By Michael Nacey ’19
They Shall Not Grow Old is a documentary commissioned by the Imperial War Museum in London, put together with 300 hours of century-old footage by Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, to commemorate the centennial of the armistice ending WWI. It displays the footage from film cameras brought to the Western Front that have been fully colorized, with synced sound and pristine detail of every aspect of life for the war’s full duration.
Why not see this film? Because it’s history and it’s boring and it’ll be like sitting through an extended class at Bellarmine on a precious weekend. How can this movie relate to teenagers in a digital era? Why should any Bellarmine student consider watching it? Perhaps it’s because the soldiers who enlisted were the same age as seniors applying to college. Perhaps it’s because you want the human aspect of the war explained for an essay. Perhaps you’re a history nerd. Perhaps one of your parents is. It doesn’t matter because They Shall Not Grow Old transcends history.
Peter Jackson described his new film as made “by a non-historian for non-historians.” It is entirely comprised of a constant commentary of stories from veterans in the war. They explain how they enlisted, how they came to the trenches, how they endured harsh weather conditions, how they fought their battles, and how they came home with their lives changed in unfathomable ways. This technological marvel hinges on the fact that wherever “they” were, their experiences were made up of the same mundane, repetitive, and deeply scarring pieces. And yet the film doesn’t drag on under the weight of this constant narration because what it shows you is much more important than what it tells you. The footage speaks volumes as it seems like it could be from Saving Private Ryan or Dunkirk. It also explains itself since the filmmakers add no conceits about violence, war, and death of their own into the film. The only perspectives that have been contributed are those of the veterans who explain how the idea that they shall not grow old is both comic and tragic. Adding sound to the footage completes the effect, immersing you in the Great War with every whistle of a shell, slosh of a boot in the mud, or scream of someone who never made it home. You can hear the murmured conversations of the soldiers in action, gawking at the camera or joking to themselves as veterans remember those moments decades later.
They Shall Not Grow Old is made personal. It reveals the humanity and the relatability of veterans in the war a century ago. It explains the lasting effect of WWI: it shows how the Lost Generation became lost, and why the Great War was meant to be the last. It updates something distant to make it better seen, heard, and felt. It touches your heart. Why? Because it’s history.