Updated: Dec 19, 2018
My brother treated me to a Fathom Events screening of They Shall Not Grow Old, the new World War I documentary from Peter Jackson. The Oscar-winning director is best known for his fantasy epics, but here, he strives to paint an intimate portrait of the oft-sensationalized real life conflict that dragged armed warfare into the twentieth century.
Jackson eschews the typical “talking heads” approach, instead assembling archival interviews, allowing surviving veterans to tell their stories in their own words (reminiscent of And Everything Is Going Fine, the posthumous autobiography of Spalding Gray edited by Steven Soderbergh). The accompanying newsreel footage (painstakingly digitally restored and colorized) and exquisite sound design keep viewers completely immersed throughout the journey; we feel as though we’re down in the trenches with these young men, dodging bullets and shrapnel and debris, wondering if the next raid or bombardment will end it all.
But the most memorable moments are the more human ones: a private pretending to strum an empty bottle like a mandolin, a sniper glancing sheepishly at the camera after the recoil of his weapon knocks off his helmet, a surprisingly jovial German prisoner chuckling as his British captor swaps hats with him, and so on. Such candid images remind us that, underneath the heroism and trauma we’re accustomed to seeing in movies like this, the soldiers were just ordinary people like us—and although the technological wizardry on display is certainly dazzling, that sense of familiarity is ultimately the film’s greatest innovation.