They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old

Running Time: 
99 minutes

There have been plenty of documentaries about World War I, but there’s nothing quite like Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. All of the publicity surrounding the film has emphasized the labor intensive restorative process Jackson used to makes it seem like audiences were actually there with the soldiers. Still, even knowing all of this going into the film I was absolutely blown away by the realism and quality of the footage. They Shall Not Grow Old takes you to the front lines of World War I and is one of the most visceral and gut-wrenching war documentaries I have ever seen.


The documentary was created using mostly unseen footage from the Imperial War Museum archives, and so it primarily focuses on the British warfront. The first 15 minutes or so covers the moments before the war as young citizens sign up to become servicemen and go through training. Here, the footage used is your typical black-and-white video that hasn’t been restored, and it’s often paired with recruitment and propaganda posters from the time. To be honest, there wasn’t much here that set the film apart from other documentaries, and the narration from the servicemen themselves was choppy and often all over the place. It wasn’t bad, it was just what you would expect from any typical TV special on the subject.


But then we see the servicemen begin to march towards the war and the footage expands to fill up the entire screen. The quality doesn’t get worse but actually improves as noise and other artifacts are removed. Then all of sudden everything is in color, and it looks like you’re right there with the soldiers. It’s absolutely stunning, even more so since there was that first 15 minutes to show you how the footage looked before it was restored so the comparison would be fresh in your mind.


From there, They Shall Not Grow Old dives straight into the brutality of the war, and it’s not for the faint of heart. What hit me the hardest was seeing the red blood splatter everywhere. The documentary does not shy away from showing dead body after dead body, and the level of detail is so great in the restoration that you can see the all the flies crawling in and out of every surface. It’s disturbing on all fronts.


Unlike other documentaries, there is no single narrator who is explaining everything. All of the dialogue is from interviews with soldiers from the 1950s and 60s. They’re simply describing their experiences during the war but it’s some of the most powerful words you’ll hear.


They Shall Not Grow Old is powerful and emotional and brings an intimacy to World War I like you’ve never seen before. It puts you in the trenches with the soldiers, and I have a greater appreciation for those who have served. It shows the war as it was, bloodshed and all. The film is about as real as a documentary can be.

Matt Rodriguez
Review by Matt Rodriguez
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