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Film / They Shall Not Grow Old

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"Between 1914 and 1918, a global conflict changed the course of history. The people who experienced it did not live in a silent, black and white world."

They Shall Not Grow Old is a World War I documentary by Peter Jackson released in 2018 in commemoration of the centenary of the war's conclusion.

The film focuses on the common British soldiers' experiences rather than providing a detailed overview of the war. The visuals rely on archive footage that has been digitally restored and given colorization in an attempt to show the war as the soldiers saw it. Instead of traditional documentary-style narration by presenters or historians, the film only uses the recorded voices of numerous British veterans who were interviewed about their experiences. Sound effects and voice acting are also added to the war footage to provide an immersive experience.

Tropes in the film:

  • Agony of the Feet: The horrifying and disgusting effects of trench foot are touched upon.
  • Bawdy Song: The end credits are played to the risqué song "Mademoiselle from Armentières." Jackson says that some versions of the lyrics his team discovered were incredibly filthy, and they decided on using one of the tamer versions.
  • Body Horror:
    • Some of the soldiers talk about the effects of trench foot.
    • One soldier describes seeing a friend get mortally wounded by an artillery shell who he immediately puts out of his misery.
  • Book Ends: The film begins with black-and-white footage in a small, square screen, accompanied by the sound of a film reel. When the war starts, the screen grows and colorizes. At the war's conclusion at the end of the film, the film shrinks back down, fades back into black and white, and the film reel sound returns.
  • British Teeth: With so many British soldiers smiling at the camera, it's hard not to become uncomfortably aware of how poor dental hygiene was in the 1910s. One soldier notes that the only use soldiers found for their toothbrush was cleaning their buttons.
  • Broad Strokes: Jackson quickly decided to make a very generalized view of the western front experience, using no specific dates or names, to give a better feel of being in the middle of it. The battle sequence near the end is an amalgamation of accounts from numerous battles across the entire war, with Jackson reasoning there wouldn't be that much difference being in such a battle in 1914 or 1917.
  • Cerebus Syndrome: The veterans note how the war changed considerably from beginning to end. In the beginning of the film, veterans recount how the war was fairly enjoyable, like camping but with just enough whiff of danger to make it exciting. By the end, the soldiers are talking about savage fighting, appalling losses and the terrible emotional toll of the war.
  • Child Soldier: Many British soldiers in the film state that they volunteered at ages as young as 16. Recruiting officers would turn a blind eye, even guiding the boys on how to lie about their ages. Soldiers are described as "boys" many times throughout the film.
  • Colorization: The film was meticulously restored from the original documentary footage, and they made the effort to match things like the uniform colors to what they could find in the archives.
  • Creepy Crows: One clip shows a magpie (just one, fittingly) investigating a group of wounded men—perhaps to see whether they're still alive.
  • Deadly Gas: This was the first war in which poison gas was used as a weapon, and footage from the aftermath of gas attacks show how the soldiers suffered under its effects.
  • Do Not Go Gentle: Machine guns were responsible for incredible numbers of casualties, earning the men who operated them a guaranteed execution from vengeful infantry when they were captured. Several veterans recount incidents when gun crews would keep firing even as they were being overrun rather than attempt surrender, knowing what their fate would be.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: In the epilogue where they talk about life after the war, veterans describe feeling alienated from society when they returned home. Employers didn't want them, the public as a whole preferred to forget about the war instead of learning from the men who came back, and nobody besides other veterans—not even their loved ones—could ever understand what they had been through.
  • Everybody Smokes: One sequence discusses how almost all British soldiers smoked and were eager for quality cigarettes. A majority of soldiers seen in their downtime are smoking cigarettes or pipes.
  • Fire-Breathing Weapon: One soldier's account describes his comrades' first encounter with a German armed with a flamethrower.
  • Friendly Enemy:
    • British soldiers in the film unanimously describe the captured Germans as good people who were really no different from themselves. They note how the Germans were relieved to be captured and often volunteered as stretcher-bearers without being asked.
    • A soldier notes how the German snipers would shoot but intentionally avoid hitting anyone.
    • However, one soldier does amusingly state that, while Bavarians and Saxons were almost half-British, the Prussians were bastards - a sentiment amusingly shared by the other Germans, who asked the Brits to give 'em hell.
  • Go-Karting with Bowser: One soldier recalls how he was at a rugby game between a British team and a German team when they all found out that war had started between their countries. Both teams decided that the war would actually start for them tomorrow, and carried on with their game.
  • Home by Christmas: Enthusiastic volunteers believed optimistic predictions that one Englishman would be a match for ten Germans, and that they'd win the war in no time. One veteran describes how his biggest fear at the start was that the war would end before he got a chance to fight.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: One of the most galling memories recalled by one of the veterans is of coming home at war's end and having his father arguing with him over the details of the conflict when only one of them was actually there.
  • Literary Allusion Title: "They shall grow not old, as we that are left behind grow old." It's a line from the 1914 poem "For the Fallen" by Laurence Binyon, which is used in the "Ode of Remembrance" at WWI memorials. Note the small change between the original poem and the film title.
  • Prefers Rocks to Pillows: One soldier recounts how when he got home, he slept in a bed for the first time since joining the army. When his mother brought him tea, she found him sleeping on the floor.
  • Really 17 Years Old: Several soldiers admit to lying about their age in order to join up. (One recounts being pressured to lie about his age, by one of the "white-feather brigades.")
  • Same Content, Different Rating: The DVD is rated 15 in the UK and 12 in the Republic of Ireland.
  • Shown Their Work: In the accompanying "making-of" material at the end of the film, Peter Jackson chronicles the process of making the film, including:
    • Parsing through hundreds of hours of film footage and interviews with soldiers and splicing them together to give the average Tommy's experience from enlistment to demobilization.
    • Adjusting the reel speed for all the footage since it was all shot by hand. Conventional projection speeds had rendered motion either ridiculously sped up or slowed down for decades, but they took the time to find what looked like the right rate of motion.
    • Colourizing the film using Jackson's own collection of WWI uniforms and snapshots he took of the French and Belgian countryside - sometimes even the exact locations where footage was filmed - for colour reference.
    • Capturing sounds from Jackson's collection of WWI artillery pieces and drilling exercises by the New Zealand Army.
    • Recruiting professional lip readers to interpret any dialogue captured in the footage, then hiring British voice actors from the same regions those soldiers came from to provide authentically accented voiceovers.
    • The lengths the team went through just to create the "pep talk" scene. A reel of film that has been used in multiple documentaries in the past 30 years shows a company of soldiers in a line, listening as an officer reads something off a paper to them- but it's a silent film, so no one has known what he was saying since the film was shot over a hundred years ago. The whole team basically reverse-engineer the audio of the scene:
      • First they identified the unit listening to the speech based off their uniforms.
      • Next they dug through the Imperial Archives to find filed paperwork associated with said unit around that time.
      • Then they confirmed the date the film was shot to match it with the propaganda speeches in the archives. Miraculously, they found a speech that matched up with the recording date!
      • Finally, they could begin recording audio for the speaker on screen.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: Despite horrible casualties and the awful conditions of living in the trenches, almost all British soldiers continued to follow orders and tough it out to the end. From their perspective it was a man's duty to society, and even when they felt themselves on the verge of cracking they didn't want to show weakness in front of their peers.
  • Tank Goodness: The soldiers recount how the tanks were kept a state secret and passed off as mobile water carriers until their first use in battle. They were so impressed they thought the machines would instantly win the war for them, which they note did not come to pass.
  • Toilet Humor: One story of camp life is about how they went to the bathroom, illustrated with funny pictures of soldiers' bare bottoms while they're sitting on the beam above the latrine trench. Sometimes the wooden beam would break, causing everyone to fall in and get absolutely covered in crap.
  • War Is Hell: War seemed pretty fun at the beginning, but by the end, the reality sets in.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: It's briefly mentioned that the Saxons and Bavarians generally disliked the Prussians.