WWI has always felt distant to contemporary audiences. The old, jerky, mis-timed black & white footage is almost comic despite its subject. The photos are often horrific, but drained of impact for anyone who grew up with color photography and TV. Now imagine tackling the subject like a Ken Burns documentary on steroids, and with a much expanded f/x budget, and you get a sense of They Shall Not Grow Old.
Through enhancements and brilliant sound design, Peter Jackson (The Hobbit) helps you experience just a bit of the sense of the battles in the trenches. It is a very clever and disturbing trip, often hard to watch, but also fascinating. It brings to life and humanizes the meatgrinder that destroyed over a million lives and shredded a countryside. Jackson delivers a visceral vision of WWI unlike any you’ve ever seen. It is a perfect, sober recognition of its centenary.
Using the recorded interviews, photos, and archival footage, sprinkled with some very clever magic dust, we are taken full circle in the story. It begins with enlistment and carries us through the return home and the struggles, triumphs, and the odd reality of the last war that was fought with a sense of adventure…the first war that was heavily documented in media, even if that was filtered to the public. No war was the same after The Great War (and you could argue that WWII was just a continuation of the first). Technology had changed the tactics and repercussions. Medicine had more people surviving with debilitating injuries. Politics had gone global in a way never before seen. And people still had to catch up with all of those realities.
The journey is, by necessity, compact. It focuses on a single battle site as a proxy for a four+ year engagement, but it makes its point. Listening to the men who served is a revelation in perspective. Seeing the footage, even when some of the effects look a little creepy, is surprisingly impactful. You leave the viewing both aware of the horror and amazed at the resilience of the people involved. It isn’t comprehensive, but it is revealatory and presented with a true love of the people who were there, whether they survived or not.
I am not a huge fan of documentaries about war. They are rarely neutral in their conversation and presentation. And, far too often, they bend toward the jingoistic. Certainly, this movie has its attitude crafted by the editing choices. But it also manages to walk the line and retain the cultural sense of the time while providing enough of the facts to let us ponder our own conclusions. This really is a must watch 95 minutes. It will bring to life an era that has always felt distant, despite its fallout in politics, industry, immigration, and global life that has direct-line effects on our current lives.