They Shall Not Grow Old
Directed by Peter Jackson
Produced by Clare Olssen and Peter Jackson
Running time 99 minutes
In 2015 Peter Jackson was asked by Great Britain’s Imperial War Museums and 14-18 NOW (the UK’s arts program for the First World War centenary), in association with the BBC, to create a documentary commemorating Great Britain’s role in WW1. It was to be based on 100 hours of original film footage of British Expeditionary Force soldiers serving in France and Belgium and 600 hours of the recorded interviews of some 200 veterans of the war made by the BBC in the 1960s and 70s. They Shall Not Grow Old is the result. The film was released in Great Britain in October. There was a limited release in the U.S. in December with a much wider release on February 1. On February 2 Joyce and I saw the 3D version of the film at the AMC cinema in Chesterfield, Missouri.
Beyond my general interest in history, I had a special reason for seeing this ground-breaking documentary. For some time I have been writing a novel set in the trenches of Flanders in 1914. My research for the novel made me painfully aware of my own ignorance about World War 1, an ignorance that is all too widespread in America. Just go into any Barnes and Noble and you will find rows and rows of books about the Civil War and WW2, but only a handful of volumes on The Great War. I believe there are several reasons for this.
In part it no doubt reflects the sheer size, scope, and drama of the Second World War. Unlike its predecessor, World War 2 truly did directly involve every quadrant of the globe, the first truly “world” war, overwhelming the military history of the 20th Century. But I think the primary reason is that unlike the Civil War and World War 2, America was both quite late entering World War 1 and relegated to an important but supporting role when we final did get in. The war had dragged on for well over three years before any American “dough boys” saw combat. When the first American combat death was recorded on November 2, 1917, 76% of WW 1 had already been fought and millions had already died. By war’s end, America’s armed forces suffered 53,402 combat deaths—just a few more than our K.I.A. total in Vietnam. (Higher totals that you may encounter include those who died from disease and accidents.) Yet the combat death toll for all the armies and navies involved in the Great War was a staggering 8.5 million. Only a little over half a percent of that total were Americans. By way of comparison, Great Britain once lost 20,000 men in just one day: July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme! Among just the Allies, America’s dead represented barely 1%. And this says nothing of the massive civilian casualties suffered by the nations of Europe. France alone had over 40,000 civilians directly killed in combat.
Perhaps equally telling, when it comes to those killed and wounded as a percentage of the total population, far fewer American families were personally touched by World War 1 than was true of World War 2, or even more so, the Civil War. So the stories of WW1 were not woven into the fabric of American family folklore in the same way as the stories of those other great conflicts. Over 155 years after the Battle of Gettysburg, American households still have after dinner debates about whether General Meade’s failure to aggressively pursue Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia prolonged the war. The relative strengths and weaknesses of generals like Patton and MacArthur will still spark lively arguments.
Yet ask those same people about the leading military figures in WW1 and most will not get beyond “Blackjack” Pershing, Sergeant York, and the “Bloody Red Baron” of Germany. As to what these men actually did, they will not have a clue about Pershing beyond the fact that he was a general, their knowledge of Sgt. York will come from the Gary Cooper movie of that name, and they will remember the Red Baron as the guy who shot down Snoopy. And when it comes to the major battles of the war, most Americans don’t even know how to pronounce “Somme” or “Ypres,” never mind describe what happened in those awful places.
American ignorance about the Great War was never shared by the British. Even though WW2 was far more devastating to the UK than it was for America, their national suffering in the Second World War never overwhelmed their memory of the First. It remains both painful and personal in their national consciousness. In fact, it was family history that led Peter Jackson to tackle this monumental project. His grandfather served in the British army throughout the war. He was wounded more than once, eventually succumbing to the lingering effect of those wounds in 1940 at the age of 50.
I have long considered Ken Burns as the gold standard when it comes to documentaries. The Civil War, Baseball, The War, The National Parks, The Dust Bowl, The Roosevelts… the list of his masterpieces goes on and on. So let me warn you now, if you are expecting a Ken Burns-style documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old is going to be a disappointment. You will not hear distinguished historians sharing their insights and expertise. You will not learn specifics about the 1st Battle of Ypres, or Mons, or the Marne, or the Somme, or Verdun. You won’t learn about grand strategy or the strengths and weaknesses of the various military and political leaders. You’ll learn nothing about the causes of the war and little about what led to its final conclusion. You won’t see a single map. In fact, if you are trying to cram for a final exam on some college course about WW1, watching this film won’t help you at all. I’d love to see such a documentary someday, but They Shall Not Grow Old is not that kind of film.
What it offers, instead, is an everyday look at the war as seen and described by the members of the British Expeditionary Force who served in France and Belgium. Specifically, this is the war as experienced by the infantry—those line animals who lived the troglodyte existence of the trenches. To do this Jackson and his production team carefully studied those 600 hundred hours of old film and listened to those 200 hundred hours of interviews. They masterfully edited and blended the best pieces into an amazing story of life in the trenches. Then they raised the bar by meticulously restoring and colorizing that 100-year-old film. In the end, instead of the herky-jerky images of an old Buster Keaton movie, you got images that looked like they could have been shot by a war correspondent in Da Nang or the Mekong Delta.
Instead of another history of World War 1, They Shall Not Grow Old offers something far more intimate. It’s rather like listening in on your grandfather and a great uncle swapping war stories after some family dinner, forgetting for the moment that younger ears are listening in.
The film begins with a brief introduction by Peter Jackson. After the credits there is a 30 minute feature describing the making of the movie. It is well worth staying for.
What you see and hear is sometimes horrific, sometimes funny, sometimes deeply moving, but always gripping.
We had to drive and hour and a half to find a theater showing the film. I’d gladly drive twice the distance to see it again.
Five Stars êêêêê