They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

*. The centenary of the First World War saw a revival of interest in that epic conflict, with scores of books and conferences and films to mark the occasion. They Shall Not Grow Old was part of this, being commissioned as a special memorial.
*. I think it has to be considered a resounding success on that score, being very well received both critically and among a broader audience. It’s also a tremendous achievement in terms of the restoration of archival film sources. The First World War has never looked so good.
*. There were purists who criticized colourization and other liberties taken with the source material to be a bridge too far, but I think this is to examine the matter far too closely. I do think it’s important that the critiques put forward by historians be heard, but at the end of the day this is popular history. Director Peter Jackson even said that he wasn’t that worried about accuracy. He wanted to convey the experience of the war in general terms, leaving out any mention of dates or locations, and not identifying any of the soldiers’ voices we hear. If you’re looking for that kind of documentary there are plenty of them out there. This was an attempt at doing something different.

*. I’ve read quite a bit about WWI, memoirs as well as histories, but I still appreciated the grunt’s-eye view of the proceedings here and felt I learned some things, mainly with regard to the more mundane aspects of life on the Western Front. Things like diet, going to the bathroom (there was no toilet paper), and (what never ceases to amaze me) the weight of the kit these human pack horses had to haul. I have to say that it never looks, when the troops are marching, that they are carrying 60-100 pounds of gear. This is a point I’ve often wondered about and that I should try to do more research into.
*. Also revealing is the ambiguous response to the war itself. War is hell, yes, but it’s also a peak experience for these men, and something they wouldn’t have missed for the world. This echoes similar sentiments I’ve heard expressed by other veterans. In their return to civilian life there’s an unmistakable note of bitterness struck, returning to meaningless industrial or office jobs, at least where they haven’t been made redundant. Rambo’s rant at the end of First Blood has a long history.
*. The film is structured well, following the Tommy experience from the outbreak of war, through enlistment, introduction to the front (where the film switches to colour), life in the trenches, the day of battle, and the end of war and its aftermath. The flip of ending on a joke is also, I think, a great touch.
*. Jackson dedicated the film to his grandfather, as Sam Mendes dedicated 1917 (which came out the next year) to his. Both movies are heartfelt memorials, but I much prefer this to 1917. While it makes some concessions to absolute accuracy and authenticity I found it revealing, informative, and moving throughout. It’s a cliché, but as in the best such films we really do feel the past coming to life.

40 thoughts on “They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

    1. Alex Good

      Good morning Gateshead! (Well, it’s morning here.) I’ll be posting on 1917 next. It’s certainly a gorgeous movie to look at, but goes in for that stuff a bit too much, turning into an all-out fantasia. I guess I’ve seen a lot of war docs but this one really was special.

  1. Over-The-Shoulder

    Haven’t seen this, but I do agree 1917 was overrated. I’ll make sure to look out for They Shall Not Grow Old. I think the second chapter of my memoirs is definitely going to be, “The First World War has never looked so good.”

      1. Over-The-Shoulder

        I think it will be.

        “Titled Sweet Tooth For Sleaze, Over-The-Shoulder tackles the harsh realities of life and death, with such satisfying chapters as ‘The First World War has never looked so good’ and ‘The relaxing quality of tin foil between teeth’. Available at a local library near you!”

        I think it’ll be a best seller.

  2. tensecondsfromnow

    OTS blatantly stealing lines from my Lost Horizon review this morning, and parading them as his own without appropropriate credit. Red card for him, and this blog is shut down immediately by health and safety. This decision is final and cannot be revised.

      1. Over-The-Shoulder

        Yes, I stole your blessed, yet poorly edited, words. What’s your point? I stole the others from Alex. In fact, I didn’t write any of my memoirs at all! All stolen! That’s right! Hahahahahahaha!

      2. Alex Good Post author

        Bins are as empty as Dix’s blog is of original or thoughtful content. It’s a full-time job taking out the trash.

      3. Over-The-Shoulder

        Congratulations Alex. Nothing so satisfying as an clean empty bin, ready for the rubbish to go into the next day. Reckon Dix’s blog could do with a good clean out.

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