They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

A film review by Lucy Mainwaring-Parr, Criminology Undergraduate

On the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, Peter Jackson produces what could be one of the most technologically advanced tributes to a war in which casualties were numerous. The footage, supplied from the archives of the Imperial War Museum, is not new to the audience. The scenes depicted, black and white, silent, the unsteady rate of frames per second causing the well-known jittery movements of those captured, have been used in countless documentaries. Due to the familiarity we can become desensitised to these scenes of war. They are reduced to clips, unrecognisable as real life. Yet Jackson’s team has painstakingly brought life back into the men depicted. They have coloured the film, slowed down the rate of frames and even, through use of forensic lip reading of the footage, provided dialect for the men.

Photo used for illustration purposes: see original here

Unlike the usual documentaries, in this film there are no comments from historians or politicians. Instead the audience listens to the commentaries of those who survived the war, providing a human account of both the smiles of those marching to the front as compared to the footage of the atrocities that once unfolded there. Twenty-four minutes into They Shall Not Grow Old, the black and white film we are so comfortable with turns into colour, and the effect is chilling. The audience are able to see the life in these men, the personalities enhanced in their faces, and a sense of depth added to their eyes. The landscape of war and the uniforms of the men, once coloured, feel reminiscent of the pastel palette of a ladybird book, perhaps alluding to the war propaganda of the time.

Photo used for illustration purposes: see original here

This is contrasted with then depicted real bloodshed of war with fatal injuries to both man and animal. The footage shows a rider and horse both having been shot down: the internal organs of the horse are spilled out on the ground, whilst the soldier’s uniform is stained fatally red. Audio of conversations over the footage remind the audience of those who fought; men of varying backgrounds and classes, with the accompanying regional accents. Accounts told by the veterans remind us that some of the faces we are seeing are those of boys as young as fifteen, who tell the cameras that they are ‘volunteering’. We see them joking around, calling out, ‘hello Mum’, at the camera or pretending to strum a tune on a glass bottle. In hindsight they admit how sheltered their home lives were; one piece of audio describes how he believed the German enemy were, ‘Bogey men’.

It is wrenching to see these see of faces in new-found colour, these faces that have been so long dismissed and disregarded as figures of the past. To realise how they could so easily be the faces of those we pass in the street, at work or at university. They Shall Not Grow Old makes the atrocities of the war human, and that is one of the hardest things to acknowledge as an audience of the film and of history.

To watch the film’s trailer, click here

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