‘They Shall Not Grow Old’: World War I Brought To Astonishing, Harrowing Life

Peter Jackson’s documentary, featuring expertly restored archival footage from the first World War, is “astonishing”; his “digital tools summon empathy, not spectacle.”

In the closing moments of They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson's impressionistic documentary — no dates, no title cards, no omniscient narrator — about the foot soldier's experience of the sadly misnamed War to End All Wars, we hear one veteran recall that upon their return to England their wartime experience "had no conversational value at all."

Another says, "My father would argue points of fact about things he couldn't possibly have known about, because he wasn't there." A third concludes, "History will decide in the end that it was not worthwhile." These observations echo against those heard 90 minutes earlier, when a few recalled their departure for the front as a sober matter of duty ("We were professionals and it was a job of work"), but many more cited jovial spirits and a lust for adventure ("It was a great big game to be enjoyed").

These voices were recorded in the 1960s, when the BBC interviewed around 250 veterans of the the first World War, as they were still hale enough to speak of their experiences circa 1914-18 with clarity and authority. They were a self-selecting group, the subset of their shelled, gassed, frozen, starved and machine-gunned generation of men most suited to bear the horrific psychological costs of what they witnessed in a war that history has indeed shown to have been particularly cruel and pointless.

All of the film's imagery, meanwhile, is sourced from documentary footage from the archive of England's Imperial War Museum, which commissioned Jackson to make the movie, with the proviso he abstain from using any new footage or archival material from other sources. The director has said that despite being permitted to use only British material, he intends the film to reflect "the human experience" of the war. Certainly this would make an exceedingly poor propaganda film.