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Friday Flicks: They Shall Not Grow Old

Written by M.V. Moorhead Category: Visual Arts Issue: February 2019
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2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, and this unflinching documentary takes a look at the heroes within the trenches.

They Shall Not Grow Old—Like The Wizard of Oz, this documentary by Peter Jackson begins in black and white, makes a shift to color, then returns to black and white in its final minutes. But that’s about the only imaginable theyshallnotgrowoldpostercomparison between the two films, except that in both, you quickly get the strong sense that you aren’t in Kansas anymore.

TSNGO was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum and the U.K.’s “14-18 NOW” program to commemorate the centenary of World War I. Jackson employs footage of British soldiers from IWM’s archives, shot in the trenches or during training or marches or artillery bombardments behind the lines.

The images would be starkly powerful in raw form, but colorized and deepened by 3-D and otherwise digitally enhanced by Jackson and his technicians, they take on a different immediacy. When the film goes to color as we get close to battle, you may feel your stomach drop with dread. The narration over all this is the mild, often ruefully humorous recollections of dozens of British servicemen.

These visuals and these words combine to create a thoroughly hard-hitting depiction of hell on earth. And because what we’re seeing s so horrific, the heroism implied in the modest faces we see and voices we hear—“We just got on with it,” they keep saying—becomes all the more humbling.

About a year ago saw the release, here in the States, of Journey’s End, a sober, well-done new version of R.C. Sherriff’s English play of 1928. A bitter, unsentimental but compassionate drama set in the trenches, it didn’t seem to get much attention from audiences and critics; hopefully Jackson’s documentary will be harder to ignore. Be forewarned, however—TSNGO is hard to watch. It stares unflinchingly at dead men, dead horses, close-ups of trench foot, and so on.

But this isn’t lurid war porn, and the knowing expressions on the faces of these squandered young men are, in their way, almost harder to bear than the gruesome sights. Toward the end of the film, the narrators mention their inability, after the war, to get across to the folks back home what they’d been through. TSNGO can’t give us that experience ether, thankfully, but it does give us some sense of the enormity of the horror we were fortunate enough to have missed.

Opening this weekend.