The Lazy Historian

Review: They Shall Not Grow Old
January 12, 2020

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Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, is really something special. Most footage available from WWI (1914-1918) was created on a crank camera, the frame rate based on how quickly the operator was winding the crank. Naturally, there was also no audio attached to this footage.

The team behind They Shall Not Grow Old managed to take this footage and not only colourize it but also fill in the gaps between frames. As a viewer, I had to remind myself multiple times that I was watching footage from about 100 years ago. Voice acting was added in too, making the snippets of time and activity more real.

Most of the audio featured is from recorded interviews from British WWI soldiers. Using just excerpts from these interviews, they themselves narrate the action on-screen. A wealth of stiff-upper-lip-style British-isms are provided for context, some to the point of being humorous. This is combined with a litany of gruesome shots of wounded soldiers and dead bodies. (Those sensitive to gore might have a difficult time watching this documentary.)

Images are property of WingNut Films

It’s worth noting the last WWI soldier died in 2012 at the age of 110. Florence Green was a member of the Women’s Royal Air Force and she, like many other women who also took part in the war, are noticeably absent from this film.

They Shall Not Grow Old is an incredible achievement in film creation. As I’m not that familiar with the in’s and out’s of WWI, I learned a lot about trench warfare and what daily wartime life was like. However, for those who might be more familiar with WWI, there is probably not much to be gleaned from this film.

Jackson specifically took audio and film that reflected the story he wanted to tell, discarding any footage that didn’t fit that one single narrative, and that’s the biggest disappointment from this documentary. (Tim Carmody’s scathing review explains this point very well.) However, with a subject so broad, it’s hard to include everyone while also telling a single cohesive story. So, I see both sides.

But nobody can deny that it’s a technical marvel. And hey, it got me to watch a documentary about WWI, didn’t it? So, that’s something. For a WWI noob like me, it’s still a very good documentary, but not all it could have been.


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Jillianne Hamilton is a history enthusiast, a hoarder of books, and the author of The Lazy Historian’s Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII. Jill launched The Lazy Historian in 2015. She lives in Charlottetown on Canada’s beautiful east coast. Learn more.
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Hi, I'm Jillianne.

I'm a lover of history, a hoarder of books, and the author of The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII.

The Lazy Historian is a history blog featuring stories from the past with sass. With a focus on Western European and women's history, I delve into anything fascinating. Learn more.

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