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They Shall Not Grow Old ***

The real soldiers of World War I come to vivid life in this doc from director Peter Jackson. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

We’ve seen plenty of World War I movies, but never one quite like “They Shall Not Grow Old.” Comprised of archival footage, propaganda, and photo stills that have been digitally remastered and colorized in 3D, the documentary is a fascinating look at the experiences of soldiers during World War I.

Through interviews with British soldiers whom we hear but never see, director Peter Jackson (“Lord Of The Rings”) takes us through the life of a soldier before, during and after the Great War. Culled from more than 700 hours of footage (much of which has never been seen before) that took Jackson and his team roughly a year to catalogue at the Imperial War Museum in London, then whittled down to a 99-minute run time, the doc is a testament to those who had no idea they were sacrificing so much for the freedom of others.


The opening half hour is in black and white, and it shares the mind frame of young men as the war began: Brash, eager, ignorant, and completely without a sense of despair. “We couldn’t possibly lose” one man says to sum up their attitude toward war, even though many didn’t have a solid grasp of why England was fighting in the first place.   

Once the men get to the battlefield the movie turns to color, because for the soldiers things got real very fast. The colorization isn’t perfect, as some faces look distorted and/or partially animated, but the jolt of reality serves its purpose as it allows the viewer to emotionally connect. To be sure, there’s plenty you don’t want to see: Dead bodies on barbed wire, gangrene feet, men shot in the head, blood, etc. It all works effectively, though, to bring these men to life once again, and allows for an appreciation that would otherwise not be so palpably felt.  

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This is far from a Hollywood World War I movie, in which the conflict with the enemy is sometimes secondary to rivalries within one’s own platoon. Here, instead of high drama we learn minute details such as uncomfortable boots making it hard to march, the general indifference toward horrible food, and how the soldiers battled lice, rats, and other animals. It’s a revelation, an insight into an unpleasant life that also included sleeping standing up because the water in the trenches is chest deep, how these men went to the bathroom, and the haunting stories behind so many 15 and 16-year-olds lying about their age and enlisting at the outbreak of the war, having no idea what they’re getting themselves into.   

It’s curious that Jackson never identifies the soldiers who are speaking, but this also serves his purpose: He doesn’t want “They Shall Not Grow Old” to be about any individual soldier; he wants the men we see to represent all the roughly one million British Empire soldiers who died during the war. It may be a bit tedious at times, but on the whole Jackson has succeeded wonderfully.

Did you know?
Jackson dedicated the film to his grandfather, who served in World War I.

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