'They Shall Not Grow Old' charts World War One through the eyes of the soldiers that lived and died in the trenches of the Western Front. The average Tommy's tale is told through recorded interviews and archival footage shot on location during the war.
The story of the trenches and the Great War is one that has been told many times and most will be vaguely familiar with the touchstones that are covered in this documentary.
WWI has often been used as a political football but by focusing on the stories of the front line infantry and how they perceived events, Peter Jackson tries to sidestep this to varying degrees of success.
The documentary starts with the outbreak of the war and the footage is presented largely as it would have been at the time. But when the narrative moves with the troops to the continent the footage has been restored and colourised with added sound effects and lip-synching. This is undoubtedly a huge technical achievement and helps enthuse a real sense of time and space as the soldiers get on with life on the front line.
The soundscape of the film is hugely affecting and really enhances the idea of a 3D space. Throughout there is the constant noise of the artillery bombardments that the infantry would have been subject to. When the guns fall silent with the ending of the war it leaves a deafening silence in its wake.
The pacing is superb and four years of life are neatly compacted into its running time. There is so much detail focused on the every day, the humdrum and the mundane that helps put the mind into a place that can quickly be filled with terror. When it is time to go over the top it is hard not to feel your own stomach knotting in anticipation.
A wide range of stories and anecdotes from the interviews are heard from the men that lived it and the sheer range of emotions that can be brought on one topic is a real eye-opener. However, by its nature, there is an inescapable twinge of jingoism that can be cringe-inducing and is never really counterbalanced.
It is ironic for a film that has taken so much time to add colour to black and white footage that it at times whitewashes events. This is partly to do with the footage that Jackson had at his disposal, but bar a few fleeting shots of colonial troops, they are notable only by their absence. Its exclusive focus on one theatre of the war means we miss out on the world aspect of proceedings. Narratives pertaining to the various ethnicities that would have been found on the Western Front are locked out and in the current rising political tensions, now more than ever these stories should be discussed.
There is no in-depth analysis of the causes, no thought-provoking details of the morality, we are thoroughly transported into the view of the people fighting, they have a job to do and by Blighty, they are going to do it. The narrative stops when the troops get home and there is no real indication of the severe mental and physical wounds these men would face nor is there a real sense of the staggering death toll the war wrought on both sides.
The film is certainly going to have its detractors and supporters. Does 'They Shall Not Grow Old' achieve its goal? Undoubtedly, but there is nothing here that has not been examined at length by other documentaries. For those willing to take it at face value it is a very moving piece, but it should be viewed with an eye on the larger picture.
James W. Anderson