While it looks the part, They Shall Not Grow Old is far from your typical boring war documentary.
Peter Jackson’s new World War I film eschews the typical PBS documentary mold of raw footage slideshows and narration. Its sound effects, voice acting and colorization are meticulously detailed. The film also doesn’t focus on a singular regiment or battle and there isn’t a cohesive storyline tying everything together. Jackson and his team combed through more than 100 hours of war footage and 600 hours of veteran interviews to best represent the average British soldier’s experience on the Western Front between 1914-1918.
The result is breathtaking. The film’s colorization, time warping and audio engineering bring even the soldiers mundane moments like shaving and sleeping to life. And those simple moments are They Shall Not Grow Old’s greatest achievement.
We rarely think about war on a micro level. Most of us can’t relate to it. It’s much easier to discuss strategies and battles and casualties broadly to avoid getting bogged down by the complicated emotions that come with mass death. But war is intensely personal. It’s made up by the individual people and moments history often leaves behind—teenagers eagerly lying about their age to fight in a gruesome war, finding a spot to sleep in a muddy trench, trying to make a pot of tea without producing smoke that might attract enemy gunfire.
Even the best war movies and documentaries don’t capture these intricacies. There are too many stories to overlook and details to miss. They Shall Not Grow Old suffers from this somewhat, too—Jackson admits the film could only go so far even with the vast amount of source material available. But he and his team still managed to revitalize modern world history’s bloodiest and most significant conflict. Even with its acknowledged generalizations, the film is as intimate as it could possibly be.
The most impactful art creates a feeling of connection between the artist and their audience, and in this case, the subjects of the film. We’ll never fully know the fear and adrenaline of weathering artillery shells or poison gas attacks in soggy trenches. But They Shall Not Grow Old brings us closer than we’ve ever been by simply showing the us the everyday lives of real people that went through it. It’s a generational movie in every sense, including for the forgotten one it helped revive.