Make no mistake, Peter Jackson’s (Lord of the Rings trilogy) They Shall Not Grow Old is an epic achievement. To restore one hundred year old black-and-white, grainy Imperial War Museum World War I film, and make the soldiers come alive, is no small matter. Yet, this movie suffers some of the same problems as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. It puts you in the war with little explanation of the war. As a tribute to his grandfather and other soldiers in “the war to end all wars,” the Rotten Tomatoes rating is 97% with an Audience score of 93%. Educational as a “war is hell” movie, but much less educational as a “cause and effect” film, I give this film 3.5 Gavels.
Peter Jackson says, “This is not a story of the First World War, it is not a historical story, it may not even be entirely accurate but it’s the memories of the men who fought – they’re just giving their impressions of what it was like to be a soldier. ” To further remove any historical reference, Jackson edits out any names, dates and places. With 120 men each telling a quick story in a 99 minute film, it becomes quite staccato, rapid fire, if you will, as you are taken from 1914 to 1918.
Voices overlay the film footage of WWI, taken from 600 hours of interviews of over 200 veterans. You will see those on the battlefield 100 years ago.
With scenes of mud, lice, rats, rotten corpses (men and horses), bodies blown to bits, and trench foot, this is not a movie for the squeamish. Soldiers will describe the smells, not in a way that will make you enjoy dinner after the show. The artillery fire and explosions are more real than Hollywood movies. You believe when soldiers say the public doesn’t understand what it was like. Similar to Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan, Peter Jackson does history a great service by bringing these heroes alive. But by telling a hundred stories, Jackson’s film will be seen by the few, rather than by the many. This is a haunting documentary, but ultimately unsatisfying.