They Shall Not Grow Old

The title of this WWI documentary was taken from the 1914 Laurence Binyon poem “For the Fallen.”

Director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) took 100-year-old footage and restored it, slowed it down, and in some instances…added color, 3D, sound effects, and voice-overs to what the soldiers were saying (with help from lip readers). He tackled all this after being asked to do some stuff with the Imperial War Museum (and with help from the BBC). These are powerful, albeit disturbing, images. Some might not like the fact that he’s adding blood and other special effects to the images, but I think it’s to show the horrors of war, not merely to be gimmicky.

My wife wondered what it would be like for soldiers fighting today in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, watching this movie. I wondered what it would be like for teenagers that are glued to their cellphones and video games, to learn about the Great War, and what people sacrificed (one of those people being Jackson’s grandfather, who the film is dedicated to).

One of the interesting things were the voices we heard of over 100 British ex-servicemen from different backgrounds. They were recorded in the ‘60s, and we see images on screen that match stories they’re sometimes telling.

A few times, you hear the people telling stories start to cry. It got me each time. There’s nothing worse than hearing a soldier talking about visiting a dead buddy’s parent…or a soldier talking about a wounded man crying for his mom, before he shoots him to put him out of his misery. His voice breaks as he tells that story, and there won’t be a dry eye in the house.

Surprisingly, the movie does find joy and levity at times. And that is certainly needed in something so tough to watch.

I was surprised so much of this footage was new to me. There’s one scene that shows how the Germans set up barbed wire to keep the soldiers from getting to them. There are various explosions in the air that were different than anything I’ve seen in a movie or archival footage before. It was also interesting to see how the canons flew backwards so far after firing. You start thinking about things like hearing loss. Other times, when you see soldiers walking back while injured (one shaking uncontrollably), PTSD wasn’t something that was even discussed back then.  

I never considered how soldiers back then might go to the bathroom. They tell you and show you, with someone telling a story that might be the most disgusting thing you’ll hear all year.

There’s also something so haunting about seeing a soldier walking off to what will probably be his death, but turning around and glancing at us with sad eyes, and cigarette dangling from his mouth.

This is a tough film to watch.

War certainly is Hell.

3 stars out of 5.


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