They Shall Not Grow Old, a World War II documentary directed by Peter Jackson, is now streaming on Netflix. I am not certain ‘documentary’ is the right word for this 100-minute film as it is not a dry delineation of events that documentaries on World Wars almost invariably are. It is a sort of reinvention of archival footage to present an immersive portrayal of the first of the Great Wars.
This is an extraordinary experience which has rightly earned plaudits around the world. Jackson, best known for directing the Lord of the Rings trilogy, has used modern post-production techniques, both visual and sound, including voice-acting and colourisation to bring alive World War II in all its terrible glory.
As I said, this documentary film is an experience more than anything else. It does not provide any background and assumes you know the basic details of the conflict. If you wish to learn in detail about the war, its context, reasons, and other details, there are other documentaries and books that do this job better. They Shall Not Grow Old is like stealing a glimpse of that era.
There is no narration in the documentary. Instead, actual veterans who served in the war speak in voice-overs as corresponding visuals appear on the screen. For example, when they are describing their travails in the trenches, we look at soldiers struggling to maintain their sanity amid all the muck and loud booms of shell-fire. This heightens the immersion as one gets a tangible sense of what was like fighting in one of the most destructive wars in the history of the earth.
They Shall Not Grow Old begins with untouched footage with an archaic aspect ratio and fluidly transforms into the reworked footage and a widescreen aspect ratio. The effect is stupefying. The transition will take your breath away. One moment you are watching old, grainy, distorted footage with conversation that’s barely audible, a bit like a Lumiere Brothers movie, and the next moment you are transported into this vivid, detailed world, with striking faces and blockbuster-grade sound effects.
Years before 1914, when the Great War broke out, hostilities had been brewing between rival European powers over several matters. But the immediate reason due to which simmering tensions boiled over was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo. It was, as the saying goes, the last straw. Suddenly, the British, French, and their allies were at loggerheads with the Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Ottomans and their allies. Thus began the biggest war the world had ever seen.
The level of immersion of They Shall Not Grow Old can be likened to Sam Mendes’ 1917, one of my favourite war movies, in the sense that it offers an incredibly intimate look into the lives of British soldiers who took part in the conflict; all that joy, a sense of adventure that numerous adolescent soldiers thought war would be, and toil, pain, death and despair it inevitably turned out to be.
With Jackson’s documentary film, everything appears more authentic for the idea that everything we are looking at is real, however enhanced, stays at the back of one’s mind.
They Shall Not Grow Old is a documentary everybody should watch as I believe everyone will find something to like — be its technical achievements or its heart-rending depiction of what soldiers went through in the war. Though there is nothing preachy about it, there are lessons to learn here.
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