Review: WWI comes to life in stirring 'They Shall Not Grow Old'

Peter Jackson brings the Great War to life using old footage and new 3D technology

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
A scene from "They Shall Not Grow Old."

World War I comes to life in a way it hasn't since, well, World War I in Peter Jackson's "They Shall Not Grow Old," a stirring documentary that treats the Great War not as history, but as vivid, alive and in the present.  

Jackson, his "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" trilogies behind him, uses footage from the Imperial War Museum and restores it in breathtaking 3D. The effect is not only one of technical mastery, but it has a purpose: to make the soldiers fighting the battle become real again, not just figures on a battlefield 100 years ago. 

Jackson also colorizes the footage, bridging the gap between past and present. It's a simple effect, but it humanizes the soldiers and brings them out of the pages of history books and to life. We tend to think of the early 20th century in strictly black-and-white terms, and Jackson flips that switch by bringing color back to its world. 

Through voiceover, we hear soldiers' stories straight from their mouths. Not only tales of hardship — the lice and the dysentery and the bombs and the bullets and the carnage and insanity of war all around them — but also the camaraderie inside the trenches, not only among fellow soldiers but, at times, with their enemies. These are young men, many under age 18, sent off to war with no real understanding of the world around them. They figure it out as they go along. 

Jackson pairs the images with interviews with soldiers, mostly conducted in the '60s and '70s. The voices are disembodied, lending an anonymity to their stories, which is part of the point: their stories are all so similar that they mash together. Still, the same effect could be achieved with one-third fewer voices, and both the repetition and the constant din of the voiceover creates a dulling effect that eventually turns their stories into background noise. 

There's also a bit of creepiness to the footage on display here. Film was in its infancy at the time, and the soldiers are always gawking at the camera as if it's the first time they've ever seen one, creating the strange sensation that they're staring at you, the viewer. A few of these instances could be excused. But so much of "They Shall Not Grow Old" is made up of soldiers gazing at the screen while you gaze at them that it creates a slight feeling of discomfort.

Still, if the worst thing you're reminded of is the innocence and the humanity of World War I soldiers, things aren't all that bad. For most, if not all of us, World War I exists only in history books. "They Shall Not Grow Old" blows the dust off that history, not only for us, but for future generations. It's a true act of revival.


'They Shall Not Grow Old'


Rated R for disturbing war images

Running time: 99 minutes