This film was commissioned by England’s Imperial War Museum and released last year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War One.
It had a brief, limited rollout and now is shown rather sporadically — once a week in two theaters near me — to appreciative audiences, albeit older audiences than I usually see in movie theaters.
The story is not of the war’s causes or particular battles but simply the experience of young men who enlisted, who were taught to march and shoot, and who then were sent to fight in hitherto unimaginable battlefield conditions. After the war they returned to their unchanged homes with memories they carried for the rest of their lives.
Current films have accustomed us to computer-generated imagery of lifelike universes created out of nothing, but this film goes the other way — showing us cleaned-up and colorized black-and-white still photographs and moving pictures shot in various formats and at various speeds, all discovered in various states of aging and decay. The movie’s narration is also authentic, drawn from recordings of veterans’ spoken memories in a 1964 oral history project.
The effect is to show us young men as they were at that time, and to hear them describe their experiences in chipper, stiff-upper-lip styles that probably were not so common in subsequent wars.
The soldiers of World War I experienced the usual privations of filthy uniforms, bad food, body lice and rats, but also encountered weapons developed and refined during and after the Industrial Revolution — reliable rifles, machine guns, land mines, tanks and various forms of poison gas. These are observed in the movie, as are their gruesome effects: bloody injuries and bodies slumped in trenches and strewn across battlefields. (Not appropriate for small children.)
The filmmaker (Peter Jackson, best known for the Tolkien trilogies) has done a beautiful job here. “They Shall Not Grow Old” manages both to humanize soldiers’ experiences and to respect their decency and heroism in terrible circumstances.
The film likely will be available soon on streaming services, but its impact is enhanced when viewed on a larger screen. I wish I’d gone earlier and seen it in an IMAX theater.
This movie’s title comes from the 13th line (with two words inverted) of a 2014 poem that valorized soldiers killed at war. Its tone is true to the expressions of soldiers expressed in the movie.
The British do a nice job of commemorations. I was impressed by another one, Poppies, that was mounted at the Tower of London at the beginning of the war.