera that caught its image are just some of the
terrors made new by Jackson, Walsh and their enormous post-production team. The
men look bizarrely alive but then so does the unending torment they suffered. A
shot of men running into a cloud of yellow gas looks more awful for its
crudeness and sits more heavily on your mind than any description
"We were just doing a job, if it came it
came," says a man describing the moments before German
bombardments shattered their line.
are countless voices and faces lost to time, made anonymous by a higher power,
an eternal reminder of the way battle dehumanizes all who come near it. We may
continue to find new ways to pay tribute to the men and women we lose to war,
but we can never bring them back.