MovieMonday: They Shall Not Grow Old

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.

For the Fallen
by Laurence Binyon
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

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.

One thought on “MovieMonday: They Shall Not Grow Old

  1. This will be a “must see” for me. I know next to very little or nothing about WWI but can only imagine the horrors!


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