They Shall Not Grow Old is a film that resurrects the voices of those who we have lost. In an interview before the preview of the film in London, Peter Jackson said that he wanted the men to speak for themselves, thus he left the narration of the film to the voices of the men themselves. Jackson even admitted that the film originally was meant to be a far shorter film restoration effort of the Imperial War Museum’s archival footage of the First World War. However, the footage itself was too evocative, too powerful to not be explored further.
What Peter Jackson has been able to achieve is something quite harrowing: he has brought the men back from obscurity and returned to their humanity. In doing so the film itself is uncomfortably personal: you can see in detail the naivety, pain and the uncertainty of a generation of men sent to their slaughter.
The normality and ordinary nature of total warfare the film exposes is something that has been previously written out of the romanticised heroic narrative surrounding the First World War. The civilian behind the soldier is returned to the forefront of the battle. It is in this ordinariness that the sheer tragedy of the warfare is felt, as the men themselves didn’t blame the German soldiers in the other trenches as they were too “only doing their job”. The description of the Bavarian and Saxonian soldiers as “the more civilised of the Germans, part English if anything” is a profound moment which only evokes the tragedy and inanity of the warfare.
One of the most effective style choices of the film is to illustrate the violence through sound and snapshots of men marvelling at the camera, unaware as to what they would endure. The most surprising archival footage demonstrates the unity of both the British forces and German POWs helping the wounded so naturally, without any force or intimidation. This kinship found between the men fighting on both sides is one of the most compelling elements of the film; they saw each other as they truly were: boys also “stuck in uniform” doing what they were told for reasons they could not reconcile.
The film is an important portrait of the First World War as the tragedy it was; one that lacked any real justification, as the closing song ‘hinky dinky parlez vous’ exemplifies: “they said they mechanized the war, so what the hell are we marching for?”
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures.