Movie review: They Shall Not Grow Old

Like all of Peter Jackson’ s work, it is first and foremost a special effects movie.

They shall not grow oldI can’t remember the last time I took off work to see a movie. But my parents-in-law, four of my wife’s cousins, and three of their significant others all traveled at least an hour to a Regal Theater in Albany to see They Shall Not Grow Old with my wife and me.

It was a curious release process, two showings, one in the evening of December 17, and the other the afternoon of December 27, in about 1,140 theaters. It was put out by Fathom Events, which specializes in one-day cinematic events such as opera performances.

Back in 2014, the centennial of the beginning of World War I, director Peter Jackson was commissioned to take 100 hours of footage and 600 hours of audio clips and make a movie out of it. As the director admitted in a clip before the actual film, he didn’t know WHAT to do initially.

Eventually, he came up with a narrative that involved the recruitment process in Britain, with many of the recruits underage; they should have been 18, and 19 to go overseas. And it’s when the story switches to France that the film changes from black and white to color.

They Shall Not Grow Old does not attempt to describe a specific battle, but rather the stress from training, boredom from waiting, to being in the trenches and experiencing German bombardments. It wasn’t until the 30-minute “making of” that I truly appreciated the astonishing work it took to make the film look as it did, from slowing down or speeding up the film to making film that appeared too dark or too light pleasing to the eye.

I was so taken by the film that I immediately had to find the two critics out of 68 who gave it a negative review. One said, “Like all of [Jackson’ s] work, it is first and foremost a special effects movie.” And it is, and an incredible one at that, but it’s an odd complaint.

The other groused that “the film is yet another erasure of soldiers of color who are nowhere to be found in what is otherwise a postmodern take on documentary filmmaking.” I don’t know was captured in those recordings so I can’t speak to this.

The truth is, and Jackson said so, that he could have made any number of films, including the role of women in the war effort, a generation before Rosie the Riveter. Or the war at sea. He was trying to create a coherent narrative. One does see, briefly, troops from other parts of the British Empire.

With the success of those two days, They Shall Not Grow Old will have another showing on January 21. An earlier report suggests it will receive a limited theatrical releases in NYC, L.A. and Washington DC starting on January 11, with plans to then expand into 25 more markets on February 1.

Here’s Chuck Miller’s take on the December 17 screening.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

3 thoughts on “Movie review: They Shall Not Grow Old”

  1. Jackson’s film got a lot of attention here when it was first released, as you’d expect, but neither of the those two criticisms were discussed. The technological one seems awfully silly to me—the technology was what made the film possible.

    But the failure to depict the war as being other than white I think is unfair. The film was mainly about Britain’s war, and from their perspective, with some other European stuff thrown in. A film that covered the roles of European powers’ colonial troops, or non-white Americans, would have had a very different focus. Could at least something have been included? Dunno. I didn’t make the movie.

    But the body of the film—about the warfare itself—uses available archival footage. Is there archival film of non-white troops at the front? I don’t know. There are photographs of colonial soldiers, but in that era would the British filmmakers have thought it was even necessary to film non-white soldiers, particularly given the expense of filming relative to photography? I’m not sure they would have.

    Still, maybe there such film footage exists, and a future documentary could—and should—focus on that. But that’s not the film Jackson was charged with making, and I don’t think it’s fair or reasonable to criticise him for not making a film he was never asked to make.

    In the spirit of that review, a similarly unfair comment: The site the review was on is by and four young people, who are, more often than not, somewhat more sensitive to issues of identity politics than are older folks. That particular point alone could account for our disagreement about the depiction of race in this particular film in what was otherwise a pretty solid review. However, the site is also American-based and oriented. That may be the reason for the silly first paragraph which reduces all of Jackson’s efforts to some blockbuster films, ignoring all his other work including documentary work and—most relevant—major museum exhibits on World War One, especially at the NZ national museum, Te Papa, in which visitors were confronted with giant realistic models of soldiers in war (made in association with Weta Worksop).

    The British Library has posted a lot about colonial troops:

    And this is the specific review I took some except to:

  2. Arthur – I HATED the Negroni review you linked to. The learning comes from the specificity of creating a narrative out of random footage. Specifically, Jackson found the dialogue to a letter that was read, using lipreaders and by scouring archives. You addressed the identity angle.

  3. As I mentioned on my blog, I saw the film at its premiere in October last year when it was shown at independent cinemas across the UK and with a live link to a Q&A session with the director at the Britsh Film Institute.

    The negative comment regarding the use of technology is peculiar. Jackson didn’t make the film, rather he used his wizardry to bring 100-year-old images to life, making them real for today’s generation.

    The identity politics argument has some merit as there were many thousands of colonial troops involved in the conflict. (The first shot of the war was fired by Alhaji Grunshi of the Gold Coast Regiment in Togo) The footage certainly exists of these troops and hopefully the many hundreds of hours of film will eventually get the Jackson treatment. But the task he was set was to illustrate what the war meant to the ordinary men whose lives were affected forever by what they went through. There were people from the colonies living in the UK at the time but there were far fewer than there are today as immigration from countries such as India and the West Indies came much later.

    In these uncertain time, the film is a timely reminder of what happens to ordinary folk when empires clash and, in that objective, it is entirely successful.

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