THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD (MA15+)
Five stars (5 out of 5)
Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy)
While there have been countless documentaries chronicling the heroism, tragedy and epic scale of the First World War, there has never been one as personal, intimate and directly moving as They Shall Not Grow Old.
This passion project for master filmmaker Peter Jackson - inspired by his grandfather’s service with the South Wales Borderers during ‘The Great War’ - blends a mesmerising level of cinematic innovation with a disarmingly vivid brand of storytelling that shines a whole new light on one of history’s darkest conflicts.
Drawing extensively from the film and sound archives of the Imperial War Museum and the BBC, Jackson has crafted a compelling narrative that is locked purely to the perspective of ordinary soldiers.
The overall effect is like nothing seen on screen before. Even the most seasoned military buffs among us will be stopped in their tracks by the radical new direction taken by Jackson here.
The impressive achievement secured by this remarkable movie begins on a purely technical level.
The ancient black and white footage we all associate with World War 1 - scratchy, flickering and sped up due to the camera frame rates of the era - is virtually nowhere to be seen in They Shall Not Grow Old.
Thanks to advances in processing technology, that footage is now of the highest quality : crystal clear, full of astonishing detail, and free of all staccato, herky-jerky movement.
Somewhat audaciously, Jackson has raised the stakes by hand-colouring the footage and then rendering it into 3D. The risks taken pay off in spectacular and gripping fashion.
The wildly varying rhythms of daily life on the battlefields on France - the fixed routines, the unpredictable brutality and the sheer humanity - are captured powerfully and poignantly, with a level of detail that is highly immersive.
The artful, yet austere colourisation and the subtle use of 3D never once feel like gimmicky short cuts towards gaining your full attention.
Every muddy trench, every sprawling field of barb wire, every ominously advancing tank, every burst of artillery fire and most hauntingly, every corpse of a fallen soldier, lands on the screen with unforgettable intensity and impact.
Just as important as what you see in They Shall Not Grow Old is what you hear. The narration of the film has been sourced from oral histories and interviews with soldiers recorded several decades ago.
These nameless, disembodied voices sync up lyrically with the images on screen, often taking us deep inside the minds of young men for whom every new day during WW1 could well have been their last.
In so many ways, it is an injustice to label a singular experience like They Shall Not Grow Old as a mere documentary. This is an open portal to a time, a place and an instinct to survive and prevail which should never be forgotten.
It is also a ghost story of sorts. A eulogy to a selfless spirit among men which no longer exists.
Men who came to understand that a journey through The Great War could only end in one of two ways : a death sentence for those who fell, and a life sentence for those who did not.