World War I documentary reaches the pinnacle of filmmaking

Modern technology, through its imperfections, has a way of separating humans from one another. Whether it’s advent of smartphones or the newer virtual reality headsets, the gap between generations continues to widen at an accelerated rate of detachment.   

Film, as it has for the last century, is a medium that inherently bridges this divide, uniting diverse groups of people under universal themes and stories.
There’s no greater example of this ubiquitousness from the last decade than Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old.”

Jackson, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker behind “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, has spent the last four years restoring footage of the Great War from the Imperial War Museum’s archives and transforming it with modern production techniques to produce a colorized film that connects us to the servicemen who fought on the Western Front 100 years ago.

A historian and a traveler, Jackson has visited the battlefields where his ancestors fought, locating precisely where some took their fatal last steps — ones that came to define family histories for the next several generations.

“My grandfather was hit by a German machine gunner on the first day of the [Battle of the] Somme and had to go back to England to get patched up where he met my grandmother,” Jackson said on Dan Snow’s History Hit podcast in October, days before the film’s world premiere. “I actually owe my existence to that German machine gunner … [My grandfather] was in the whole war … He was one of the first British soldiers who went into action in 1914 and he went back in after he was patched up [in 1916].”  

A monumental achievement for both historians and filmmakers, “They Shall Not Grow Old” an experienced not to be missed in theaters. And thanks to a robust box office in December (the film took in $5.7 million, a North American record for a documentary, in two days of “special event” screenings), Warner Brothers has decided to give it a theatrical release in major US cities this month with plans to expand it out further on Feb. 1.

There’s never been a film this immersive or one that portrays war this closely, connecting audiences not only to the faces of the soldiers on the front lines but also to their voices.

Jackson brilliantly decided to eschew having a narrator — like so many war documentaries have utilized in the past, opting instead to tell his story through an oral archive made up entirely of interviews with World War I soldiers who were situated on the Western Front.

“Some of it is very unrepresented,” Jackson told Snow, “the proportions of it are not quite right

… I had to sort of focus on something and so there’s no Royal Flying Corps, no Navy, no home war, no women in the factories … there’s so many great World War I stories … it ended up being that I could do a little bit of everything or I could focus on one thing and because of the film and audio material I thought it was best to look at the soldiers on the Western Front ... It’s a little fraction of the war.”

Editor’s note: The reviewer was able to attend one of the special screenings in Danbury on Dec. 27. Jackson gives a 30-minute post documentary interview where he explains his filmmaking process and some of his choices. It’s highly recommended audiences who see “They Shall Not Grow Old” in theaters stay for the post-credit segment.