Well, my bride and I watched They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) last Sunday, and technically it was as magnificent as I had heard. The expertise applied to make World War I era films look like contemporary colored films was awe-inspiring. The skillful use of sound with these films allowed us to think that we were seeing a modern broadcast from 1914-1918, if the current broadcast technology had existed back then. It reminds us powerfully that the men who fought were not merely figures from old, grainy black and white films, but flesh and blood like us going through a great and terrible experience. The voice over in the film is from World War I veterans, presumably from broadcasts decades ago, or recreated readings from memoirs and/or written interviews.
One thing I very much liked is that the film totally reflected the views of the British soldiers who fought. No Twenty-First century sensibilities were imposed on these soldiers from a century ago who fought for King and Country at the dawn of the Twentieth century. The film skillfully takes us through the experience of the soldiers: recruitment, training, meals, life in the trenches, medical care, etc. The time allotted to the actual fighting does not dominate the film, as it did not dominate the wartime lives, at least those who survived, of the men who fought. Battle was obviously the most important element in the lives of the soldiers who were at the front, but few soldiers spent more than a few months in combat, at most, even for the small minority who served throughout the entire War. At the end of the film, the soldiers are looking for work, some of them missing serving in the Army, for many of the young soldiers the first real job they had held.
At the beginning of the film, some of the Tommies talk about what a life altering experience the War had been for them, and how they would not have missed it for the world, and that is the general sentiment portrayed by most of soldiers at the end of the film.
To say all this is out of step with popular perceptions today of World War I, a useless war where the soldiers were only pawns, or, at best victims, is to engage in considerable understatement. My hat is off to Peter Jackson to allow the men five generations removed from our time to have their say.
My only mild criticism of the film is that a viewer will gain no knowledge of the actual campaigns fought by the British Army on the Western Front. However, this is clearly a result of the film’s firm focus on the perceptions at the time of the front line soldiers. The fabled Big Picture was for Generals and civilians safely reading newspapers back in Britain. For the soldiers, the battles all blurred together into small scale fights of attack and defense, where life and death were all that mattered, and for these combatants the Big Picture simply didn’t exist.
A truly great film. I cannot recommend it highly enough.