They Shall Not Grow Old: WWI Becomes Immersive in Peter Jackson’s Riveting, Tech-Boosted Doc

By Liam Lacey

Rating: A

"At length, even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war, but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death. — The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien.

A scene from They Shall Not Grow Old.

A scene from They Shall Not Grow Old.

The Lord of the Rings was clearly influenced by author J.R.R. Tolkien’s experiences in battle during the First World War so it's unexpectedly fitting that a fantasy director like Peter Jackson, the driving force behind the Lord of the Rings movies, should employ all the newest in film technology to construct the immersive World War I memorial documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old.

The film is a technical tour-de-force of CGI and restoration, editing and colourizing and 3-D reconstruction, drawn from archival film footage from the Imperial War Museum, carefully matched to BBC's archived interviews from ordinary soldiers, chronicling their time from recruitment to demobilization, where many found themselves social outcasts.

The film, which will be distributed to English schools, is very much an exercise in "bringing history to life," without offering any context of European economic and political history. No doubt, there's a certain theme-park appeal to this use of technology to reconstruct a facsimile of the past, but it's shockingly immediate, seeing those old monochrome images of anonymous men in mushroom-cap helmets turned into images of pink-cheeked youth staring back at us through the camera lens.

No speaker is identified until the end credits so we have a sense of listening to men swapping yarns at the legion hall and watching their memories come to life. (Although the Jackson film is an all-male affair, the last WWI veteran was actually Women's Royal Air Force veteran Florence Green, who died in 2012 at the age of 110.)

The shock of colourization is introduced gradually and judiciously. The film begins with the familiar jittery black-and-white images in the square-framed news reels, the sort of thing many of us sat through in elementary school. By the time the novice soldiers cross the Channel and proceed inland, the image is fully colorized.

Though the mud-coloured ground is familiar, blue skies and red blood aren't typically part of our palette of the Great War. Unavoidably, the eye is drawn to the inconsistencies, the somewhat chalky flesh tones and white teeth, even though the gaps and misshapen teeth reveal the state of British dentistry a century ago.

Initially, the men's voice-over accounts tend toward physical comedy: the public decency law against wearing a kilt on the upper deck of a bus; the jokes about poorly fitting clothes and shoes, the public privies where we see a line of soldier's naked backsides on a board across a latrine trench. Collective warfare meant the end of personal privacy on a most basic level. Later, we hear the more horrific accounts — freezing cold water-filled trenches, rats feeding on corpses, gangrene, mustard gas, and accounts of both humanity and barbarism toward German prisoners — in accounts that seem neither sanitized nor sensational.


The constructed soundtrack adds the hubbub of voices, whistling shells and exploding mines. Jackson even used lip-readers to reconstruct snippets of conversation seen in the archival footage, voiced by actors, adding to the paradoxical mixture of artifice and immediacy. You are there, but thank God, you are not.

The film's title comes from Lawrence Binyon's poem “For the Fallen,” written in September, 1914, a few weeks after the outbreak of the war. The perspective is from veterans who did, in fact, grow old enough to record their memories of this terrible legacy.

They Shall Not Grow Old. Directed by Peter Jackson. Screens today (December 17) at 4 pm and 10:30 pm, and December 27 only at selected Cineplex theatres. Also Jan. 17 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. For local listings, click here.