At the end of They Shall Not Grow Old, the voiceovers of soldiers who fought in the conflict tell stories of how, on returning home, they weren’t fêted as heroes, but denied jobs by unmoved civilians. Civilians who could not imagine the terrible experience these men had been through, and didn’t care to try. And how could they understand? Even if you’re told of the suffering — the sound of constant shelling, as soldiers huddled in waterlogged trenches, hungry, cold and covered in their own filth, and others’ — it’s difficult to imagine exactly what it was like. Day after day. Month after month.
But a century on from the end of the conflict, They Shall Not Grow Old gets modern-day audiences closer than ever before. And much of that is down to the technological advances that have made this film possible. Given access to the Imperial War Museum’s archival footage, Peter Jackson and his team have painstakingly restored it— working out what speed each roll of film was shot at, and using computers to standardise it all at 24 frames per second. Then cleaning up the grainy, poor-quality, black-and-white pictures into sharp images, before finally colourising them.
The film is a triumph, both technically and emotionally.
Colourisation has a bad rep in film circles, and mostly rightly so — the decision to add colour, often poorly, to films such as It’s A Wonderful Life was a short-lived movement best forgotten. But here, with painstaking attention to detail, it brings alive the documentary footage. The soldiers are no longer just images on a screen — they’re real people, not unlike any of us, with hopes and dreams that they often didn’t live long enough to fulfil.
Jackson isn’t interested in an overview of the whole war, nor a critique of the tactics employed. The only voices heard are the soldiers telling their stories, from the moment they decided to sign up, through their experiences in training and on the front line, until they go back home. He’s working with what is available to him, obviously, so while we do get a view of what the conflict was like for the people who lived it, there are no characters we’re able to follow, nor personal narratives to invest in. And, beyond the beginning and end, there’s no real sense of how far through the war we are and how long the voices speaking have been involved, to add a sense of context. But these are minor quibbles — the film is a triumph, both technically and emotionally. We may still not know exactly what it was like to fight in World WarI (and hopefully we never will), but They Shall Not Grow Old gets us closer than ever before, and shows us how much these men sacrificed. One hundred years on, it’s a lesson well worth remembering.