As it’s Remembrance Day, we’re taking a look at director Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. It’s unlike any other WWI documentary, taking great technological steps to bring the soldiers of the First World War back to life.
Jackson took many hours of old, choppy, skipping, sometimes 12 frames per second clips, colourised them, filled in the gaps, and added sound over the top.
The result is astonishing. But it adds often harrowing new insights into the nature of this conflict and what was forced upon unsuspecting souls.
They Shall Not Grow Old
They Shall Not Grow Old’s title is paraphrasing English poet and scholar Laurance Binyon’s (1869-1943) poem For the Fallen.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.”
Peter Jackson, who’s most famous for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was born in New Zealand. But his parents were emigrants from England, and his grandfather, William Jackson, served in WWI.
It’s important to note Jackson wasn’t paid for this documentary. He viewed it instead as an important historical restoration project.
In 2018, every school across the UK got a copy of the film for free.
They Shall Not Grow Old begins like many WWI documentaries. Details on the British Army’s propaganda to get youths into the forces. Boot camp training. The sense of patriotic delight about doing one’s duty.
Then a horrendous reality check, as everyone piled into a type of war never before seen. Yet, back then, there was that stiff upper lip, British reserve drive to take it all on the chin. Although we’ve documented the terrible psychological stresses this caused soldiers in Shell Shock (1998).
All of which is set, for the first 20 odd minutes, to the usual black and white footage we’re all familiar from the time period. Like a Buster Keaton film.
The difference is, from the old grainy black and white footage, everything sparks into life. And it’s circa 1915. We highly recommend you put the below clip to full screen, as this must be viewed as a landmark moment in cinema.
The narration for the documentary is from audio interviews with survivors of the war, which is overlayed on the footage. These are from the BBC and Imperial War Museum archives.
Additional sound effects and voice acting are also layered over the footage at appropriate moments. As you can see above, it makes everything all very real.
There’s a famous episode from Blackadder Goes Fourth (1989) where the troops have to go “over the top”.
They Shall Not Grow Old puts this into particularly stark perspective, showing the men mere hours before they headed to an inevitable death. Barely anyone survived the push—the interviewees note everyone was killed or wounded.
It’s a difficult scene. It’s presented in the most terrifying fashion. As Jackson noted, most of the men in the footage below will have, almost certainly, died within one-two hours after this was taken.
Towards the end of the documentary, the former soldiers talk relentlessly of death—mud, rats, death, hypothermia in water sodden trenches, frostbite, hunger, death, more death.
All with a casual, informal tone as if they were on about a trip to the shops.
During WWI the sense of Empire, instilled beyond into their later years, must have been still very strong. It was a different way of life to now.
But WWI ended with a hollow, emotionless sense of closure.
No mass celebrations. Just a wrap up and shovelling to one side of Britain’s pathetic propaganda. The staggering waste of life. The executions of soldiers due to “cowardice”, which was usually severe and uncontrollable PTSD.
All, ashamedly, often ignored in modern England in pursuit of nationalistic hubris and exceptionalism (see our notes on the poppy). Yet, just look at this. It may go against the grain.
As the documentary film ends, the soldiers note they returned to British society minus any heroes welcome.
Veterans struggled to get work. The public didn’t care, or understand, about what took place in the trenches. One man remarks his former colleague chastised his absence, essentially accusing him of being lazy.
They Shall Not Grow Old is an incredible documentary film. Revolutionary, even. Although to watch it is a melancholic experience.
There’s a lot of footage of young British lads, cajoled into joining the army through its poster campaigns. The young guys are constantly grinning and smiling for the cameras. Stiff upper lip. The sense of camaraderie amongst the troops is strong—and gallows humour in place.
But for us watching this footage now, as it’s over 100 years later, the sense of loss is palpable. You can’t come away from this film without a tremendous sense of sadness for these men lost to time.
The Production of They Shall Not Grow Old
This was Peter Jackson’s first documentary. It released in late 2018 to mark a century since the end of the World War I.
The UK’s art programme for the First World War centenary was 14-18 NOW, which commissioned the film with the BBC. In 2015, NOW approached Jackson to make the documentary.
Jackson agreed. He was handed some 600 hours of audio interviews (from 200 veterans) and over 100 hours of WWI footage never before seen by the public.
Once he began listening to, and watching, the archival texts he realised he didn’t want to do the standard narrated documentary. He also didn’t want to have a running roll call of names and places. Jackson told Australian film magazine Flicks in 2018:
“We made a decision not to identify the soldiers as the film happened. There were so many of them that names would be popping up on the screen every time a voice appeared. In a way it became an anonymous and agnostic film. We also edited out any references to dates and places, because I didn’t want the movie to be about this day here or that day there. There are hundreds of books about all that stuff. I wanted the film to be a human experience and be agnostic in that way.
We cleaned out any reference to particular times and places. But we made sure everything we used in the film—out of 600 hours of audio we had—we made sure it was all backed up by other people. I didn’t want to have one guy’s story about stealing the officer’s car and driving through town and yahooing. It’s a funny story if you hear it but it was only him that did that. I didn’t want individual stories about individuals. I wanted it to be what it ended up being: 120 men telling a single story. Which is: what was it like to be a British solider on the western front?”
Jackson and his team spent 12 months syphoning through the footage and audio to select what they wanted for the documentary.
As for the remarkable transformation from grainy, jerky black and white recordings into full colour, this was the process.
In the past, cameras were hand cranked and cumbersome. It’s astonishing there’s so much footage of WWI. Cameras were much more rare back then (note how mesmerised the soldiers are by seeing one). Plus, the fact the footage has survived all these years is down to the likes of the BBC and archivists.
Hand cranking cameras ensured around 12 fps (frames per second) quality. That’s why old footage from the ’20s etc. skips along. For They Shall Not Grow Old, Jackson used computer interpolation. This added in the missed 6-12 fps to bring it up to modern standards of around 24 fps.
The new parts were then colourised. That wasn’t always easy. Jackson worked hard to determine exact locations for some scenes and would the journey out to see the location to document the real colours.
Then voice actors and the sound effects team adding suitable noises and dialogue to each scene. Professional lip readers were hired to distinguish what was likely being said by the soldiers in the, of course, audio-free old reels.
They Shall Not Grow Old met with instant critical acclaim. It was also successful at the box office, making some $20.4 million. $18 million of that was actually from the US market.
Although it was nominated for a BAFTA, it was ignored by the Oscars. It missed out at the Academy as it was “ineligible” for entry due to just missing the 1st October 2018 filing deadline.
And as it was a 2018 film, that means it wasn’t eligible for entry into the 2019 Oscars either. Which is just idiotic.