Peter Jackson’s ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’


Peter Jackson’s new film They Shall Not Grow Old is a technical marvel. From hundreds of hours of archive film it creates a vivid account of the Great War that looks amazingly new. The film archive of the Imperial War Museum has been cleaned, speed-adjusted and colourised to present a picture of British soldiers in the Great War that is no longer in jerky black and white. Even better, Peter Jackson’s technical wizards have allowed him to pick out particular faces in the crowd scenes of war footage, and enlarge and enhance them so that they are no longer just faces in the background – they are people we recognise as like ourselves. The film is emotionally powerful, especially in the sequence that conveys the actuality of an assault and its aftermath.Peter Jackson set himself the brief of using archive footage only, no reconstructions. Commentary is taken from the testimony of veterans in the BBC archive. The only use of actors comes when skilled d lip-readers have deduced what the people in those grainy old newsreels were saying; then actors with the appropriate regional accents are used  to say the words, so that these are no longer silent films.
I rarely come out of the cinema thinking ‘I want to see that film again, soon,’ but that’s what I felt this evening. As a technical achievement, I say, it is brilliant.
Any doubts I have also come from Jackson’s self-imposed brief to use only the archives. this source material has limitations. Film cameras were allowed nowhere near the front before 1916, and the technology of the time did not allow for any movies to be taken of actual battle. On the other hand, the sound track is mostly composed of items from the BBC archive of ex-soldiers’ memories. This contains little, I think, from the fifty years before eye-witness statements were collected for that excellent series, The Great War. Of 1964. Later testimonies were collected from men who were growing very old indeed. Oral history is immensely valuable, but one might wonder about how the intervening half a century or more has affected these witnesses’ testimony.
To a Great War nerd like myself, the film has some jarring moments. A sequence about volunteers in 1914 suddenly includes a shot of men in post-1916 tin helmets. A sequence intended to depict a ‘Great Push’ combines shots from Geffrey Malins’ great 1916 documentary The Battle of the Somme with images of tanks from 1917 or later, and with scenes showing the mud of Passchendaele. One of the early voiceovers told us that the war of 1914 was nothing like the war that was being waged in 1917 and 1918. True – but the film as a whole blurs such distinctions. It tries to give us a generalised picture of the soldiers’ Great War experience – but generalisation tends to be the enemy of accuracy.
Being committed to using only archive footage means that Peter Jackson’s film can only use what the cinematographers of the time thought to record. Because the film is so dependent on its sources, it shows no women except one shot of nurses. Nothing from fronts outside Europe, because the cameras mostly didn’t go there. No troops from the non-white empire except one shot of Chinese labourers and one of Sikh cavalry (I think they’re Sikhs – correct me if I’m wrong,)
Another problem for the film is that cameras never got close enough to record the brutality of actual conflict. Peter Jackson has to make up for this by integrating images from the rather sensational War Illustrated magazine. A dependable source?
As a whole, the film conforms to the stereotype usually found in non-specialist post-1990 narratives of the war. It presents a war without causes or justification (except an ex-soldier saying something like ‘In Serbia someone had been shot…’) It records one soldier saying that no-one knew what they were fighting for. Is this true of all the August and September 1914 volunteers? I don’t think so. The film says nothing about strategy, or the politics of alliances. At the end, it tells us that German soldiers were war-weary and wanted everything to end. It does not tell us that that demoralisation his was because of the strategic disaster of the German March Offensive, and the tactical successes of the Allies after the Battle of Amiens. In other words, it soft-pedals the fact that the Allies won the war.
Despite all of these grouches, the film is brilliant. It gives us the British soldier more clearly than he has ever been seen before – rotten teeth and all. I want to see it again. And again. Mostly for the faces.

Update 17/10/18: There’s an interesting critique of the film’s use (or abuse) of the archive at

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  1. […] this respect it reminds me of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, which also used high-tech digital trickery to achieve a shock of realism – in this case by […]

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