'They Shall Not Grow Old' - A fascinating experiment

They Shall Not Grow Old
credit: YouTube

WWI was a terrible time for pretty much everyone involved and Peter Jackson isn’t going to let you forget that in his new documentary They Shall Not Grow Old.

They Shall Not Grow Old was originally released back in December, I believe, as a special two-day event put on by Fathom Events. The screening was such a hit, apparently, that they decided to bring it back for an exclusive week-long release in February.

Even though it’s initial release was in 2018, They Shall Not Grow Old still missed the October 1 filling deadline for the Academy Awards, which is why it isn’t up for any awards this year and will instead qualify for the 2019 Oscars instead.

The story behind They Shall Not Grow Old is arguably more interesting than the one the film itself is telling.

They Shall Not Grow Old
credit: YouTube

In 2015, the Imperial War Museums (IWM) and BBC approached Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director Peter Jackson with a rather unique author.

According to Jackson, who opens They Shall Not Grow Old with a brief introduction that gives the audience all this information, the IWM was sitting on hundreds and hundreds of archive footage that was taken from WWI, along with 600 hours of additional audio from interviewers conducted with roughly 200 veterans.

IWM didn’t want all of this content turned into just another WWI documentary, which they and BBC have produced thousands of, but rather wanted to make something different.

Because apparently they felt the footage wasn’t interesting enough on its own, I guess? Even though nobody had really seen it before? The soldier’s stories weren’t interesting enough on their own and needed to be beefed up in some other way? There’s an argument to be made about how the showmanship in They Shall Not Grow Old gets in the way of its actual message, is all I’m saying.

Nevertheless, they approached Jackson to see if he had any ideas of what could be done and, eventually, he came up with an idea.

They Shall Not Grow Old
credit: YouTube

What if they revamped all this footage with modern day technology? What if they take all this grainy, black-and-white film and add color, digitalization, sound effects and other production effects to make the audience feel like they’re actually there in the trenches of the troops?

After experimenting around for months on end, Jackson finally realized that this was possible and, long story short, figured out that it could be done.

All that’s left to do was actually come up with a story for They Shall Not Grow Old. In order to further promote the idea of this “immersive experience,” Jackson eventually landed on telling personal accounts from British soldiers of WWI, depicting their day-to-day struggles and just how terrible things were down in the trenches.

Which means that They Shall Not Grow Old isn’t necessarily meant to be a history lesson or all encompassing depiction of WWI, and Jackson has said as much since the film’s release. 

According to The Herald, Jackson said before a screening: “This is not a story of the First World War, it is not a historical story, it may not even be entirely accurate, but it’s the memories of the men who fought - they’re just giving their impressions of what it was like to be a solider.”

They Shall Not Grow Old
credit: YouTube

What that means is that we’re getting a rather personal tale of WWI that’s rather near-and-dear to Jackson’s heart (the film is dedicated to his grandfather, who fought in the war) more than anything else.

The technological aspect certainly plays into that as well, as the experiment Jackson is conducting here is really quite a fascinating one (even if we do have to talk about the future implications of it).

They Shall Not Grow Old still opens with the IWM’s original black-and-white film, which is really blurry and hard to make out. Gradually, the aspect ratio widens before all together converting to color by the 15-minute mark.

That transition feels like a rather remarkable one when it first hits, as They Shall Not Grow Old successfully is able to take this footage and create something brand new with it.

They Shall Not Grow Old
credit: YouTube

Granted, it might not be immersive to the point where it actually feels like we’re there — some of the soldier’s faces still look a little warped — but it’s better than anything we’ve ever seen before and certainly gets the job done.

The question I have, rather, is what implications this holds.

We all know that when making a documentary, a director has to chose what to include and not include. Especially when dealing with a subject as vast as WWI, the crew is going to have to take on a certain creative license, or else the film will wind up being 20 hours long.

They Shall Not Grow Old adds an extra component on to all of this when you stop and consider that Jackson isn’t only not including some things, but rather is embellishing things and adding his own inserts by adding additional things into it.

They Shall Not Grow Old
credit: YouTube

Jackson wasn’t himself in WWI and is making this film in a Los Angeles sound stage, but he’s still trying to create the experience of what he thinks it would be like by messing with and essentially changing this footage. That might still work with They Shall Not Grow Old, as Jackson appears to do so in a responsible way (even though we never really can now for sure), but it makes you stop and wonder what would happen if a director who didn’t have the same ethical backbone tried to do something similar.

In the end, that really isn’t a critique on They Shall Not Grow Old as much as it is an overall observation (I blame the film student in me for this tangent), but it’ll be interesting to look back on this movie in 10 or 20 years to see what it did or didn’t lead to.

As for the documentary itself, They Shall Not Grow Old is a really interesting look into the lives of a soldier and just how terrible it was. A lot of the information presented might be things you already know, but the interviews and actual footage all give it an extra relevant kick as we hear the real stories and see real pictures of people lying dead in the mud.

All of that to say is that while I don’t necessarily want or need to see more movies like They Shall Not Grow Old, I think it works this time around.

Watch the trailer for They Shall Not Grow Old here and then let us know, in the comments below, what you thought about the movie!

'They Shall Not Grow Old' - A fascinating experiment [REVIEW]
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Brandon Schreur

The fella over there with the hella good hair. Movies and TV are my jam, and the fact that I get to write about them on a regular basis is the bees knees.

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