There’s a tendency to think of the recent past, a hundred years ago or so, as existing solely in shadowy black and white images, as was the state of film at the time. In Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old the major conceit is the use of technology to colorize old footage to give it a life that it did not have prior. However, this is only one aspect to this vexing, engaging film. The stylized footage of ruddy-faced boys in blues and greens doesn’t really factor in until half an hour into the film, and at that point my attention was already focused, rapt as the every scene unfolded.
As the voices of numerous soldiers in the British army talk under footage, the films follows these young men on a journey from enlistment, many of whom were too young to do so legally, through the front, and for the lucky few, back home again. There are no real characters to latch onto, no full narrative to follow, the story is more about the life of the soldier, the oppressive nature of their battles, and the truly awful reality of war. It captures everything from gangrenous feet to the lifeless bodies in the field, and the shaky, bright colorization of the mostly never-before-seen footage has a haunting quality. Smiles on faces long since departed carry an extra weight.
While the film is a technical marvel and deserves all the credit for the way it is presented, the lack of a traditional narrative robs the story of some its immediacy. The voice-overs are paired with incongruous imagery which helps present a deeper struggle, but absent is any anchor point to keep things flowing. That doesn’t detract from the overwhelming audacity of the film, and how enlightening and affecting it is, but it did keep it from being something I could connect with on a stronger level.
My Grade – B