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United Kingdom 2018
Directed by
Peter Jackson
99 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

They Shall Not Grow Old

Synopsis: A documentary about the ordinary soldier's experience of World War I.

Peter Jackson’s pictorial survey of the experiences of ordinary British foot-soldiers from enlistment to demobilization is outstanding both for the range of archival material it assembles and what he does with it.  Drawing on more than 600 hours of footage supplied by Britain's Imperial War Museum plus a huge audio archive from the BBC, They Shall Not Grow Old eschews the usual talking head approach and instead overlays the marvellously rich visual material with the disembodied voices of veterans as they remember enlisting in what they thought would be a jolly romp to teach Jerry a lesson, for many of them a relief from their boring, repetitious work lives, their combat training and eventual baptism of fire before returning home from a horror that only those who had been there could comprehend.

The film starts with the familiar black and white footage of Edwardian street scenes in a small central rectangle that gradually widens to fill the entire screen. Then we arrive at the Belgian front and suddenly in an extraordinary transformation the screen is suffused with colour and depth and we are drawn into the reality of combat - the devastated landscape, the rat-infested trenches, the bloated corpses  - as shuddering explosions shake the theatre.

Not all of it is horror, however, and one of the most noteworthy aspects of the film is the way in which the speakers, with what one can only regard as typically self-deprecating British stoicism, are often quite jovial as they remember comical moments, recall with fondness the camaraderie or reflect on the decency of the enemy. Admittedly this is so decades after the fact and can seem a little too benign (thus what we now call post traumatic stress syndrome is only briefly alluded to, the horrific injuries with which many had to live not at all) but one also feels there is a good deal of truth in this – we humans have an uncanny ability to adjust to our environment.

Whilst we are very familiar with films that dramatize the tragedy of war (the recently screened and very good Journey’s End for instance) They Shall Not Grow Old is distinctively matter-of-fact if not surprisingly low key in its depiction of the Great War, an approach which perhaps reflects the fact that it was commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the U.K. arts body set up to commemorate the centenary of World War I. Of course this is only one way of imaging history but what Jackson has done to revitalize the past, even employing professional lip readers to supply snippets of authentic dialogue, is remarkable and particularly for anyone with an interest in films about war, not to be missed.




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