They Shall Not Grow Old documentary review: more museum exhibit than movie (LFF 2018)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

They Shall Not Grow Old yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

There’s a poignant eeriness to this modernization of WWI footage: we are looking into a past that feels touchably close and immediate like never before. But this is a novelty. A solemn one, but a novelty nonetheless.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m fascinated by stories of World War I
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

So London’s Imperial War Museum went to Peter Jackson and said, “Look, we have all this amazing archival footage from World War I, can you do something cool with it for the Armistice?” And the BBC was all, “Hey, we also have a ton of audio of WWI veterans talking — in, like, the 1960s — about their experiences during the war. You could use that…” And Peter Jackson (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, King Kong) said, “You got it,” and They Shall Not Grow Old is now here.

This could almost be a scene from World War II, not the previous war.
This could almost be a scene from World War II, not the previous war.

Technically, They is a marvel, a use of CGI and who-knows-what other computer wizardry to bring to life the world of a century ago, and in a way that feels more natural to our eyes today than the jittery, unaltered early film now appears to us. Footage of everything from soldiers queuing to volunteer for army service as the war broke out in 1914 to tanks rolling over trenches toward the end of the war has been colorized faithfully; the frame rate has been stabilized so that motion is smooth and realistic; and it’s all even been extruded in 3D for the theatrical versions. Ambient sound has been added, sometimes with actors providing dialogue extrapolated from lip-reading the faces in the original footage, which of course would have had no sound.

The child in blue holding the cat adds a distressingly domestic note: Did the whole family come to see dad go off to war?
The child in blue holding the cat adds a distressingly domestic note: Did the whole family come to see dad go off to war?

There’s an inevitable poignant eeriness to it all: we are looking into a past that suddenly feels touchably close and immediate like never before, looking at the faces of men that, many of whom, will not have survived the war. (The title comes from Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem “For the Fallen”: “They shall grow not old… Age shall not weary them…”) But They never transcends its gimmick. And yes, it is a gimmick: one used respectfully and to honest, heartfelt purpose, and without overwrought sentimentality or any hint of tackiness. But this isn’t a movie: it’s a museum exhibit, one that you might sit and watch for a few minutes at, say, the Imperial War Museum, and be deeply moved by. And yet there are limits to that. There’s no story here, no narrative beyond the progression of the war itself. There are no characters to speak of. Even the narration — which comes solely from the reminiscences of survivors decades on describing everything from how they lied about their ages in order to sign up, to the camaraderie and the adventure of the war, to the discomfort of the mud and the horrors of the gas — is provided by voices that are not identified, and so we cannot even connect them from one sequence to the next (if indeed any are even the same from one sequence to the next). The complex messiness of the war has been flattened out into a video photo album.

They Shall Not Grow Old is an important document, but cinematically it’s a novelty. A solemn one, but a novelty nonetheless.

viewed during the 62nd BFI London Film Festival



share and enjoy
             
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
subscribe
notify of
2 Comments
oldest
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments
Fundamentalist Daleks
Fundamentalist Daleks
Sun, Aug 16, 2020 4:10pm

I can’t imagine finishing watching this and whining about a story.

Darren Motise
Darren Motise
Sun, Aug 16, 2020 4:09pm

Terrific intelligent review. I could not possibly agree more. You hit every thought I had about it. I thought the same thing about it being a video that accompanies a museum exhibit. The footage in this film is fantastic and shocking to behold, but it is not a great documentary film by any stretch. There’s a reason it didn’t make the Oscar shortlist of 15 docs. The voices of the veterans were in an onslaught fashion where it was difficult to even dwell for a moment on what was being said, and they often didn’t match the footage. it would have been much better if they were identified by name, and slowed down with spaces of silence in between. Museum audio/video presentations are done exactly as in this film. This was a bit of a disappointment to me, and I’m not alone. And I agree with all your other points, and more. But like you said, It is a masterful achievement in footage restoration, and it deserves to be seen.