They Shall Not Grow Old Is the greatest documentary ever made

The film that brings WWI vividly back to life through the eyes of the people who were there.

they shall not grow old

I never met my great grandad as he had died before I was born but by all accounts he lived a tough but fulfilling life.

At the tender age of 13 he was sent down the mines to work as a trapper boy digging for coal in generally dangerous and unhealthy conditions. Just a few years later, in 1915, he signed up to fight in World War I spending four years serving in France and Belgium at the battles of Ypres, Somme and Loos.

He survived the war earning medals for service and bravery and returned back home in 1919 starting where he left off. Twenty-odd years later an almost-fatal mining accident crushed the side of his skull causing him to retire.

Not one to sit around, he spent his remaining years raising five children and founding the committees of various clubs and institutions including the local British Legion. A “prominent personality” is how the local newspaper obituary described him when he died aged 76.

Born at the tail-end of the Victorian era he lived a hard life even for that time. Nevertheless he was a man who didn’t shirk service or responsibility.

According to the people who knew him, he never spoke about the war anytime after he returned. He told no great tails of bravery, though I’m sure he had them, nor stories of horror, which no doubt he had too.

Instead, he took everything with him to the grave like most soldiers of his generation.

they shall not grow old
“The Mad Boys”. My 20 year old great grandad in the centre middle wearing the hat.

We have photographs and anecdotes, of course, but the culture in Britain at that time was about maintaining a stiff upper lip. Unlike today, boasting, complaining or generally speaking about your feelings was not something anyone – especially soldiers – did.

The documenting of WWI was done mainly through words, illustrations and photographs. It was the early days of film which meant cameras were large and cumbersome and getting them on the battlefield was difficult.

Even when it was possible, the footage was grainy, speeded-up and had no colour or sound. Watching it today, the quality is so bad it’s hard to comprehend and empathise with despite happening just a few generations ago.

The people who experienced World War I did not live in a silent, black and white world.

They Shall Not Grow Old (Amazon) is a documentary that changes that by bringing 100 year old WW1 footage back to life using modern restoration methods.

Directed and produced by Peter Jackson, whose grandfather fought in the war and who the film is dedicated to, it’s told through the eyes of the soldiers who were there.

The black and white grainy silent film has been given a cinematic feel with colourisation and sound.

The emotions in the soldiers’ faces have once again returned as you see them laughing and joking with each another. Or the intense fear in their eyes as they’re about to go ‘over the top’ and charge the enemy.

You can hear their voices and the words they uttered to one another in the trenches thanks to lip-reading techniques and the use of actors’ voices. The sound of the bombs as they fly over their heads and explode nearby provide add to the menacing situations.

These brave soldiers are once again brought to life and the conditions they faced are once again very real.

They Shall Not Grow Old has been painstakingly put together with meticulous attention detail. Peter Jackson and his team watched hundreds of hours of old footage and listened to hundreds of WWI soldier interviews to put it all together.

To get the colourisation right, he himself travelled to Belgium where the battles took place and took thousands of photographs to ensure the grass was the correct green and the mud the correct brown.

No stone was left unturned in the making of the documentary which you can get a taster for it in the official trailer below.

They Shall Not Grow Old trailer. Warner Bros.

Using recorded interviews of over 200 WW1 soldiers, the narration of the entire documentary is told in their words and voices. While it refrains from referencing specific dates or battles, it tells the story of the war in a linear format.

Starting from the declaration of war on Germany, to conscription, to squaddie training, to marching to the Western Front, to day-to-day life in the trenches, to going over the top and, for the lucky ones, the return home.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a deeply personal story for the soldiers who recount their experiences of WWI.

The harrowing stories told by the soldiers in some parts of the film will leave you emotional as it did me.

Many signed up to fight as young as 15-years-old, much below the legal age of 19, and were transformed into men despite still being boys. They saw and experienced things that thankfully we today will hopefully never see.

You’ll hear their stories of trench warfare, gangrene (known then as trench foot), the constant smell of death, losing friends, going over the top and all the other horrors associated with war.

You’ll also hear of the adventure, the camaraderie and of their admiration and respect for their captured German counterparts. Many of them admit that they enjoyed their time there.

Their return home was a low key affair. There were no cheering crowds and few people cared or bothered to ask about what they endured during the war. Ex soldiers often struggled to find work because no one wanted to employ them. It was only in later years did society start thanking them for their sacrifice and service.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a masterpiece in taking a historic world event and making it palatable for a modern audience. It’s another reminder that they gave their today for our tomorrow and we shall remember them.

The editing technology used to bring the old footage to life is nothing short of remarkable but I would also argue what’s more remarkable was Peter Jackson’s determination to honour his grandfather that made the making of this documentary entirely possible.

And in its own small way, this article is intended to do the same for my great grandad. Thanks, private Peter Davies, I never knew you but I would have liked to.

Written by Ste Davies

Stephen Davies is a digital strategist, consultant and speaker. You can reach him here.

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