movie thoughts – They Shall Not Grow Old (2019)

I had this documentary on my to-watch list since I heard about it – the rave reviews, Peter Jackson – it was clearly something I needed to see. We were watching lots of random YouTube history videos a few weeks ago and it reminded me I had this checked out from the library. I put the blu-ray in, preparing for your typical documentary telling me about World War I.

This is not a typical documentary.

Jackson went through thousands of hours of footage from the British World War I archives, went through old photos, listened to recorded interviews with veterans and pulled out magazines from his personal collection (apparently Jackson is a collector of WWI paraphernalia) and created a new way of telling the soldiers’ stories.

The film is told 100% with images, photos, film reels and dialogue from the actual war. But where the magic happens is about 30 minutes into the film, after we watched the recruits go from signing up to training camps. When they arrive on the Western front, the world pauses for a moment and the black and white images and suddenly colorized.

Jackson talks about this choice in the documentary about the documentary included on the blu-ray, saying that while he wouldn’t want people to colorize a black and white movie, as artistic choices were made because of the medium, the journalists covering the war didn’t have any other option and, as he says, if you had been able to offer them color film at that time, they would have taken it. But color film didn’t exist yet, so Jackson and his team worked hard to breathe life back into the images. They also modified the frames per second to help make the soldiers march on screen at a normal speed rather then that strange sped-up newsreel look.

It is eerie. The images of these men suddenly felt so real. For me, there was an immediate connection that wasn’t there before, this wasn’t another world, full of hues of gray, it was our world, only 100 years ago – which in the grand scheme of things, isn’t that long ago. The images of the soldiers laughing and pointing at the camera, confused and a bit nervous around this new gadget, stare directly into the camera in a way that people are not supposed to. It’s like they are looking at us from the past, wondering if this whole thing was worth their time, their childhood, their lives.

The colorized images of the dead soldiers and animals were just as impactful. These were just photos, but seeing the corpses with the splashes of red, the bone exposed, the body twisted…it wasn’t a Hollywood death, it wasn’t sanitized in any way. It was the final image of a man, sometimes just boys, who had died in battle.

This film mesmerized me. Jackson mentions in the documentary that there was so much footage on so many topics that he could make more movies just pulling from those archives – about women going to work, about the troops from British colonies that joined the fight, and about what was happening on the homefront. I would love to see these areas explored and that footage restored and shared.

If you have any interest in history or in film-making at all, I highly recommend this documentary. It is an experience and one that everyone should see.

One comment

  1. So glad you saw and this wrote about it. I think you may have been gone, but we showed this at the library for Veterans Day 2019 and it stunned everyone. I had Mr. Haas – who had just written a book on WWI – scheduled to speak after the movie, and when he got up, he couldn’t say anything for about a minute. So many people said this movie made WWI – which seemed so distant to them – come alive.


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